Sunday, May 17, 2009

Running Down Rummy

My conversations with more than a dozen Bush loyalists, including several former cabinet-level officials and senior military commanders, have revealed another element of this legacy-building moment: intense feelings of ill will toward Donald Rumsfeld. Though few of these individuals would speak for the record (knowing that their former boss, George W. Bush, would not approve of it), they believe that Rumsfeld’s actions epitomized the very traits—arrogance, stubbornness, obliviousness, ineptitude—that critics say drove the Bush presidency off the rails.
I was going to continue the weekend's theme of light-hearted posting, but Frank Rich's column, which linked to a GQ piece (cited above and quoted below as well--a very sharp article on the damage Rumsfeld wrought) on former Secretary of Defense Donald "No Mistake is Too Large" Rumsfeld, has got me going this morning. In past postings, I have briefly addressed The Worst Secretary of Defense in US history in past posts (here, here, and here).

I spent a year in Rumsfeld's Pentagon, but never interacted directly with him. Instead, I felt tremors in the dark side of the force via the behavior of those under him and through snowflakes. First, a bit of scene-setting. I always react a bit whenever I hear "Pentagon" being used to describe some sort of position coming out of the Department of Defense. Why? Because the Pentagon really does have five sides to it: the Office of the Secretary of Defense (mostly civilians who directly advise the SecDef), the Joint Staff (mostly military who advise the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who then advises the SecDef and the President), and the Army, Navy and Air Force Staffs. In my time, there was often very little consensus, at least over the Balkans (I had no opportunity to see how things were playing out in other regions or issues), between OSD and the JS. But I did see that the folks in OSD lived in fear of Rumsfeld, so much so that they often would let the JS take the lead on writing a policy paper rather than risk being criticized for having their own ideas.
Second, the snowflakes referred to the memos that Rummy would send down that needed an immediate response (before they melt). This was his way to get the bureaucracy moving, I suppose. But he was not really looking for the best advice unless "best" meant what fitted with his preconceptions. I personally was responsible for replying to the same snowflake three times, as we did not give him the answer he desired. We were pretty stubborn, I suppose. Clearly, others in defense bureaucracy were less so (suitable spot here for another jab at Tommy Franks).

But why does Rummy vex me so?
  1. Because he ruled his fiefdom with fear and intimidation and only sought information that concurred with his views, I left the Pentagon in 2002 expecting his people to mess up the war in Iraq. I just didn't realize that he/they would take the list of things not to do and turn it into a checklist.
  2. This was bad enough, but he was determined to control, or at least prevent the influence of others, areas he perceived as belong to him: “I’m not saying State could have done any better,” this official says of the bungled reconstruction efforts. “But he owned it [GQ piece again].”
  3. His selective attention span yo-yoing created uncertainty and policy shifts. He micro-managed the war in Afghanistan (well-document in a good book on the Anaconda battle), but then completely ignored it after the Taliban fell and as Iraq heated up. He then shifted attention back when he realized that his commander there (Gen. Barno) was doing more than counter-terrorism but counter-insurgency as well (Auerswald and Saideman paper to be submitted somewhere soon). Rumsfeld seems to have done the same thing in Iraq, micro-managing the lead up to the invasion and the several months that followed "the end of military operations," and then he checked out again. While micomanagement can be and often is counter-productive, extreme shifts from one end of the spectrum and back can be even more detrimental.
  4. He had the temperament of a spoiled eight year-old. He was quite talented at blocking the efforts of others, even if he had no constructive alternative: “No one,” says another former official, “threw sand in the gears like Rumsfeld.”
  5. He sought to confuse, rather than clarify, to avoid accountability. Unknown unknowns, indeed.
  6. I didn't know that he was also partly responsible for messing up the government's reponse to Hurricane Katrina.
  7. There are rumors that he is writing a memoir that paints himself as an opponent of the war.
The only good news in this story is that Bush's refusal to fire Rummy before the midterm elections in 2006 might have been partly responsible for the Republicans losing the Senate.

The money quote that captures it all is:
“I want to know if the president knows what a @$## a-hole Don Rumsfeld is.”
And being an a-hole would not be such a horrible thing--plenty of excellent leaders have been obnoxious, arrogant, etc. But that his a-hole-ness had a direct impact on the quality of the decisions he made and on the implementation of US foreign and defense policy. And not in a good way.

Given that there have only been Secretaries of Defense since 1947, being the worst SecDef in US history is not as impressive as, say, worst President since 1900 or ever (hmmm).


Anonymous said...

I was under the opinion that under successive Republican administrations the Pentagon had become like the old dept of housing,education and welfare.......a place for policy enterpenuers pushing an absolutely essential new program only failed because it wasn't funded well enough lol

J Waldman said...

Who do you think was the best Secretary of Defense? Was Rumsfeld as dismal under Ford? What about Cheney? And what are the tax rates in Canada? And how about something for the layperson from time to time (some humour, a recipe or restaurant review, a link to a picture of someone attractive)? And maybe a button to make a donation via paypal. JW