No, Donald Rumsfeld Wasn’t Calling Obama a “Trained Ape”

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March 25 2014 4:03 PM

No, Donald Rumsfeld Wasn’t Calling Obama a “Trained Ape”

Back in 2001, during a press conference on ballistic missile defense, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tried to explain the relative ease of procuring certain weapon technologies, and the danger that might pose to the United States.

[W]ith the end of the Cold War and the relaxation of tension in the world, we’ve seen that proliferation of these technologies is pervasive. And that means that a trained ape can figure out that over the coming period, more people are going to have exceedingly powerful weapons, weapons more powerful than ever in the history of the world, biological weapons, nuclear weapons, chemical weapons.

The next year, while making the case for war with Iraq, he used the “trained ape” reference again:

“There’s no debate in the world as to whether they have those weapons. We all know that. A trained ape knows that.”
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It’s clear that Rumsfeld likes the reference, which is why he used it again when criticizing the Obama administration over its policies in Afghanistan:

“A trained ape could get a status of forces agreement,” Rumsfeld said. “It does not take a genius. And we have so mismanaged that relationship.”

The response from the Internet was predictable. Here’s a sampling of tweets:

Now, I get it. The “ape” is a well-worn racist caricature (that’s been used in reference to the Obamas) for African-Americans, and using it in a criticism of the Obama administration sounds awfully like using it to criticize Obama himself.

But it’s clear from the context of Rumsfeld’s remarks that this wasn’t a reference to President Obama, specifically. To wit, the sentence that immediately preceded “A trained ape could get a status of forces agreement” was “This administration, the White House and the State Department have failed to get a status of forces agreement.” It’s a broad target that encompasses a range of people, not just Obama.

In fact, when you consider the full interview, it’s easy to see the rhetorical logic. Rumsfeld spends most of the segment complaining about the poor diplomacy of the administration, condemning John Kerry, Joe Biden, and others for their treatment of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. He thinks the administration has handled him poorly, and strained relations as a result.

He furthers his indictment by arguing the White House has failed to accomplish basic tasks. “Take, for example, the fact that we have status of forces agreements with probably 125 countries in the world,” he says, setting up his grievance. “This administration … have failed to get a status of forces agreement,” he continues, with some exasperation. “A trained ape could get a status of forces agreement,” he finishes, putting a period on his view of the administration’s incompetence.

Again, this isn’t an attack on a person, it’s an attack on an approach. Presumably, getting this agreement is incredibly easy. So easy that a trained animal could do it. Therefore, the administration’s failure is an indictment of its policies, not a result of its circumstances. Rumsfeld had ended his complaint with “It’s as easy as pie,” it would mean the same thing.

From his self-interested description of administration diplomacy to his unacknowledged role in facilitating the status quo, there’s a lot to criticize in Rumsfeld’s short interview. What’s unfair is to attack him for race-baiting. You don’t have to like the Iraq war architect (I don’t!) to see that he was using a favorite phrase, not whistling to the racists.

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.