April 09, 2011

Donald Rumsfeld's Known & Unknown


Several weeks ago, an unexpected package appeared on my doorstep. Much to my surprise, it contained a copy of the newly published memoir by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I've been reading it since that time, and must confess to having found myself a major fan of the book, which renewed my admiration of the author.

Let me be frank -- I've not always been an admirer. While in graduate school, I attended a Chicago-area forum for presidential candidates during the run-up to the 1988 GOP primaries. The only one whose presence confused was Donald Rumsfeld. I remember mocking his participation, calling him the darkest of horses and someone who ought to fade into well-deserved obscurity. I was wrong, as I learned during his tenure as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush.

And ironically, it was Rumsfeld's career before the Bush Administration that I found most interesting. I lived the six years that constituted his second stint at the Pentagon, and followed his activities closely. But the earlier period in government, which I recall at best vaguely, may be seriously underestimated by those who examine the first decade of the twenty-first century. During that time, not only were Rumsfeld's skills as an administrator honed by his experiences in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, but Rumsfeld discovered and groomed a protégé who would in time eclipse his mentor -- a young man named Dick Cheney. If there is one thing I would say is made clear by the author's account of that first career in government service, it is the dearth of good historical work on the presidency of Gerald Ford -- a key period in American political history in which Rumsfeld was a key player.

Others can and have noted that Rumsfeld's account of his years in the Pentagon during the Bush administration at times challenges the conventional wisdom of the day. Turf wars between the State Department, National Security Council, and The DoD were clearly a problem. And yet the policy that was implemented was, overall, quite effective -- except for the unexpected development of the second war in Iraq against a terrorist insurgency in the wake of the defeat of Saddam Hussein.

What I find of value instead is an effort by Rumsfeld to present the policy issues that dogged the Bush Administration and which continue to plague his successor, Barack Obama. Chief among these would be the short chapter entitled "Law in a Time of War". The Bush Administration tried to establish a method for handling those captured in our War on Terrorism that treated them as what they were -- enemies captured in time of war -- rather than common criminals subject to the legal process. In doing so, there was an effort to rely on the precedents that had guided our country for the first two centuries of its existence. Instead, the courts have placed our legal system in the hands of our enemies -- what Rumsfeld describes as "the litigation weapon" -- as but one more tool in their asymmetrical arsenal. Moreover, the increased internationalization of law has, in Rumsfeld's eyes, become a threat to America's sovereignty and, implicitly, our national security.

Had 9/11 not happened, Donald Rumsfeld might well have been a footnote in history -- the youngest and the oldest man to serve as Secretary of Defense. Instead he is admired by some (including this blogger) and reviled by others for decisions he and others made during the Bush years in the wake of the most grievous attack ever made upon America. Some lionize the administration in which he served, while others demonize it. Donald Rumsfeld makes the case that those things that were done in the aftermath were, if not always correct, motivated by love of country and a desire to safeguard its people. He makes no excuses for those cases where mistakes were made -- even when those mistakes were his own. If the message from Rumsfeld ultimately appears self-serving to a reader, remember that such is the nature of every memoir as it puts forward the author's take on the events of which he was a part. As a student of history, I expect this work to be one of the more important ones to come out of the Bush Administration, and to become a definitive resource for those who want to understand those years.

Oh, and there was a question I found myself asking repeatedly as I read this book. More than once, Donald Rumsfeld was considered as a possible vice presidential candidate. That presents a tantalizing "what if" to consider. Might his presence on the ticket in 1976 have made a difference in the outcome of the race? Had Ronald Reagan selected him as his running mate in 1980, how would that have altered the political trajectory of a nation that elected two men named George Bush to the presidency in the ensuing two decades? Had the elder Bush been able to put aside the rivalry between himself and Rumsfeld, might that have strengthened the ticket in both 1988 and 1992 -- or perhaps have prevented the nomination of the lackluster Bob Dole in 1996? But such "what ifs", while fodder for science fiction writers, are unanswerable. What I can say is that, in the end, the failure of Donald Rumsfeld to ever be the GOP nominee for President or Vice President meant that, on a clear fall morning in September of 2001,Rumsfeld was one of that group of men and women in the key decision-making positions in government who crafted policies that to led our nation safely through the storm. For that I am thankful

Disclosure: Except for the unsolicited copy of the book itself, I have in no way been compensated for this review.

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