War Stories

The Man Without a Plan

Donald Rumsfeld was a master bureaucratic infighter whose shallow understanding of the world led America into a catastrophe.

MANHATTAN, KS - NOVEMBER 9:  Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld delivers the 146th Landon Lecture inside Bramlage Coliseum at Kansas State University on November 09, 2006 in Manhattan, Kansas. Rumsfeld resigned as Defense Secretary the day before giving the lecture at Kansas State University and will be replaced, if confirmed, by former CIA Director Robert Gates.   (Photo by Larry W. Smith/Getty Images)
Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld delivers the 146th Landon Lecture inside Bramlage Coliseum at Kansas State University on November 09, 2006 in Manhattan, Kansas. Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

Donald Rumsfeld, who served as the youngest, the oldest, and very possibly the worst secretary of defense in American history, died on Wednesday at the age of 88.

His first time on the job, which he took at the age of 43 and kept for a little over a year under President Gerald Ford, was without consequence. In his second stint, which lasted six years under President George W. Bush until he was fired at age 74, he was partly responsible for the war in Iraq, and very much responsible for its “abysmal” conduct, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths (including more than 4,400 American fatalities) and the destabilization of the Middle East.

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“Abysmal” was the term used by eight retired U.S. generals in a letter, signed in early 2006, calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation. Rumsfeld did send Bush a resignation letter the day before that year’s midterm elections, anticipating the Democrats’ retaking of both houses of Congress, largely because of the war’s unpopularity; Bush accepted it the day after.

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For most of his career, which began in 1963 with his election in the first of three terms as a Republican congressman from Illinois, Rumsfeld honed a reputation as a skillful bureaucratic infighter. President Richard Nixon can be heard, on one of his secret tapes, referring to him as “a ruthless little bastard” (Nixon meant it as high praise). Henry Kissinger once called Rumsfeld “the most ruthless man I ever met” (no doubt uttered with some envy).

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The pivot in Rumsfeld’s life came in 1970, when Nixon hired him first to run the office of economic opportunity, then as ambassador to NATO, then as White House counselor, and finally as his chief of staff. Rumsfeld in turn hired a former congressional aide, Richard Cheney, to be his assistant. When Nixon resigned, both of their positions were solidified, as Ford, who replaced Nixon, had been friends with Rumsfeld in Congress. Together, Rumsfeld and Cheney maneuvered Kissinger out of his White House job as national security adviser and turned Ford—and the Republican Party—against the policy of détente with the Soviets. (This was probably the source of Kissinger’s tactical admiration and strategic hostility.)

After Ford’s defeat in 1976, Rumsfeld shifted to the corporate world, making a fortune as CEO for Searle pharmaceuticals and two other companies. In the 1990s, he revived an interest in defense policy and served on a few commissions. The most significant panel, at the end of the decade, assessed North Korea’s ability to build ballistic missiles—and concluded, among other things, that the CIA was gravely underestimating the threat. After George W. Bush was elected, Rumsfeld was his first pick to be CIA director. When Dan Coats, Bush’s original choice for defense secretary, flunked the job interview for being insufficiently enthusiastic about missile-defense, Cheney, who was now Bush’s vice president-elect, suggested his old friend and mentor, Rumsfeld, as a replacement. (Much later, Coats became director of national intelligence and was fired from that job by Donald Trump.)

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The Cheney-Rumsfeld tag team altered history in a way that no combination of vice president and defense secretary (or any two officials that don’t include the president) ever has.

First, the pair, both bureaucratic masters, ran circles around their rivals for power and influence. To preempt a National Security Council meeting where they expected to be outvoted, Rumsfeld sent an underling, who announced that no decisions could be made without the secretary—or, if that didn’t work, Cheney would walk into the Oval Office afterward and persuade Bush to overrule the decision that had just been made. (This pattern would change in the final two years of Bush’s second term, when the president realized the game they’d been playing and its destructive consequences.)

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Second, in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld distrusted the CIA’s judgment that Saddam Hussein had neither weapons of mass destruction nor any links to al-Qaeda—a distrust derived from his experience on the commission to assess North Korea’s ballistic missile capability. Instead, he set up his own rogue intel unit, cryptically called the Office of Special Plans, cherry-picking raw data and touting bogus sources that confirmed his own prejudices.

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More disastrous may have been his ardent advocacy of another idea that he picked up from a commission in the late 1990s—“military transformation.” This idea held that computerized intelligence networks and highly accurate “smart bombs”—both spawned by the microelectronics revolution—were now so agile and accurate that the U.S. could win wars with just a small number of troops on the ground.

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As a result, Rumsfeld pared down the military’s war plan for Iraq from 500,000 troops to just 140,000. Rumsfeld turned out to be right in one way: aided by smart bombs and sensors, a fairly small number of ground troops—much smaller than the generals thought necessary—could topple Iraq’s army (the world’s 4th largest at the time) and occupy Baghdad. However, he was wrong in a way that he didn’t think mattered but, in fact, mattered a great deal: those 140,000 troops were not nearly enough to hold the territory (the invading Americans conquered a village, then moved on to the capital, leaving chaos or worse in the dust) or to stave off the insurgency and civil war that followed and lasted for another nine years.

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Rumsfeld remained so dogmatic about “transformation” that, even two years after this second phase of the war began, he refused to acknowledge that there was an “insurgency” and ordered his aides not to utter the word. (He dismissed resistance fighters as unorganized “dead-enders.”) He remembered enough from the Vietnam War to know that if there were an insurgency, he’d have to come up with a counter-insurgency policy. That would mean keeping a lot of troops on the ground for a long time. And he did not want that at all.

Rumsfeld didn’t really care much about Iraq. He saw the battlefield as a testing lab for his new concept of modern warfare. And he wanted to exploit the successful invasion of Iraq as a threat to other dictators obstructing the expansion of U.S. power in the post-Cold War era, which many saw as a time of unchallenged American supremacy.

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During the run-up to the war, Rumsfeld wrested away from the State Department the task of planning for the “stability operations” that would follow the combat phase of the Iraq war. Then he refused to let anyone in the Pentagon address the subject. He didn’t want there to be any stability operations—also known as “nation-building.” And so the U.S. went into the war without any such plan. This wasn’t an oversight; it was deliberate—it was Rumsfeld’s plan to have no plan. Catastrophe ensued.

Rumsfeld was also a consummate dissembler. Throughout his tenure as defense secretary, he wrote his aides thousands of brief memos—which became known as “snowflakes”—asking questions or musing about ideas, many of which contradicted the questions and ideas in other memos he wrote, some of which could be cherry-picked in a memoir to make him look prescient in retrospect. And Rumsfeld did just that in a memoir called Known and Unknown, where he culled some of these snowflakes—but also, in some sections, simply rewrote history—to make it seem that he never asked for fewer troops than the generals recommended, always acknowledged the possibility of an insurgency, and welcomed dissenting views from subordinates and officers (a claim that prompted hearty laughter from several generals who read the book).

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One of his most seemingly intelligent snowflakes was this, written in October 2003, seven months after the invasion:

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

It was an excellent question, which would have been more excellent still, had he posed it two years, or even two months, sooner. But more to the point, there is no evidence that Rumsfeld ever acted on this insight. He never assigned anyone to devise a metric, or to alter U.S. strategy to address this challenge. One can’t help but conclude that the memo was merely theatrical—or, to put it more crudely, ass-covering.

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Or it could have just been a product of scramble-headed laziness. For instance, Rumsfeld rhapsodized over “military transformation” as the basis not only for a war strategy in Iraq but also for an overhaul of the Pentagon—a guide to a whole new way of calculating what kinds of weapons to buy, what kinds of armed forces to organize. And yet, in six years as secretary of defense, Rumsfeld killed just two weapons systems, the Cheyenne helicopter and Crusader artillery cannon, relics that attracted little favor even within the Army, which owned both.

Rumsfeld admitted no wrongdoing in his memoir, acknowledging at worst a few mistakes, all of which he blamed on others, usually the CIA, the Democrats, the media, or others who misled him. For someone in public life for so long, he could be oddly oblivious. Take one of his most famous lines, uttered in answer to a National Guardsman on his way to Iraq who wondered why he and his fellow troops had been given so many weapons that weren’t suited for this battle. Rumsfeld replied, with a shrug: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

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There might be something to this logic if you’re suddenly invaded and you have to fight back with whatever you’ve got, however inadequate. But Iraq was a war that the United States started—that Rumsfeld helped start—and he had plenty of time to build up a better army to go to war with. The real point is: He didn’t want to build up a better army; he didn’t think he’d need one; he was wrong.

His memoir’s title referred to another gem from his catalogue of comic-book sage pronouncements, this one from a 2002 press conference:

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There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns, that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

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This is a pretty standard truism, the stuff of opening-day Epistemology 101. But Rumsfeld would invoke it several times as an excuse for not anticipating bad turns, such as an insurgency (even though plenty of people anticipated that bad turn, he just didn’t listen to them)—in short, as an excuse for getting things wrong.

There’s a moment in Errol Morris’ 2014 documentary about Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, in which Morris asks him what lessons he learned from the Vietnam War. Keep in mind that, through the 1960s and ’70s, Rumsfeld witnessed every phase of U.S. intervention in that war—from first salvos to escalation to defeat—as a congressman, an ambassador, and a White House chief of staff. Here is Rumsfeld’s answer, in full, to Morris’ question:

Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t. If that’s a lesson, yes, it’s a lesson.

It may be that, for all his experiences, talents, and maneuverings, Donald Rumsfeld was, at bottom, a shallow man.

To understand more about the run-up to the Iraq war and the role Donald Rumsfeld played in that, listen to the current season of Slow Burn.

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