Lunch With Donald Rumsfeld

He orders the clam chowder and a glass of lemonade.

Donald Rumsfeld

On a silent Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C., I am sitting at a table in the restaurant of the Mayflower Hotel, waiting to be joined by one of the most controversial men in recent American history. Donald Rumsfeld was defense secretary for George W Bush and, along with the president himself, became the public face of the invasion of Iraq. He left office at the end of 2006, three years into the conflict, reviled both by opponents of the war and by many of its most ardent backers.

For the anti-war movement, Rumsfeld had become the face of a cruel and misconceived conflict. He was the man whose reaction to looting in Baghdad—“stuff happens” —was regarded as the epitome of a callous disregard for the consequences of the invasion. But for many of the war’s strongest advocates, Rumsfeld had become the scapegoat for everything that had gone wrong in the early years of the war. He was accused of pig-headedly refusing to send enough troops to fight the conflict and of neglecting the vital task of nation-building in Iraq.

Now, four years after his resignation, Rumsfeld is publishing his own account of events, titled Known and Unknown. The Café Promenade, where we are meeting, is situated in the Mayflower, one of Washington’s grandest hotels. This is no ordinary hotel café—it has marble pillars, thick carpets and a huge chandelier. At 12:30, there are just three other diners in a room that could easily seat a hundred.

Rumsfeld arrives bang on time and greets me with a disconcertingly warm smile. He is dressed formally in a gray suit, pale blue shirt and striped tie. He sits down and swiftly asks me a question: “Have you read the book? What was your reaction?”

I say that I have read most of the book on the flight over from London and that I had enjoyed it—particularly the early chapters about his life growing up in suburban Chicago and his memories of selling newspapers, carrying the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Rumsfeld laughs with apparent pleasure—and points out that, at the age of 78, he has been alive for a third of the entire history of the United States. “You multiply my age three times and it takes you back to 1776 … Isn’t it amazing. It’s a third of American history.” For 54 of those years he has been married to his wife Joyce and the couple have three children.

Until the final debacle of the Iraq war, Rumsfeld had a reputation as one of the most competent managers in Washington. Elected to Congress when he was still only 29, he served in top jobs under four different presidents—Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush. His two stints as secretary for defence – separated by a quarter of a century—have given him the distinction of being both the youngest and the oldest man ever to serve in the position.

At the Pentagon he was famous for working standing up, and he tells me that this is still his habit. His office houses his archive and the Rumsfeld Foundation, which among other things helps retired troops. I ask him what time he normally gets up and he replies, unsmilingly, “I get up at 4:30 or 5 and exercise generally and read the paper in the sauna.” His way of life seems almost comically Spartan. I suggest that perhaps we might order something to eat, and he seems genuinely surprised. “You want something to eat?” A waiter is summoned. I order an avocado and bacon salad. Rumsfeld orders a cup of clam chowder and a glass of lemonade.

Rumsfeld also had a reputation for ferocity at the Pentagon. In his memoirs, he records Paul Bremer—the diplomat charged with the reconstruction of postwar Iraq— as complaining that many of Rumsfeld’s civilian employees were terrified of him. I ask Rumsfeld if he thinks that was true and I get an aw-shucks smile. “I’ve never heard anyone else say that, so I don’t give it a lot of credence.”

I wonder aloud whether, “as a leader you have to be a bit intimidating?” But Rumsfeld demurs— “Oh no, in fact you don’t want to be. The truth is that I had tough jobs, a lot of them, and I’m comfortable taking tough decisions and I ask tough questions … and that isn’t fun sometimes for people … But I’ve always been open to people coming back.”

Rumsfeld’s book has certainly generated a lot of tough comeback from those who see it as an extended exercise in self-justification and score-settling. Unsurprisingly, Rumsfeld sees things differently. Sipping his lemonade, he says he has written “a serious book of history that is rooted in the primary documents that I will have on the website [ www.rumsfeld.com ], and historians and interested readers, serious people, will be able to go in there and make their own judgments.”

When I invite him to discuss the fairly damning remarks in his book about former colleagues, such as Condoleezza Rice, whom he criticises for avoiding tough choices as head of the National Security Council, Rumsfeld’s instinct seems to be to back off. He tells me that Rice is a “smart and able woman, let there be no doubt. A very accomplished person and a good person.”

Some antagonisms, however, are too open to disguise. Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate in the last presidential election, became one of the foremost critics of Rumsfeld’s approach to the Iraq war. He is criticised in the book for having a “hair-trigger temper and a propensity to fashion and shift his positions to appeal to the media”. McCain’s reaction to these jibes has been to renew his criticisms of Rumsfeld and to remark: “Thank God he was removed of his duties.” I quote this back at Rumsfeld, who responds with a chilly smile: “That’s fairly typical of him … He was opportunistic. He spent his whole campaign attacking the Bush administration and he was not a good candidate.” So, had Rumsfeld, the life-long Republican, actually voted for McCain? He frowns: “I did. It was not a happy choice.”

The inside-Washington score-settling will strike many of the people horrified by the Iraq war as supremely beside the point. For them, Rumsfeld is a guilty man because he presided over a “war of choice” that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Unlike Robert McNamara, defense secretary during much of the Vietnam War, who was later very open about his regrets, Rumsfeld is unrepentant. In the book and in conversation, he presents the Iraq war as justified and ultimately successful. “Is our country and region better off with Saddam Hussein gone?” he asks me briskly, before answering his own question. “You bet.”

But, I point out, the justification for the war was Iraq’s alleged work on weapons of mass destruction—and the WMD were never found. Let’s say we had known there were no WMD, I ask, would it have still been justified to go to war? Rumsfeld’s response strikes me as oddly circuitous and detached. “Apparently. The Congress had passed regime change legislation in the 1990s and it passed overwhelmingly. Now you can’t know what you would do. What you know now helps you in what you do in the future. It can’t help you with what’s been done in the past.”

But was the Iraq war really worth all the pain and suffering it has caused? Rumsfeld’s tone becomes sharper: “Have you ever visited one of the killing fields in Iraq where Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands of people and the mass burials and the godawful prisons he had and the rape rooms?” he asks. “I’ve got videos of what they did to their political opponents. They cut their tongues off.” As for the American troops who died— “they had families, they had children and it’s heartbreaking, there’s no question about that … But what they did was they liberated millions of people.” Like Tony Blair, Rumsfeld is donating the profits from his book to help wounded troops. Unlike Blair, Rumsfeld’s decision to do so has not provoked an angry reaction.

For all his efforts to take the long view and to present himself as a detached elder statesman, Rumsfeld is clearly still infuriated by coverage of the “war on terror” and the events surrounding it. He complains that reports that prison guards in Guantánamo Bay had flushed a Koran down the toilet had caused riots and deaths—but then turned out to be untrue. The press had eventually apologized—”If some portion of their story was incorrect, they’re sorry … And, of course, the people they were sorry for were dead. Now everyone makes mistakes and that’s fair, but there’s no penalty for that.”

All this talk of making deadly mistakes and then paying no personal price for it rings a bell. It is, of course, exactly what infuriates some people about the sight of an elderly former defense secretary eating a comfortable Sunday lunch in a Washington hotel while the killing continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. As politely as I can, I say: “Some would say, ‘Here’s Rumsfeld, maybe he was wrong about the Iraq war.’ What’s the comeback for you?”

Rumsfeld’s tone remains even. The only faint sign of agitation as he replies is the furling, unfurling and scrunching of a napkin with his left hand. “Well, I mean, there are plenty of people commenting on that about Afghanistan or Iraq or transformation, anything you do … That’s quite a different thing than what I’m talking about.”

Throughout his career, Rumsfeld has consistently been a man who cares above all about protecting and extending American power. So I wonder if he has any regrets on that score. Does he think that Iraq and Afghanistan have left the US looking stronger or in some senses have they weakened America because the wars went on for so long? I am expecting another brisk dismissal. Instead, there is a long pause and Rumsfeld simply replies: “Time will tell.”

My salad is long gone, so I suggest that perhaps we might have a coffee. I order a double espresso. Rumsfeld smiles at this indulgence and says: “I don’t need caffeine.” He has a decaf.

As we get ready to part, we resort to the standard topic for male banter—sport. The Super Bowl—the most important game of the American football season—is being played that night, and Rumsfeld asks if I will be supporting the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Green Bay Packers. I say I like the Steelers, because I have memories of watching them play some epic games against the Oakland Raiders, in my first visits to the United States in the 1970s. “Oh nobody could support the Raiders,” he says, “they’re evil.” At this the retired boss of the Pentagon laughs heartily, and strolls back to his office and his archive of documents.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.