• Email
  • Print

Rumsfeld’s War and Its Consequences Now

The Unknown Known

a film directed by Errol Morris
Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis
Ronald Reagan and Donald Rumsfeld, then his Middle East envoy, Washington, D.C., November 3, 1983


A bare two weeks after the attacks of September 11, at the end of a long and emotional day at the White House, a sixty-nine-year-old politician and businessman—a midwesterner, born of modest means but grown wealthy and prominent and powerful—returned to his enormous suite of offices on the seventh floor of the flood-lit and wounded Pentagon and, as was his habit, scrawled out a memorandum on his calendar:

Interesting day—
NSC mtg. with President—
As [it] ended he asked to see me alone…
After the meeting ended I went to Oval Office—He was alone
He was at his desk—
He talked about the meet
Then he said I want you to develop a plan to invade Ir[aq]. Do it outside the normal channels. Do it creatively so we don’t have to take so much cover [?]

Then he said Dick [Cheney] told me about your son—I broke down and cried. I couldn’t speak—
said I love him so much
He said I can’t imagine the burden you are carrying for the country and your son—
He said much more.
Stood and hugged me
An amazing day—
He is a fine human being—
I am so grateful he is President.
I am proud to be working for him.

It is a touching and fateful scene, this trading of confidences between the recovering alcoholic president and the defense secretary whose son is struggling with drug addiction, and shows the intimacy that can be forged amid danger and turmoil and stress. Trust brings trust, confidence builds on confidence: the young inexperienced president, days before American bombs begin falling on Afghanistan, wants a “creative” plan to invade Iraq, developed “outside the normal channels”; the old veteran defense secretary, in a rare moment of weakness, craves human comfort and understanding.

And yet they’d hardly known one another, these two, before George W. Bush chose him for his secretary of defense nine months before. To George W., Donald Henry Rumsfeld had been little more than a political enemy of the Bush family. It was Rumsfeld, as President Gerald Ford’s ambitious young chief of staff, who had been instrumental in the so-called “Halloween Massacre” in 1975 that—so the legend goes—had helped clear the way for his own presidential ambitions by shunting George H.W. Bush, the wealthy eastern born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-mouth preppie who was the scrappy Illinois-born wrestler’s main rival, off to be CIA director. This was a job for which Bush could gain Senate confirmation only by agreeing not to accept the vice-presidential nomination in 1976—even as Rumsfeld, as he tells us in his memoir, “for the third time in three years,…found myself being discussed for the vice presidential nomination.” As Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III cautioned George W. a quarter-century later, when Rumsfeld’s name was bruited for secretary of defense, “You know what he did to your daddy.”

Certainly he knew, and one can be forgiven for suspecting that this knowledge might have been a strong part of the attraction, perhaps for both men. When Errol Morris asks Rumsfeld whether his former aide Dick Cheney had brought him into the Bush administration, Rumsfeld replies, “I assume that’s the case. I don’t think George W. Bush’s father recommended it,” and then beams with self-congratulatory mischievousness. It is one of several digs at Bush the elder, at whose side he had treaded the perilous path of the highest ambition until, at a critical moment in August 1980, both men found themselves at the Republican National Convention pacing nervously in their Detroit hotel rooms, awaiting a call from Ronald Reagan about who would be his vice-president. In the end it was George H.W. Bush who was called to history.

Errol Morris: It seems to me that if that decision had gone a slightly different way, you would have been vice-president and a future president of the United States.
Rumsfeld: [Pause] That’s possible.

Here as at several important moments in his brilliant and maddening film, Morris holds for three beats on that craggy inscrutable face, struggling to penetrate the benign “aw, shucks” good ol’ boy persona that Rumsfeld has worn so long he might well have forgotten how to put it aside. A decade ago Morris’s camera, focused for those extra beats on the face of Robert Strange McNamara in The Fog of War, had seemed to penetrate to some sort of appalling well of pain and pleading, deeply felt or conjured or both, lurking just behind McNamara’s rheumy eyes.

Confronted with Rumsfeld’s cheerful, hale-fellow-well-met opacity, Morris is mostly forced to plumb the shallows. At a question about his part in the so-called Halloween Massacre, he affects wry surprise. (“I suppose it is” called that, he concedes, with elaborately feigned wonder at the proclivity of reporters and historians to get things so wrong.) His alleged derailing of the elder Bush’s ambitions he dismisses as “utter nonsense.” (“I suppose it’s kind of more fun for somebody to be able to say they were pushed rather than they tripped.”) And his legendary ambition? “I never knew what I was going to do next,” he tells the filmmaker with chuckling insouciance. “The only thing I’ve ever volunteered for in my life: one, was to go into the Navy, and the other was to run for Congress.”

It is a familiar pose, the modest, even self-effacing man of talent to whom good things just…happen. Such unbidden blessings float down in many guises—for example, in the benevolent and providential interest of a kindly president. In Bradley Graham’s account in By His Own Rules:

The conversation in March [1971] was one of a number of private talks, preserved by the White House taping system, in which Rumsfeld sought to advance his career and also draw political advice from Nixon. Rumsfeld showed little inhibition in sounding out the president about various high-level job possibilities….
Nixon told Rumsfeld to consider his counselor post “as temporary, as a very interim period.” He said a number of cabinet positions would probably fit Rumsfeld, mentioning Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), Transportation, Interior, and Commerce….
Rumsfeld tossed out another idea. He suggested “something in the trade area”…indicating this could help his plans “down the road” to run for political office in Illinois….
The president reported that he had tried to find a spot for Rumsfeld at the State Department as undersecretary for development, but Secretary of State William Rogers had objected to Rumsfeld’s lack of foreign policy experience.

Undaunted, the thirty-eight-year-old rising star does not hesitate to advise the president how to persuade his secretary of state that, lack of foreign policy experience be damned, Don Rumsfeld is the man for the job:

Maybe it would be desirable for everyone if…you said to Bill, “Well, we’ve got a helluva problem in trade and we need a man of his stature,…and I want to do a favor for the Republican Party by giving our youngest cabinet member some very valuable experience in State….” You wouldn’t be saying, uh, “Rogers, you and State need Rumsfeld.” You’d be saying, “Bill, I want you to do something that conceivably would be helpful to the party down the road.”

Apart from the needling references to Bush Sr., the less worthy rival who did manage to become president, this intense will to triumph and dominate shows in the film’s protagonist only in his studious denials. Morris’s camera struggles with that self-satisfied opacity and so do we, knowing that beneath it, somewhere, lies the bottomless ambition that led Nixon to dub Rumsfeld “a ruthless little bastard.” For Nixon there could be no stronger approbation. To his boss’s acid observation that though “we’ve done a hell of a lot for Rumsfeld…, he’s ready to jump the ship,” H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, replies with the cynical assurance born of having made good use of more than one ruthless little bastard in his day:

No, I don’t think he’s ready to jump. And I doubt if he ever would, just because it serves his interests more not to. But I sure don’t think he’s ever going to be a solid member of the ship, except when it’s floating high.

That ship was about to founder spectacularly and it was no more than a confirmation of this appraisal that Rumsfeld would gaze on Nixon’s final destruction from a safe distance abroad, having engineered his own appointment as ambassador to NATO, and would remain sufficiently untainted by Watergate to return to serve his fellow midwesterner Gerald Ford as White House chief of staff in his turn, at forty-three years old—his predecessor Haldeman was by then on the way to the federal penitentiary at Lompoc—and finally, as he tells Morris proudly, as “the youngest secretary of defense in history.”

Nearly a quarter-century would pass before George W. would bring him back as the oldest, proving by his willingness to hire his father’s famous rival that, as Rumsfeld tells Morris, the younger Bush “was his own man, made his own decisions”—and proving it again, not long after, by ordering him during that tearful private chat in the Oval Office to “develop a plan to invade Ir” and to “do it creatively.” As for Rumsfeld, the calm, “aw shucks” demeanor was still there, and barely concealed beneath it the driving force of his ambition, which, during a quarter-century mostly spent outside the White House looking in, had only grown.


Nearly two years have passed since the last American soldier crossed the Iraq border into Kuwait, ending in quiet ignominy the American phase of a war that had begun in highly ballyhooed “shock and awe” more than eight years before. In Iraq, the sectarian guerrilla war set off by the invasion goes on, the suicide bombers continue their work, hundreds of Iraqis die in horrific violence every month. That most Americans would prefer to ignore this does not alter the reality that we live in a world the Iraq war has made. Before the war, Iraq had served the United States as a check on the revolutionary ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran—a “tilt” to Iraq that Donald Rumsfeld had personally set on course, during talks with Saddam in Baghdad in 1983 as President Reagan’s special envoy. It took the American invasion two decades later to make of Iraq an Iranian ally.

Under Saddam, Iraq had been devoid of Islamic jihadists; it took the American occupation to make of Iraq a breeding ground for jihadists and a laboratory for developing and honing their techniques of asymmetric warfare: the car bombs, kidnappings, improvised explosive devices, and other ruthless tactics in a cheap and effective “toolbox” that has been employed with considerable success from Afghanistan to Yemen to Mali. Iraqi jihadists, many of them former soldiers and officers in the Iraqi army that the American occupiers abruptly dissolved in the summer of 2003, have become the proud foot soldiers of the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” a proclaimed zone of insurgency and Wild West lawlessness that stretches west from Fallujah through Anbar province and into the heart of Sunni Syria.

While the increasingly repressive Shia government that the Americans helped install in Baghdad collaborates with Tehran in its support of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, the Sunni insurgents that the Americans unleashed struggle to overthrow Assad in what is becoming the central battle of the three-continent-wide Salafi uprising that al-Qaeda, by its audacious September 11 attacks, had been determined to ignite and foster. Now the Sunnis are increasingly striking back at Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors in Lebanon.

The Sunni–Shia struggle set in motion by the American invasion of Iraq has become the vortex of a violent political struggle that stretches from South Asia to the Gulf. Meantime, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown fivefold. Bin Laden is dead, but in Pakistan and Somalia and Yemen the drones go on striking, killing by now several thousand, and more rise to take their place. The jihadists are not winning but they are not disappearing either. There is no end in sight.

Though Bush is long gone, replaced by a president who had seemed to voters to be in many ways his opposite, this geopolitical reality has hardly changed. As Rumsfeld remarks to Morris:

Barack Obama opposed most of the structures that President George W. Bush put in place: Guantánamo Bay, the concept of indefinite detention, the Patriot Act, military commissions. Here we are, years later, and they’re all still here. I think that has to validate, to some extent, the decisions that were made by President George W. Bush.

One needn’t accept such “validation” to concede that more than a dozen years later we still live in the world that Bush’s “war on terror” made. The “state of exception” that began on September 11, 2001, has not ended, owing not only to the political compromises and misplaced priorities of the Obama administration but to the terribly misbegotten and self-defeating way the “war on terror” was conceived and waged.

It is from this vantage that one must consider the question Donald Rumsfeld posed, in one of his famous “snowflakes”—personal memoranda on white paper that rained down in an unrelenting blizzard on Defense Department officials—with characteristic succinctness and precision:

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?

In its focus on the political reality of the war on terror—on the necessity to deter and dissuade as well as to kill and capture—the memo is concise, perceptive, astute; it is also, coming in October 2003, very, very late. Americans killing Muslims in Baghdad and Fallujah and other cities of Iraq dominate the television screens. The secretary of defense, after stubbornly resisting the word in a trail of nitpicking snowflakes that Morris’s film meticulously follows, can no longer deny that American troops are trying to repress an “insurgency” in Iraq. The images are lurid, indelible: Americans breaking into Muslim homes, pushing Muslim men to the floor with boots to the backs of their heads—and soon, Americans abusing naked Muslims in the garish grotesque prison world of Abu Ghraib.

It is all a great political gift to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and one that keeps on giving: a worldwide live-action recruiting poster, broadcast 24/7, with the Americans seeming to conform with bullheaded enthusiasm to the caricature the Islamists had made of them. More than two years into the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” it was too late to be asking, as Rumsfeld does in the next line of his October 2003 memo:

Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists.

In fact, this “broad, integrated plan” was unfolding before him and every other television viewer on the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah. Rumsfeld had placed it before the president in September 2001, a scant week after their intimate Oval Office meeting, in a memo bearing the portentous title “Strategic Thoughts.” In it, the secretary of defense advises that the administration should “avoid as much as possible creating images of Americans killing Muslims.” This wise admonition, alas, would conflict rather dramatically with his more grandiose “strategic thoughts.” Reading them now, a dozen years into the ongoing “war on terror,” the words carry all the poignancy of a vast heroic hubris come to grief:

A key war aim would be to persuade or compel States to stop supporting terrorism. The regimes of such States should see that it will be fatal to host terrorists who attack the US…. If the war does not significantly change the world’s political map, the US will not achieve its aim. There is value in being clear on the order of magnitude of the necessary change. The [US government] should envision a goal along these lines:
*New regimes in Afghanistan and another key State (or two) that supports terrorism…[My emphasis]

It takes little imagination to glimpse looming out of those memorable words “another key State (or two)” the hirsute visage of Saddam Hussein. Making quick work of “liberating” Iraq would be the first move in the Bush administration’s effort to “change the world’s political map,” without which the “US will not achieve its aim.”

This would not be a war in which the president would “send a $2 million missile into a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt” (in Bush’s faux-cowboy dismissal of Bill Clinton’s response to al-Qaeda). It would be a war to remake the world. George W. Bush, with less foreign policy experience than brash young Don Rumsfeld had had in 1971, was ambitious, impatient, confident; he “was his own man, made his own decisions,” and he embraced with enthusiasm his secretary of defense’s mission to “significantly change the world’s political map.” Donald Rumsfeld, experienced, powerful, confident, sharing his president’s ambition and thirst for challenges both, was more than happy to show him the way.

Donald Rumsfeld, then ambassador to NATO, with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, Brussels, June 26, 1974
  1. 1

    See Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (Free Press, 2004), p. 32. 

  2. 2

    See Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Doubleday, 2013), p. 144. We have known about Wolfowitz’s role in this discussion since Bob Woodward’s Bush at War (Simon and Schuster, 2002) but Baker’s account brings new details. 

  3. 3

    See Bob Woodward, State of Denial (Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 408. See also my “ Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” The New York Review, December 21, 2006. 

  • Email
  • Print