Bradley Graham’s extensive biography of Donald Rumsfeld runs 682 pages. About half of that length concerns Rumsfeld’s second tenure as Secretary of Defense. It’s this section that will be of greatest interest to most readers, but the rest of Rumsfeld’s career is also worth examining. Rumsfeld grew up in a middle class household, the son of an office manager who had held his position during the Great Depression. The Rumsfelds were by no means wealthy, but neither were they impoverished. Donald distinguished himself in high school both academically and athletically, winning a scholarship to Princeton (he also received NROTC support). Rumsfeld served as a pilot in the Navy (how many major conservative politicians have served as pilots?), then found his way into politics. In 1962, at the age of 30, he won election to the House of Representatives in a conservative Illinois district. He didn’t dominate the House by any means, but there’s no question that he punched above his weight. His record was moderate, and he demonstrated progressive views on issues of race. In 1968, ambitious for the Presidency, he left Congress and went to work in the Nixon administration.
Rumsfeld worked in the Nixon and then the Ford administration, eventually becoming the youngest ever Secretary of Defense. In 1977, he was still relatively young, and liked to consider himself a future contender for the GOP presidential nomination. However, Rumsfeld was not, at this point, a wealthy man. He decided to go into private industry, where he was able to make a considerable amount of money. There’s no question that Rumsfeld was talented, but his ability in private industry manifested mainly in his capacity for navigating governmental rules and regulations, and in using them to his company’s advantage. He also displayed a deft touch in intra-company battles. However, while private industry made him rich, it also left him out of the Reagan administration. He launched a brief, hopeless campaign for the 1988 GOP nomination, then found himself out of public service for another 13 years. When Rumsfeld was made SecDef again in 2001, he was the oldest person to hold the position.
Rumsfeld’s second tour as Secretary of Defense proved… eventful. He strongly believed in military transformation, the idea that the military services were organized and supplied along Cold War lines, and that a leaner, meaner, more lethal American military was both possible and necessary. The early portion of his tenure was rocky, and many thought it possible that he’d fall victim to an early reorganization. Then 9/11 happened, and everything changed.
Graham account is extremely detailed, contains interview with just about all of the principles (including Rumsfeld), and while not sympathetic to its subject is certainly fair. Here are some questions that it helped illuminate for me:
1. What was Rumsfeld’s role in pushing for the war in Iraq?
Graham makes the argument that Rumsfeld was more of a realist than a neocon, albeit with a certain form of appreciation for democracy. Rumsfeld was comfortable enough with the exercise of American power that he didn’t have any interest in pushing back against neoconservatives, either during the appointment process in 2001 or during the run up to war in 2002 and 2003. Rumsfeld was a war advocate, but not an advocate in the same terms as Paul Wolfowitz. The internal administration debate on the war included both Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz as players; strangely enough, this made it seem as if a diverse set of opinions all favored the war.
2. Did Rumsfeld’s administrative style make the war in Iraq worse?
Unquestionably. Rumsfeld was dismissive of both internal and external criticism, and spent little time in reflection. He contempt for the media helped make long term involvement a harder sell, even as the media fell over itself for his affection. Rumsfeld argues that he never turned down a request for additional troops or resources, but the reason he never had to turn down such a request is that his generals and deputies were terrified of him. DoD became dysfunctional under his watch, which meant that the war became even more dysfunctional than it needed to be. Moreover, Rumsfeld’s bureaucratic empire building meant that other bureaucracies couldn’t or wouldn’t pick up the slack.
3. Did Rumsfeld’s substantive focus make the war in Iraq worse?
Unquestionably. Rumsfeld remained focused like a laser on the idea of a light, intervention capable US military, the concept of which ran directly counter to the necessities of the war in Iraq. In a different administration his zest for an early drawdown of troops might have actually come off to his credit. In reality, however, he helped commit the US military to a project that could not be accomplished with available resources, then worked to constrain what resources existed. He was utterly uninterested in the COIN turn; indeed, he was deeply reluctant to admit that Iraq (then Afghanistan) could be characterized as an insurgency. Eventually, Graham argues, he simply lost interest in Iraq, preferring to focus on “transformation” goals that were increasingly anachronistic.
4. Did Rumsfeld’s administrative style and substantive focus make the war in Afghanistan worse?
Yes. Rumsfeld had little interest in the war in Afghanistan, seeing it as a sideshow. He devoted his attention to Iraq and to transformation, leaving the Afghan mission under-resourced and under-appreciated. Afghanistan did not, in Rumsfeld’s view, present a good case for the kind of war that Rumsfeld wanted to wage, even though the initial invasion and early occupation would represent a best case scenario for execution of a swift campaign of conquest and regime change. Rumsfeld also had contempt for most US allies, and devoted minimal attention to the development of a coalition to support either US operations or the Karzai government. Finally, Rumsfeld was uninterested in either nation or state building; these are difficult tasks in the best of times, and Rumsfeld’s hostility towards the notion of using American soldiers to construct Afghan institutions made the mission extremely difficult.
5. Would he have made a good peacetime Secretary of Defense?
Maybe. It’s odd, but the very characteristics that made a terrible wartime SecDef might hae made him a capable peacetime SecDef. Rumseld had no fear of the uniformed military, and was willing to cashier commanders who didn’t share his vision of warfare. He seemed to have been genuinely interested in a more efficient DoD, if not a smaller one. He was unimpressed with bureaucratic dogma from either the uniformed or the civilian sections of DoD. Moreover, he had the bureaucratic expertise to pursue the ends that he wanted. Of course, it’s not all about Rumsfeld; Graham reminds us that Rumsfeld was under fire from Congress, from industry groups, and (quietly) from the services prior to 9/11. In the absence of the attacks, Bush may not have been willing to stand with Rumsfeld, and he could have been either removed or left without substantial power. However, one of George W. Bush’s key characteristics is loyalty, and Rumsfeld had the support of the Vice President. Dubya might have been willing to stick with Rummy through a series of destructive battles with the bureaucracy, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that those battles would have left DoD in a healthier long term position. The problems that Rumsfeld identified were genuine; excessive deference to the uniformed military, Cold War mindset in procurement and doctrine, utterly broken system of procurement, and so forth. We’ll never know if Rummy could have punched his way through the system, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Had things been different, Rumsfeld might have gone down as a revolutionary SecDef.
A final, larger question involves Rumsfeld’s legacy as Secretary of Defense. Such lists can be pointless, but I think it’s difficult to argue that the Rumsfeld is anything but the worst Secretary of Defense in US history. McNamara is the obvious comparison, and there certainly are some interesting parallels. McNamara helped involve the United States in an ill-conceived war, and managed the war poorly. McNamara’s efforts to reform the Department of Defense largely failed, although it can’t quite be said that the reform effort had the opposite of its intended effect. In Rumsfeld’s case, the direction that the US military has gone since his tenure began is the precise opposite of what he wanted; an organization focused on COIN, on long-term occupations, and on state building is the last thing that he wanted. Moreover, he played a key role in the decisions that forced the US military to engage in this transformation. He allowed the United States to be humiliated through his insufficient attention to detainee policy, an inattention that can be characterized as either egregious oversight or intentional ignorance. Finally Rumsfeld helped slow the federal government’s response to Katrina through being slow on the trigger to allow the use of even non-military DoD assets.
Rumsfeld is, for the moment, held in contempt across the political spectrum. Everyone to the left of Dick Cheney (and many to his right) views Rumsfeld’s tenure as disastrous. By his own metrics, he failed at almost everything that he set out to do in 2001. Without 9/11, Rumsfeld would likely be judged to have led an honorable enough (as honorable as any long-term GOP operative) career as politician, businessman, and bureaucrat. 9/11 gave him the opportunity to fail on an epic scale, and he met the challenge.