His study in self-defence
Donald Rumsfeld's memoir
Feb 17th 2011 | from PRINT EDITION
IT WILL surprise no one that Donald Rumsfeld emerges well from his long memoir. The quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, it appears, were everyone’s fault but his; ditto the failure to make timely use of America’s armed forces when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and ditto a whole string of lesser blunders, such as Gerald Ford’s snubbing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which occurred while Mr Rumsfeld was chief of staff at the White House back in 1975.
Expecting a mea culpa from a political memoir is like expecting modesty from Lady Gaga: it entirely misses the point. People like Mr Rumsfeld don’t write books for the money; they want to justify themselves. And this Mr Rumsfeld does reasonably well. Beyond the failure to admit any guilt, which will disappoint only those who were expecting the improbable, this book is interesting and even enjoyable. Mr Rumsfeld is the man who, in February 2002, used the phrase “unknown unknowns” to describe the main dangers in any possible confrontation with Iraq. Nearly a decade later, he is still attached to it, as is clear from the book’s title. He is rather less proud of his only other memorable line, said in response to the orgy of destruction that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein: “Stuff happens.”
The reason why this book is still a good read is the extraordinary amount that the author has contrived to pack into his life: a long spell in Congress, a varied series of jobs in Richard Nixon’s dysfunctional White House and then Gerald Ford’s, the ambassadorship to NATO and two turns as defence secretary—as both the youngest and the oldest holder of that office—plus a reasonably illustrious business career in periods of enforced political idleness.
If only Mr Rumsfeld had not responded to George Bush junior’s call-up in 2001, his career would have been judged by history as valuable and successful. Iraq, of course, has ruined all of that, and Mr Rumsfeld will go down, along with Robert McNamara, as one of the two most calamitous holders of his position. His attempt to shift most of the blame on to others—mainly Condoleezza Rice, the then national security adviser, and Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator of Iraq—is successful up to a point. It is abundantly clear that Ms Rice badly failed to serve up the right policy options to the president. And it is equally clear that Mr Bremer’s two first edicts as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority—to fire every member of the Ba’ath party and to disband the Iraqi army—were catastrophic. Valiantly though he tries in these memoirs, Mr Rumsfeld cannot avoid complicity in both of these debacles.
He was, of course, a central participant in the policy meetings that Ms Rice chaired. And it really is no good blaming Mr Bremer: Mr Bremer worked for him, and if Mr Rumsfeld had any argument with the two decisions, he could and should have taken them to the president. One amusing oddity emerges. In his quest to exonerate himself, Mr Rumsfeld is quite prepared to include Mr Bush—rightly—in his list of the guilty, the latest instalment in a lingering feud between Mr Rumsfeld and both generations of Bushes.
Yet despite the vast influence he wielded, especially in the original decision to go to war on flawed evidence, Dick Cheney (who once upon a time was Mr Rumsfeld’s assistant) escapes with no hint of blame. A final judgment on how America came to blunder so badly in Mesopotamia is still pending: but this book, as well as being a fascinating history, is a clear statement by one of the defendants.
from PRINT EDITION | Books and Arts