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Rumsfeld Was the Iago to Bush's Othello

Cross-posted at FP Book Club: Rumsfeld's Known and Unknown.

I had been hoping Donald Rumsfeld's memoir would fall like the proverbial tree in the forest, allowing conservatives to focus on the problems of today. But supportive coverage in the Wall Street Journal suggests the former defense secretary's revisionist "slice of history" is gaining credence and needs to be rebutted. Reading the Rumsfeld memoir was like watching the 2003 documentary about Robert McNamara: Both men are still so convinced they were superior that they are incapable of understanding just how damaging they were. But there should be no doubt that Donald Rumsfeld was the self-aggrandizing Iago to the president's Othello in the Bush administration.

Rumsfeld criticizes the consensus-building approach of Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor, and he's right that the administration attempted to operate collegially long after it was apparent that wasn't working. Yet it never occurs to him that this could be one of his "unknown unknowns" and that the national security advisor was carrying out the president's instructions. And he neglects to acknowledge that approach was unsuccessful because he himself would repudiate agreements reached, even after meetings at which the president presided. No decision was ever final unless it was the position taken by Rumsfeld. The Executive Steering Group (ESG) on Iraq he maligns was established to supervise DOD implementation of agreed policies because the White House lost confidence that Rumsfeld would carry them out. Even in the ESG, DOD was routinely represented by people who claimed no knowledge of agreed policy or professed themselves powerless to implement it because Rumsfeld disagreed.

Beyond throwing sand in the gears of interagency cooperation, Rumsfeld just wasn't a very good secretary of defense. The secretary's paramount responsibility in wartime is to translate the president's political objectives into military plans. Bush's objectives for Iraq were clear: regime change, control of nuclear weapons. A military plan that bypasses Iraq's cities and has no dedicated plans or forces for WMD control is poorly aligned with those goals, and that was nobody's job but Donald Rumsfeld's. Rumsfeld spent his time challenging individual units assigned in the force flow -- work that majors should be doing -- instead of concentrating on the work that only the secretary can do.

By treating the military leadership as an impediment rather than the chieftains of a very successful organization, he unnecessarily alienated an important constituency for any president, especially in wartime. Moreover, he incurred an enormous amount of risk with the "rolling start" plan he spurred Centcom into adopting, without giving the president a full appreciation for the costs and benefits of that or other approaches. Military leaders typically want a wide margin of error in campaign plans because they have a rich appreciation for how much can go wrong, how many elements come into play in unexpected ways. In his determination to show that agility had overcome quantity, Rumsfeld accepted an enormous amount of risk to achieve the president's goals. When military leaders tried to draw attention to the masked risk or increase force levels to reduce it, they were excoriated. This does not just apply to the Iraq war, either: Chief of staff of the Army, Eric Shinseki, was vilified by Rumsfeld as early as August 2001 for questioning the intellectual honestly of the QDR that would have cut two divisions from the Army.

And let us speak of command climate. Rumsfeld defends his constraints on the size of the force in Iraq by claiming the military didn't ask for more. That may well be true, but this was more than two years into Rumsfeld's tenure, in which he had promoted officers to top positions because they shared his vision of a transformation of warfare in which the judgment of ground combat officers was considered "industrial age thinking." After the punitive treatment of Shinseki and promotion to top positions of "pliant" (James Kitfield's term) generals, the military might be forgiven for thinking the civilian leadership didn't want to hear it. It is the civilians' prerogative to determine what resources to commit to wars, and the military believed they were operating within established constraints. That doesn't excuse military leaders not asking for what they needed to win the war, but it also doesn't exonerate Rumsfeld from creating an environment hostile to any disagreement with his well-known views.

His "snowflakes" -- the personal queries from the secretary that came in abundant blizzards -- were a terrible way to manage a large organization. They give staff the impression that the issue at hand is of paramount importance to the secretary, causing major diversions of resources. For example, in the month before the start of the Iraq war, Rumsfeld sent a snowflake to the director of war plans in the Joint Staff asking why we needed a Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP) -- a link in flow of plans that addresses apportionment of forces among competing demands. What the secretary was likely demanding, in his abrasive way, was an explanation of the function of the document. No one in either the civilian or military chain leading to Rumsfeld could give the J-7 any idea what the secretary actually wanted, so the staff had to divert attention from refining the Iraq war plans to build a 60-slide briefing justifying continued existence of the JSCP. Rumsfeld threw them out of his office when they came to deliver it, claiming to have no idea why they were wasting his time with the issue. Good executives establish clear priorities for an organization; Rumsfeld ran DOD with scattershot directives that kept everyone off balance.

His ability to cleverly redirect attention to the failures of others does not get Donald Rumsfeld off the hook for having served the president and the country poorly. Conservatives need to repudiate the profligacy of aspects of the Bush administration if we are to regain the public trust, and that is as true for the political and military capital Donald Rumsfeld squandered as it is of the deficit spending conservatives are already at work repairing.

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and holds the distinguished chair in international security studies at the United States Military Academy.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images.

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