In December 2002, as America entered the second year of what would become its longest war, Donald Rumsfeld was riding high as the wartime secretary in charge of responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
His preferred strategy of deploying a relatively small number of U.S. special operations commandos partnered with local Afghan fighters had succeeded brilliantly in toppling the Taliban in just two months, and his subsequent Pentagon briefings had become “must-see TV” as he masterfully manhandled the press.
As Rumsfeld arrived for work one early December morning, my producer and I buttonholed him as he ascended an ornate Pentagon staircase to reach his third-floor office, informing him he had received yet another accolade.
People magazine had just named the then 70-year-old defense secretary the “sexiest Cabinet member” of the Bush administration, we told him.
“Those whom the gods would destroy, they must first build up,” he quipped, adding a Rumsfeldian twist to a classic quote.
Rumsfeld was always quick with a rejoinder, but it seems in retrospect to have been a prescient recognition that his rock star status would inevitably come to an end.
Rumsfeld, who died of multiple myeloma at age 88 on June 29, was both the most revered and reviled defense secretary of his time.
Among the recollections of those who worked closest with him is Steve Bucci, Rumsfeld’s former military assistant and chief of staff, who remembers him as “a man of integrity, character, leadership, and real grit.”
Among his many critics is George Packer, a staff writer for the Atlantic, who covered Rumsfeld and judged him “the worst secretary of defense in American history,” arguing he “lacked the courage to doubt himself” and “the wisdom to change his mind.”
For his entire six years at the Pentagon, I covered Rumsfeld, traveled with him extensively, sat in the front row at virtually all of his Pentagon briefings, had many friendly off-the-record debates with him, and even occasionally attended social events he hosted after he left office.
I was neither a Rumsfeld booster, nor a Rumsfeld detractor, but I was a Rumsfeld admirer.
Whatever you thought of Rumsfeld’s policies, he didn’t arrive at them frivolously.
He was a critical thinker of the first order, examining a problem from all sides, looking for hard data, weighing the history lessons, and encouraging vigorous debate.
But one lesson I learned from watching Rumsfeld close up was that even critical thinkers, as is the case with most humans, can be slaves to their emotions, rating the risks and benefits of their decisions based on what their guts say is the most likely outcome.
Rumsfeld’s legacy contains several indelible stains for all his intellectual rigor, including the inability to recognize the flaws in the intelligence suggesting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and his stubborn refusal to admit he was wrong.
And then there was what he described in his memoir Known and Unknown as the “sadistic abuse and torment” inflicted on naked prisoners by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
“These events occurred on my watch,” Rumsfeld said in congressional testimony. “I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility.”
In his memoir, Rumsfeld said he offered to resign twice and that he regretted that he stayed on at President George W. Bush’s insistence.
But in private conversations with me at the time, Rumsfeld made clear he saw the abuse as unconnected to the “enhanced” interrogation techniques he had approved or the more coercive ones employed by the CIA.
He didn’t order the abuse, nor had anyone at a senior level. No one at the Pentagon had any idea the abuse was taking place, so, really, he would take responsibility, but, really, he wasn’t to blame.
In an off-the-record discussion, I suggested to Rumsfeld that by putting intense pressure on the U.S. military for actionable intelligence but not stressing humane treatment, he created a climate for mistreatment, even torture.
“You can’t just say, ‘Get me intel,’ without making sure you send an equally strong message about the rules for interrogation,” I argued during an off-the-record discussion.
As he often did over the years, Rumsfeld rejected my thesis when I would have many such minidebates with him.
For whatever reason, Rumsfeld seemed to like me, treating me as a sort of wayward soul who could amount to something if only he could disabuse me of some of my mistaken ideas and muddled thinking.
Many of our disputes played out in the Pentagon briefing room, where Rumsfeld was famous for rejecting the premise of a reporter’s question and then asking and answering his own question instead.
So, I made it a point to have an iron-clad premise (or sometimes no premise) and come armed with facts to back up my line of inquiry.
One such exchange in 2003 illustrated Rumsfeld’s all-too-human propensity to stick to the reality he preferred to believe rather than what the facts were showing.
At that point, in late June, just three months after the invasion, it was becoming obvious that a stubborn insurgency was forming in Iraq, and I was pressing Rumsfeld to explain why U.S. troops weren’t becoming enmeshed in a guerrilla war with insurgents.
“I guess the reason I don't use the phrase ‘guerrilla war’ is because there isn't one,” he replied confidently.
“Appreciating, as I do, your appreciation of precision in language,” I began.
“You've got the dictionary definition?” he interrupted. “I was afraid you would have. I should have looked it up. I knew I should have looked it up!”
At this point, there were titters of laughter among the reporters as Rumsfeld closed his eyes and brought his fist down on the lectern in mock dismay. “I could die that I didn't look it up!”
Citing the DOD Dictionary of Military Terms, I said, “According to the Pentagon's own definition, guerrilla war is ‘military and paramilitary operations conducted in enemy-held or hostile territory by irregular ground indigenous forces.’ This seems to fit a lot of what's going on in Iraq.”
Rumsfeld’s reply: “It really doesn't.”
Like many of our interactions, it was friendly but adversarial, with me trying to pin Rumsfeld down and Rumsfeld like the champion collegiate wrestler he was, always managing to regain the advantage.
In 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq War, I interviewed Rumsfeld in the Pentagon and surprised him with a video clip of his 1983 meeting with Saddam Hussein.
Rumsfeld was on a leave of absence from G.D. Searle and serving as President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy for the Middle East. Afterward, he was accused by some critics of turning a blind eye to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the war with Iran.
“Isn't that interesting? There I am,” Rumsfeld said as he squinted at the TV monitor. “We were trying to get the Syrians to get out of Lebanon and stop killing Americans at the Marine barracks. And among other things, we believed that it would be helpful if Saddam Hussein's Iraq would behave in a way in that region that would be helpful to our goals.”
But Rumsfeld insisted he warned Iraq about its use of poison gas. “In that visit, I cautioned him about the use of chemical weapons, as a matter of fact,” he told me.
A few days later, I was in Warsaw with Rumsfeld for a NATO meeting, and the subject of his meeting with Saddam came up at an off-the-record dinner with reporters.
Rumsfeld recounted how eerie it was being ushered to meet with Saddam, who was in full military dress complete with a pearl-handled pistol on his belt.
I don’t recall his exact words, but he basically described how Saddam was isolated in his palace, surrounded by pictures of himself and advised by aides who were too cowed to tell him anything he didn’t want to hear.
“So, sort of like you at the Pentagon,” I wisecracked.
The quip got a big laugh, but the truth is Rumsfeld did encourage his staff, his military commanders, and even the press to challenge his assumptions.
It’s just that Rumsfeld, the deep thinker, was often more impressed with his own conclusions and stuck with them even when events proved him wrong. In true Rumsfeld style, he even had a maxim that described it: “It is possible to proceed perfectly logically from an inaccurate premise to an inaccurate and unfortunate conclusion.”
If he had a fatal flaw, that was it.
Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner’s senior writer on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense,” is free and available by email subscription at dailyondefense.com.
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Original Author: Jamie McIntyre
Original Location: On former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld