Donald Rumsfeld, 1932-2021

He was both the youngest and oldest man to run the Pentagon.

Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, has died days shy of his 89th birthday. He was, to say the least, a controversial figure.

NYT (“Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary During Iraq War, Is Dead at 88“):

Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense for Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George W. Bush, who presided over America’s Cold War strategies in the 1970s and, in the new world of terrorism decades later, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, died on Tuesday at his home in Taos, N.M. He was 88.

The cause was multiple myeloma, said Keith Urbahn, a spokesman for the family.

Encores are hardly rare in Washington, but Mr. Rumsfeld had the distinction of being the only defense chief to serve two nonconsecutive terms: 1975 to 1977 under President Ford, and 2001 to 2006 under President Bush. He was also the youngest, at 43, and the oldest, at 74, to hold the post — first in an era of Soviet-American nuclear perils, then in an age of subtler menace by terrorists and rogue states.

A staunch ally of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been his protégé and friend for years, Mr. Rumsfeld was a combative infighter who seemed to relish conflicts as he challenged cabinet rivals, members of Congress and military orthodoxies. And he was widely regarded in his second tour as the most powerful defense secretary since Robert S. McNamara during the Vietnam War.

Like his counterpart of long ago, Mr. Rumsfeld in Iraq waged a costly and divisive war that ultimately destroyed his political life and outlived his tenure by many years. But unlike McNamara, who offered mea culpas in a 2003 documentary, “The Fog of War,” Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged no serious failings and warned in a farewell valedictory at the Pentagon that quitting Iraq would be a terrible mistake, even though the war, the country learned, had been based on a false premise — that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, had been harboring weapons of mass destruction.

WaPo (“Donald H. Rumsfeld, influential but controversial Bush defense secretary, dies at 88“):

Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose roles overseeing the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and efforts to transform the U.S. military made him one of history’s most consequential as well as controversial Pentagon leaders, died June 29 at his home in Taos, N.M. He was 88.

[…]

Mr. Rumsfeld’s political prominence stretched back to the 1960s and included stints as a rebellious young Republican congressman, favored counselor to President Richard M. Nixon, right-hand man to President Gerald Ford and Middle East envoy for President Ronald Reagan. He also scored big in business, helping to pioneer such products as NutraSweet and high-definition television and earning millions of dollars salvaging large troubled firms.

His greatest influence and notoriety came during a six-year reign as defense secretary under President George W. Bush. Mr. Rumsfeld was initially hailed for leading the U.S. military to war in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but his handling of the Iraq War eventually led to his downfall. In the invasion’s aftermath, he was criticized for being slow to draft an effective strategy for countering an Iraqi insurgency. He also failed to set a clear policy for the treatment of prisoners.

Dogged for months by mounting calls for Mr. Rumsfeld’s removal, Bush finally let him go in late 2006 — 31/2 years into the Iraq War and just after an election in which the Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress. Mr. Rumsfeld’s forced exit under clouds of blame and disapproval cast a shadow over his previously illustrious career.

Nevertheless, in a statement on Wednesday, Bush praised Mr. Rumsfeld as “a man of intelligence, integrity, and almost inexhaustible energy” who “never paled before tough decisions, and never flinched from responsibility.”

CNN (“Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense, dies at 88“):

Donald Rumsfeld, the acerbic architect of the Iraq war and a master Washington power player who served as US secretary of defense for two presidents, has died at the age of 88.

The pugnacious businessman, bureaucrat and former lawmaker helped drag victims out of the burning Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The al Qaeda attacks heralded the War on Terror and years of foreign entanglements that he directed and that ultimately ended his political career when they went sour.

[…]

Rumsfeld had an effervescent personality and could be mischievous and cocky, though critics — including some in the Bush administration — regarded him as arrogant and a bully.

His Washington legacy is dominated by the Iraq war.

Rumsfeld refused to accept blame for or repudiate the conduct of the conflict when conditions deteriorated and US troops faced a vicious insurgency — after the weapons of mass destruction on which the Bush administration had used to justify the invasion in 2003 never materialized. His decision to insist on a “light footprint” for US troops was blamed by many critics for the collapse of the Iraqi state after the US invasion — conditions that fed the insurgency and fractured security. Many of his antagonists also held Rumsfeld responsible for the detainee abuse scandal in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad that severely tarnished America’s reputation abroad.

According to a number of contemporary accounts and memoirs of key players, the then-defense secretary was quick to advise Bush to target Iraq after 9/11 — even though al Qaeda had been sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the terror attack.

He had also predicted that a conflict that in the end dragged on for years would be a short war. US troops did topple the Iraqi regime within weeks but Rumsfeld’s critics accused him of having no plan for the aftermath of the invasion.

Less mainstream sources and opinion pieces are less kind.

Robert Burns, AP (“Rumsfeld, a cunning leader who oversaw a ruinous Iraq war“):

Calling Donald H. Rumsfeld energetic was like calling the Pacific wide. When others would rest, he would run. While others sat, he stood. But try as he might, at the pinnacle of his career as defense secretary he could not outmaneuver the ruinous politics of the Iraq war.

Regarded by former colleagues as equally smart and combative, patriotic and politically cunning, Rumsfeld had a storied career in government under four presidents and nearly a quarter century in corporate America. After retiring in 2008 he headed the Rumsfeld Foundation to promote public service and to work with charities that provide services and support for military families and wounded veterans.

[…]

“Rummy,” as he was often called, was ambitious, witty, engaging and capable of great personal warmth. But he irritated many with his confrontational style. A man seemingly always in a hurry, he would let loose with a daily flurry of memos to aides — some well down the bureaucratic chain — which he dictated into an audio recorder and were typed up by assistant. They became known as his “snowflakes.”

[…]

By the time he arrived at the Pentagon in January 2001 for his second stint as defense secretary, the military that Rumsfeld inherited was in a slow-motion transition from the Cold War era to a period dominated by ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa and spasms of terrorism. Among the other prominent worries: China’s military buildup and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

But nine months into his tenure, on Sept. 11, Rumsfeld found himself literally face-to-face with the threat that would consume the remaining years of his tenure. When a hijacked American Airlines jetliner slammed into the Pentagon, Rumsfeld was in his third-floor office meeting with nine House members. He later recalled that at the instant of impact, the small wood table at which they were working trembled.

Rumsfeld was among the first to reach the smoldering crash site, and he helped carry the wounded in stretchers before returning to his duties inside the building.

The nation suddenly was at war. U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, and with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon helm the Taliban regime was toppled within weeks. Frequently presiding at televised briefings on the war, Rumsfeld became something of a TV star, admired for his plain-spokenness.

Within months of that success, President George W. Bush’s attention shifted to Iraq, which played no role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Rumsfeld and others in the administration asserted that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was armed with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, and that the U.S. could not afford the risk of Saddam one day providing some of those arms to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.

George Packer, The Atlantic (“How Rumsfeld Deserves to Be Remembered“):

Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history. Being newly dead shouldn’t spare him this distinction. He was worse than the closest contender, Robert McNamara, and that is not a competition to judge lightly. McNamara’s folly was that of a whole generation of Cold Warriors who believed that Indochina was a vital front in the struggle against communism. His growing realization that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable waste made him more insightful than some of his peers; his decision to keep this realization from the American public made him an unforgivable coward. But Rumsfeld was the chief advocate of every disaster in the years after September 11. Wherever the United States government contemplated a wrong turn, Rumsfeld was there first with his hard smile—squinting, mocking the cautious, shoving his country deeper into a hole. His fatal judgment was equaled only by his absolute self-assurance. He lacked the courage to doubt himself. He lacked the wisdom to change his mind.

Julian Borger, The Guardian (“History unlikely to forgive Donald Rumsfeld’s Iraq warmongering“):

Donald Rumsfeld’s name will forever be associated with the biggest military fiasco in US history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, alongside the widespread use of torture that has dogged America’s reputation ever since.

It is not just the poor decisions he made as defence secretary for which Rumsfeld will be remembered, but also his efforts to cover up inconvenient facts that did not align with his version of reality.

Documents surfaced after the invasion that showed that Rumsfeld was quite aware of the gaping holes in the intelligence about Iraqi WMD, but he consistently presented the claims to the public as if they were cast-iron certainties.

He also played down the growing insurgency against the US-led occupation after Saddam Hussein’s fall, dismissing the collapse of law and order in Baghdad with the insouciant phrase “stuff happens”, which would go on to haunt him for the rest of his life.

His reluctance to heed warnings that did not fit in with his world view alienated the generals and the military rank and file. His insistence there was no serious threat in Iraq contributed to the fact that the US military was driving around in lightly armoured Humvees a year after the invasion.

Spencer Ackerman, The Daily Beast (“Donald Rumsfeld, Killer of 400,000 People, Dies Peacefully“):

The only thing tragic about the death of Donald Rumsfeld is that it didn’t occur in an Iraqi prison. Yet that was foreordained, considering how throughout his life inside the precincts of American national security, Rumsfeld escaped the consequences of decisions he made that ensured a violent, frightening end for hundreds of thousands of people.

An actuarial table of the deaths for which Donald Rumsfeld is responsible is difficult to assemble. In part, that’s a consequence of his policy, as defense secretary from 2001 to 2006, not to compile or release body counts, a PR strategy learned after disclosing the tolls eroded support for the Vietnam War. As a final obliteration, we cannot know, let alone name, all the dead.

But in 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project put together something that serves as the basis for an estimate. According to Neda C. Crawford, Brown’s political-science department chair, the Afghanistan war to that point claimed about 147,000 lives, to include 38,480 civilians; 58,596 Afghan soldiers and police (about as many American troops as died in Vietnam); and 2,401 U.S. servicemembers.

Rumsfeld was hardly the only person in the Bush administration responsible for the Afghanistan war. But in December 2001, under attack in Kandahar, where it had retreated from the advance of U.S. and Northern Alliance forces, the Taliban sought to broker a surrender—one acceptable to the U.S.-installed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld refused. “I do not think there will be a negotiated end to the situation, that’s unacceptable to the United States,” he said. That statement reaped a 20-year war, making it fair to say that the subsequent deaths are on his head, even while acknowledging that Rumsfeld was hardly the only architect of the conflict.

Andrew Mitrovica, Al Jazeera columnist (“Donald Rumsfeld was a criminal in a suit and tie“):

Donald Rumsfeld was a criminal in the guise of a banal, semi-coherent bureaucrat in a well-tailored suit and tie.

Stripped of all the de rigueur embroidery, that is the epitaph that instantly came to mind when I heard of his passing yesterday.

That is also how, I suspect, he will be remembered by the many damaged people who inhabit what remains of the many damaged places where he caused such harm, suffering, and grief.

I had to opportunity to meet Rumsfeld once, a decade ago. I was invited to his private office by Urbahn, along with a handful of other bloggers with a military or foreign policy background, for a meeting with Henry Kissinger to discuss his just-released book, On China. They were both, as one would expect of folks with their longevity in Washington, charming and gracious. Rumsfeld stayed around and talked with us a bit after Kissinger’s departure and discussed various issues in the news at the time. In particular, I recall one of the attendees declaring their support for the then-Bradley Manning and the Wikileaks project, on the grounds that we overclassify information. I agree that the problem existed but argued that, surely, the solution was not making disgruntled privates the declassification authority. Rumsfeld enthusiastically agreed.

My view of Rumsfeld is much more forgiving than that of his harshest critics. Still, his second term at the Pentagon was clearly a failure. We started two wars on his watch and they were still running when he was relieved six years in. Indeed, they’re arguably still going on 15 years later.

It is, however, absurd to blame the wars themselves and their costs on Rumsfeld. President Bush was, as he infamously put it, “The Decider.” Further, both wars were enthusiastically backed by strong, bipartisan majorities in Congress. Even the Iraq War, which is widely and rightly considered a debacle of our own choosing, was supported by the 2004, 2016, and 2020 Democratic nominees for President—including the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Rumsfeld agreed to a second stint at the Pentagon to lead a transformation of the Department away from the smaller version of the Cold War force the brass was fighting to keep and to prepare it for great power competition. His vision for a lighter, smaller, more nimble and technically advanced force made absolute sense but was fought by generals and admirals wistful for the old days and power brokers in Congress who saw legacy systems as jobs programs for their states and districts. His imperious style was ultimately self-defeating but it was understandable in that context.

The problem, of course, is that Rumfeld’s visions of a future fight met the reality of two current fights. His “go small” plan brilliantly succeeded in his immediate goals in Iraq: defeating Saddam’s forces, ousting the Baathist regime, and installing a successor government. The problem, as Army Chief of Eric Shinseki famously predicted, was that it would be far too small to handle the Phase 4 mission of reconstructing Iraq—and, especially, in defeating the insurgency that sprung up.

It’ll likely be years before we know the full story but my longstanding view is that Rumsfeld simply had a different war aim in mind than Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. I think that, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Rumsfeld envisioned rapid regime change and then handing the keys off to a friendly successor government. Instead, we began impossibly ambitious transformation projects that bogged us down in what became known as “forever wars.” But, certainly, Rumsfeld (and others in the administration) was far too slow in adjusting the strategy and force posture to that new reality.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Obituaries
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Better late than never.

  2. Moosebreath says:

    Where he is now is a known unknown.

    3
  3. Barry says:

    The world was the worse for him being born, and a bit better for him dying.

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    What always struck me about Rumsfeld during his second stint as SoD, was the blustering overconfidence he projected and yes, imperious is a good description. About Iraq and Afghanistan and the possibility of a quick strike and then withdrawal was so ignorant of history that it is stupefying.

    Rumsfeld’s second tenure as SoD, is a great argument for not hiring executives for the same job that they once held. His performance leaves the indication that he spent the years after his first stint, focusing on his failures, his failure to impose is will, and decided that during the second to more forcefully executing his vision. With regard to his first stint, that he will only be remembered as the then, youngest person to be SoD, tells all that you need to know about that term.

  5. JohnMcC says:

    Hard to give too much thought to any obit that fails to mention and deal with things like Abu Graib and ‘black sites’, IMHO. And even more impossible to think that his legacy has been seriously considered in the absense of some discussion of the Project for a New American Century.

    He was an ideologue. He told us what he was going to do. When he got the chance, he did it. And then he bragged about it and no doubt died satisfied with his life’s work.

    In a way, we should all be so lucky. In another way…..

    3
  6. Kathy says:

    It is, however, absurd to blame the wars themselves and their costs on Rumsfeld. President Bush was, as he infamously put it, “The Decider.”

    This is true, but not as exculpatory as it seems.

    Bush the younger was no Trump the Ass, He did not make decisions on whim, though he was in way over his head. He relied on advice from his cabinet and other advisors. he got very bad advice, or he wasn’t dissuaded effectively. his cabinet, in particular Rumsfeld, should have known the impossible task they were undertaking, and should have not gone ahead with it.

    4
  7. Mister Bluster says:

    …a meeting with Henry Kissinger…

    Damn!
    I can not fathom what it is like to be in the presence of someone who shaped history the way
    Mr. Kissenger did.

    1
  8. Scott says:

    Duffelblog on Rumsfeld

    Donald Rumsfeld refuses to live in a world without war in Afghanistan

    Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld died on Wednesday after he decided he could no longer live in a world without endless war in Afghanistan.

    “He couldn’t take it, not after what they did to the Iraq War, too,” said friend and former Vice President Dick Cheney. “No father wants to outlive his children.”

    Born in Chicago, Illinois, Rumsfeld graduated from Princeton University in 1954 and went on to serve as a U.S. Navy pilot for three years, where he earned the callsign “Captain Morgan” after then-Ensign Don “Rummy” Rumsfeld drank an entire handle of the infamous pirate liquor and shit his pants. He won a seat in Congress in 1962 and later became the youngest and oldest defense secretary in history.

    “I guess you could say I had a little captain in me,” Rumsfeld later wrote to Pentagon staffers in one of his so-called “snowflakes” — short memos he would fire off to staffers in a self-described “flurry” that 59,000 pages later turned into a “blizzard.”

    Overall, history will judge Rumsfeld on both the good things that happened and the bad things that happened during his tenure as defense secretary during the Bush administration.

    He was well known for supporting, planning, and executing unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while turning a blind eye to torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and being a total dick to a soldier wanting to know when the armor for his Humvee was going to show up in Iraq.

    But his devotion to war was unfailing. “We need to think through what presence we want in Central Asia when the war on terrorism is over,” he wrote in one snowflake memo from Dec. 17, 2001, while falling for the classic blunder to never get involved in a land war in Asia.

    The sexagenarian will perhaps be most fondly remembered as the “sexiest cabinet member” of 2002, according to People Magazine. But in 2006, Rumsfeld was fired by President George W. Bush after a large group of retired general officers disagreed with that characterization. He later published two books and helped develop a digital app.

    In lieu of flowers, the Rumsfeld family has asked that the public make a donation to Lockheed Martin in his name.

    1
  9. Gustopher says:

    Rachel Maddow pointed out last night that he owned a historic home where he would go to relax — it was called Mount Misery and it was where Frederick Douglas was sent as a slave to be beaten, tortured and broken.

    So, there’s that.

    Seems a little on the nose that he would go from plotting wars and justifying torture back to Mount Misery, but I guess some people really are cartoonishly evil.

    3
  10. Teve says:

    That George Packer piece is really something.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    Best line I’ve seen is commenter engineerscotty at TAC,

    You go to Hell with the soul you have, not the soul you wish you had.

    6
  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I think that, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Rumsfeld envisioned rapid regime change and then handing the keys off to a friendly successor government.

    I would have been useful to know that he was suffering from early onset dementia BEFORE they named him Secretary of Defense, eh?