Donald Rumsfeld and the catastrophic choices he made

Former Defense secretary made a host of bad decisions in Iraq War

Donald Rumsfeld, who died this week at the age of 88, is seen here in September 2004 addressing the National Press Club in Washington. (Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Donald Rumsfeld, who died this week at the age of 88, is seen here in September 2004 addressing the National Press Club in Washington. (Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted July 2, 2021 at 12:20pm

ANALYSIS — I met Donald Rumsfeld, who died this week, in 2004, my first year at Congressional Quarterly, when I emceed an address he gave on the third anniversary of 9/11 at the National Press Club, where I chaired the board of governors at the time.

When I introduced Rumsfeld to the luncheon audience that day, I unsparingly described the bleak news backdrop of his appearance, including a growing insurgency in Iraq and a scandal over U.S. interrogators abusing detainees there. I didn’t sugarcoat it.

When I finished my intro and welcomed Rumsfeld to the podium, he said: “I always worry about correcting an introduction.” Then he paused. “But I shall do so,” he said, almost menacingly.

“I am going to point out that I am only going to correct one thing, and it does not mean an endorsement of the rest,” he added.

I was terrified that he would expose to a live TV and radio audience some mistake I had made in my remarks, probably about the war or some other major issue.

Instead, after that buildup, he merely noted that, while I had said in my intro that he captained the football team at Princeton, he actually captained “the 150-pound team.”

“I wouldn’t want anyone here to think I was big enough to play with the big boys,” he quipped.

Of course, Rumsfeld, who died of cancer on June 29 at the age of 88, had played with the biggest boys in Washington for decades (and yes, they were almost all male).

He served three terms in the House. He was the only man to be secretary of Defense twice — once during the Cold War and then again, more than two decades later, at the outset of what came to be called the Global War on Terror. He had been a White House chief of staff, an ambassador to NATO and a corporate executive.

Rumseld’s opening comments after my intro at the press club that day in 2004 were vintage “Rummy,” as he was called. He could skewer you, but often with a smile. He was brilliant and witty. And he was driven.

Looking back now on his life and career, it strikes me how surprising it is that even people with those qualities of mind and spirit — good people, smart people — can make catastrophic choices.

The biggest ‘known unknown’ of all

Rumsfeld was an almost incomprehensibly successful person with an incandescent personality. He leaves behind a wife, three children, seven grandchildren and many friends.

But when it comes to the Iraq War, it must be said that Rumsfeld made a host of bad decisions. Instead of planning for the worst, he almost seemed to plan for the best — a quick war with as few troops as possible.

The worst decision — the one that gave rise to others — was to go to war in the first place, though he was just one of several people atop the George W. Bush administration and in its orbit, starting with the president, who made that blunder.

The decision was based on the assumption — and that’s all it was — that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s president, wanted the world — and those who threatened his power internally — to believe that he possessed them, when he did not. He fooled us all.

In retrospect, it is stunning that it happened. We see now that the emperor had no clothes. Why did we not see it then?

We — and I mean, first off, we in the press — were blinded by post-9/11 anger and groupthink. We were awed by the gravitas of those making the false claims. Every Western intelligence agency says it’s true, so it must be, right?

The claims might not have been lies, in those cases when those who uttered them believed them to be true. But top U.S. officials, including Rumsfeld, knew that the evidence they touted as certain was really just an educated guess.

For example, a 2002 report by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Rumsfeld read but never shared outside the Pentagon said of Iraq’s WMD: “We’ve struggled to estimate the unknowns... We range from 0% to about 75% knowledge on various aspects of their program.”

Despite these uncertainties, the suspicions were painted as facts to marshal public support for the war.

To be sure, intelligence — indeed all information — is imperfect. And sometimes nations have to take risks based on mere suppositions. But when it comes time to decide whether to start a major war, publicly provable facts must rule.

Remember, scores of thousands of people — many, if not most, of them innocent civilians, mostly Iraqis — died in the Iraq War. And it cost Americans $2 trillion-plus, according to some estimates.

‘Rumsfeld’s rules’

An oft-quoted Rumsfeldism is his epistemological theorizing at a 2002 press conference about “known knowns” (things we know we know), “known unknowns” (things we know that we do not know) and “unknown unknowns” (things that we are not aware that we do not know).

It all sounded so professorial. But the existence of so-called weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a “known unknown.” In other words, U.S. officials knew for certain that they had no hard proof of the weapons’ existence.

Yet their existence was treated publicly as a “known known.” That was misleading.

In his 2011 memoir — appropriately titled, “Known and Unknown” — Rumsfeld did not recant much, but he wrote that he regretted saying that Saddam had WMD sites around Baghdad and Tikrit and said that, in retrospect, he should have called them suspect sites.

That’s a big difference: big enough to drive a few Army divisions through.

In his 2013 book, “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” a collection of aphorisms on work and life, the former secretary shared several nuggets that jump off the page today in the wake of the Iraq fiasco.

Here’s one: “Learn to say, ‘I don’t know.’ If used when appropriate, it will be often.”

Here’s another: “It is possible to proceed perfectly logically from an inaccurate premise to an inaccurate and unfortunate conclusion.”

Rumsfeld should have followed Rumsfeld’s advice.

‘Strange world’

At another National Press Club speech in 2003, the year before I hosted him, Rumsfeld was interrupted in the middle of his remarks by anti-war protesters.

They sat in the balcony just a few feet over his head and a few to his right.  So when they broke into his speech, it was loud and jarring.

“Mr. Rumsfeld, you’re fired!” one protester shouted. They unfurled a banner that said, “Bloody Hands.” Security personnel quickly ushered them out.

Rumsfeld, for his part, resumed his remarks, seemingly unperturbed.

I saw him a few years ago in the lobby of a building on Capitol Hill and reminded him of those two National Press Club appearances. He remembered them well.

“Strange world we live in,” he said.

Indeed. 

John M. Donnelly covers defense for CQ Roll Call.