Donald Rumsfeld: Threat or Menace?

Who is to blame for (1) our difficulties in Iraq, (2) the delayed Katrina response, (3) lousy relations between the US and Russia, and (4) Republicans losing the Senate?  Donald Rumsfeld, of course.  At least if you believe Robert Draper, as he writes in the June 2009 issue of GQ.

"Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld has always answered his detractors by claiming that history will one day judge him kindly. But as he waits for that day, a new group of critics -- his administration peers -- are suddenly speaking out for the first time. What they're saying? It isn't pretty."

Draper writes over 10 pages, or over 5,000 words, to expound this thesis.  Let me give you the shorter version, page by page.  (Draper is also the author of Dead Certain, a Bush-bashing book now available on Amazon for $5.33.)

Intro Page.  Draper reveals that the Defense Department's intelligence briefs to the President routinely included quotes from the Bible.  This is Draper's leadoff scandal.  To be clear, the Bible quotes were not used to justify analyses, decisions or actions, but as simple inspirational respites.  Draper repeats one such offensive passage from Psalms: "Behold the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him ... To deliver their soul from death."

Page 1.  "At least one Muslim analyst in the building had been greatly offended" by the use of the Bible in this way.  I believe the "building" referred to here is the Pentagon, which houses approximately 23,000 employees.


(Rumsfeld's office disputes the facts of this Bible quoting scandal. "The slides in the ‘World Intelligence Update' were prepared on a daily basis by military personnel serving on the Joint Staff, which reported to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, not the Secretary of Defense. The report was briefed regularly to senior military officials in the Pentagon - only occasionally to the Secretary of Defense and not to the President of the United States...  The suggestion that Rumsfeld would have composed, approved of, or personally shown the slides to President Bush is flat wrong. It did not happen.") 

On page 1 Draper also reveals that Rumsfeld had critics within the Bush administration: "including several former cabinet-level officials and senior military commanders."  Indeed, they have "intense feelings of ill will toward Donald Rumsfeld."  However, "few of these individuals would speak for the record."

What caused those feelings of ill will?  "Arrogance, stubbornness, obliviousness, ineptitude."  By the end of page 1, no specifics.  And if I may jump ahead, by the end of page 10, no specifics either, except for some hints of stubbornness at times, which could be considered a good thing.

Page 2. We get to an example.  Sort of.  Some anonymous source spoke of an unnamed proposal they tried to get past Rumsfeld.  Per that source, Rumsfeld said, "Golly, we haven't had time to read all of these documents!  I mean, this is radical change!"  (I'm not sure how Draper knew where to include exclamation marks in a totally verbal exchange at which he was not present.)  The source apparently suggested Rumsfeld should have read them.  And Rumsfeld answered, "Well!  I've been all over the world since then!  What have you been doing?"  (More exclamation marks!)

On page 2 an unnamed source accuses Rumsfeld of dragging his heels on military commissions.  That is, the Secretary of Defense did not respond to Justice proposals as fast as Justice employees would have liked.  I'm sure this upsets you as much as it does me.

Page 3.  Rumsfeld is also accused of dragging his heels on getting Australian and British allies access to SIPRNet, the Pentagon's classified internet system.

He also complained, concerning the reconstruction period in Iraq, that DoD should not report to the State Department.  He used the flimsy excuse that "that's not in the Constitution!"  (There's that exclamation point again.)

It is on page 3 where we get to check the veracity of our unnamed sources.  The unnamed "national security advisor" says this of Iraqi reconstruction: "I'm not saying State could have done any better, but he [Rumsfeld] owned it."

Ironically, Draper cites Paul Bremer's book My Year in Iraq to support that claim and also the claim that "Rumsfeld had completely washed his hands of the faltering reconstruction efforts" seven months into Bremer's tenure.  Did he read Bremer's book?  Bremer himself bragged that he was neither Rumsfeld's man nor Powell's man; he was Bush's man in Iraq.  Not only that, but Powell was overjoyed when he heard Bremer had been selected for the job.  "The people in my outer office thought I'd won the lottery," Powell said, in describing the moment he heard the news.

Rumsfeld did not "wash his hands" of the reconstruction; he was driven out of the process by State and ultimately by Bush within weeks of the fall of Baghdad.  If anyone "owned" that first year of reconstruction, it was Paul Bremer.  Yes, Rumsfeld picked Bremer (to keep bureaucratic peace), but that's as far as his power went on the matter.  Bremer promptly ignored all inputs from Rumsfeld after that -- diplomatically, of course.  Read his book.

Those of us on the outside, including me, cannot really know the bureaucratic shenanigans and power plays that went on at that time.  But to characterize Bremer's year in Iraq as being "owned" by Rumsfeld would be a sloppy characterization at best, and a knee-slapping lie at worst.  My take is that Rumsfeld was the victim of a sophisticated bureaucratic turf battle, to the detriment of the country and the people of Iraq.

Still on page 3, we find another example.  "One NSC aid approached [Rumsfeld] during a meeting in the Situation Room."  He told the Secretary that Dr. Rice was prepared to call King Abdullah II of Jordan to ask him to remove some overflight restrictions.  Rumsfeld was quoted as answering, "When I need your help, I'll ask."  (No exclamation points!)

The author goes on to extrapolate from this incident the "obduracy" of the Secretary as "a primary cause of mishap in Iraq."  That's a bit of stretch, don't you think?  Rummy prefers not to ask Dr. Rice to call the King of Jordan and, badabing-badaboom, Iraq is a mess.

And still on page 3, we are reminded that Rumsfeld wrote a piece published in the New York Times stating that he had been "incorrectly portrayed as an opponent of the surge in Iraq."  Draper quotes an unnamed top White House official as saying "I was amused by that.  The Casey war plan was very much his."  First, I'm not sure that supporting Plan A means you are an opponent of Plan B.  Secondly, why doesn't this unnamed top White House official write his own piece for the Times?  I'd wager the Times would be glad to run it.  Heck, write it for Maureen Dowd and remain unnamed (and unattributed).

Page 4.  Rumsfeld is accused of throwing "sand in the gears" on President Bush's efforts to cooperate more with Russia's Vladimir Putin.  Is it clear to you that our Defense Department should have been more transparent to Putin in areas such as "the proposed Russian-American Observation Satellite, the Joint Data Exchange Center, plutonium disposition"?  I'm kind of glad we were slow to open our kimono to Putin.

Also on page 4 we get to a complaint I find rather amusing.  "[Rumsfeld] was always bringing questions.  Never answers."  Draper calls that "obfuscation."  Think about that for a moment.  What if he always brought answers and not questions?  Wouldn't he then be guilty of arrogance and hubris?  Or is there a correct ratio of questions to answers?  Oops, I'm asking questions without answers.

On page 5 we find that Rumsfeld did not always send his best people to other Departments' meetings, and sometimes sent no one.  We also find out that he did not like Fran Townsend, supposedly.  He is quoted by an unnamed source as saying, "You think I'm going to talk to this broad?"

And when Ms. Townsend herself said to Rumsfeld, "if I've in some way offended you," he said "Ab-so-lute-ly not!  Why, nothing could be further from the truth!"  (The Secretary's exclamation marks are back!)  And Draper describes this exchange as "Rumsfeld laughed loudly, put his arm around her shoulder, and boomed."

(Disclosure:  In 2008 I spent almost an hour and a half conversing with Donald Rumsfeld.  In that 90 minutes, I can't recall one statement of his that I would put an exclamation point after.  Nor did he ever "boom."  As much as I prodded, and I did prod, he would say nothing negative about others.  And it seems unlikely to me that he would use the term "broad" at all, much less freely in front of others eager to write their memoirs.  But I don't know what I don't know.  One thing I know I don't know is the name of the person who quoted Rumsfeld as saying "broad.")

On page 6 we find that Rumsfeld was not in favor of awarding Senator Ted Kennedy with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.  He expressed that sentiment at a social gathering with other conservatives when he was no longer serving as Secretary, but Draper thought to include the anecdote anyway.  Does the guy who drove drunk into the water, left a young woman to die in the submerged car, and then lied about it, deserve a Presidential Medal of Freedom -- even if he did co-sponsor No Child Left Behind?  Rumsfeld thinks not, and Draper thinks that reflects badly on Rumsfeld.

Also on page 6 we find that Rumsfeld helped screw up the Katrina rescue as well.  He did not approve the deployment of some helicopters from Florida quick enough.

On pages 7 and 8 we find out why.  Rumsfeld thought the National Guard was enough, and was against using active duty troops due to "unity of command" issues.  He was also concerned about the Insurrection Act.  In short, Rumsfeld wanted to be legal.  Draper offers no evidence that a delay due to Rumsfeld, if any, affected any real outcome in the Katrina rescue.

I find it amusing that, in these days of discussing the legalities of the CIA's interrogation methods, Donald Rumsfeld is being criticized for wanting to conduct Defense's affairs in a legal and constitutional manner.  For the second-guessers of the world, it's heads I win, tails Rumsfeld loses.

At the bottom of page 8, all in one paragraph, Draper notes that Rumsfeld had some good points -- 70 words in a 5,000 word article.  Enough of that, though.  Draper then immediately wonders what "caused Bush to keep Rumsfeld around so long?"

On page 9 Draper can only guess at that, but he is willing to blame Bush's delay in firing him for Republicans losing the Senate in 2006.  Senator Lindsay Graham is quoted as saying, "I think most Republicans believe that if Rumsfeld had been dismissed before the election, we would've hung on to the Senate."

Who is Sen. Graham blaming for losing even more Senate seats in 2008?

On page 10, Draper manages to summarize his piece with the words, "guilt, disappointment, self-loathing, a general sadness."

My summary.  I read Draper's article to see what specific evidence there is on what the US did wrong in Iraq and what Donald Rumsfeld himself did wrong.  Ten and a half pages later, no such evidence.

Much of the "evidence" is general complaints, e.g., Rumsfeld was "stubborn."  Most of the incidents Draper cites amount to mere bureaucratic wrangling that any top official would be involved in.  Rumsfeld disagreed with some policies.  There were turf battles.  Some people didn't like him.  And the Pope is still Catholic.

In fact, by reading between Draper's lines, I find that Rumsfeld was more thoughtful and careful than many of his counterparts.  Moving slowly is not always evidence of throwing "sand in the gears," but of careful and deliberate thinking before acting.  And having more questions than answers is simply being sane.

[caution: vulgar language in the next paragraph - ed.]

All of Draper's sources are unnamed, with the possible exception of Fran Townsend.  An incident involving her might have come from Ms. Townsend herself, but Draper isn't clear on that.  We do have a quote attributed to Ms. Townsend.  In a phone call with then Chief of Staff, Andy Card, she said, "I want to know if the president knows what a fucking asshole Don Rumsfeld is."  Rumsfeld's crime?  Not immediately responding to her phone call when he was at an Ambassador's dinner with his wife.

Such are the crimes of Donald Rumsfeld.  And such is the evidence.

Draper says he was provided copies of years worth of DoD's intelligence briefings to the President, and the worst scandal he could scrounge from that goldmine of information was that the briefings had Bible quotes in them.  I think that adequately sums up Draper's arguments for the prosecution.

Randall Hoven can be contacted at or  via his web site,
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