Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘Known and Unknown’

Known and Unknown: A Memoir, by Donald Rumsfeld, Penguin Press, RRP£25, 832 pages

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Adorning the dust jacket of Known and Unknown is a carefully staged photograph of its author, decked out in jeans, work shirt and sleeveless fleece jacket. He leans against a gate, mountains in the background. The image is quintessentially American.

Well into his seventies, the only man to serve two terms as US secretary of defence exudes vigour. Donald Rumsfeld’s smile, familiar from his days of jousting with reporters covering the Pentagon, still conveys combativeness rather than warmth. The cover photo captures the essence of the man and of the memoir he has composed: assured, confident, not given to second thoughts or apologies.

The book’s title refers to one especially memorable encounter with the press, in which Rumsfeld seized on a reporter’s question to riff on the distinctions between known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. According to Rumsfeld, insufficient attention to this last category – the things “we don’t know we don’t know” – gets people in trouble.

In fact, this very thick account of his public life points to an altogether different conclusion. The known knowns turn out to be the real problem. When the “things we know we know” prove to be false or misleading, statesmen drive their country off a cliff. Yet being alert to truths that are not true requires a capacity for introspection, a quality manifestly absent from Rumsfeld’s make-up. He remains stubbornly, even defiantly, someone who knows what he knows.

What he knows above all else is this: “Weakness is provocative.” Here is the essence of Rumsfeld’s world view and the leitmotif that runs through his book. To be safe, the US must be strong, with strength measured by readily available military might. Yet merely possessing military power does not suffice. Since perceptions shape reality, the US must leave others in no doubt as to its willingness to use power. Passivity invites aggression. Activism, if successful, enhances credibility. Rather than the negation of peace, war becomes its essential antecedent.

Rumsfeld takes pains to portray himself as a regular guy: the son of a second world war vet who made his living selling real estate near Chicago; an Eagle Scout and high-school wrestler who went east for college, where he joined the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps to pay the bills. After graduation, Rumsfeld married his high school sweetheart Joyce and served a tour as a naval aviator. He then headed home to Chicago and went into politics, joining Congress in 1962 as a 29-year-old novice.

A Republican, he supported limited government, low taxes and strong defence but also racial equality. In 1964, as Rumsfeld notes proudly, he voted for the Civil Rights Act. That same year, he also voted in favour of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which paved the way for full-scale military intervention in south-east Asia without any further action by Congress.

If Rumsfeld had a problem with Vietnam, it was with the way Lyndon Johnson conducted the war. “We were fighting dedicated ideological revolutionaries,” he writes, but fighting with US troops had proven a mistake. By sending ever more Americans to the war zone, “we were increasing the number of targets” and “creating a dependency on the part of the South Vietnamese”. The draft also imposed constraints. Had the country relied on volunteers rather than conscripts, “the level of violence and protest” on the home front “would have been considerably less”, allowing policymakers a freer hand.

But the biggest problem was that the US wasn’t winning. As the war dragged on, Rumsfeld’s talents attracted the attention of Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon. This “thoughtful, brilliant man” employed Rumsfeld in several capacities, culminating in his appointment as US ambassador to Nato. As an insider, Rumsfeld was still a regular guy who took his kids to Redskins games, befriended Sammy Davis Jr and was a fan of Elvis Presley. (Backstage in Las Vegas late one night, Presley pulled Rumsfeld aside. “He wanted to share his thoughts about the armed forces,” an encounter serving as “a welcome reminder that patriots can be found anywhere”.)

Steadfast in his commitment to Vietnam, Rumsfeld supported Nixon’s policy of drawing down the US troop presence there while returning responsibility for the war back to the South Vietnamese. The implosion of Nixon’s presidency, culminating in his resignation, robbed this “Vietnamisation” policy of whatever slight congressional support it had enjoyed.

Nixon’s resignation brought a job change for Rumsfeld, who was recruited to become Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff in 1974. In this post, he witnessed the Saigon regime’s final collapse, which he blames on a spineless Congress. Even now, Rumsfeld does not question Vietnam’s necessity, referring to the war not as a mistake or a failure but, instead, describing the outcome as a “withdrawal” and “retreat”.

With the passing of time, Vietnam looks more and more like an inexplicable march to folly or at best a vast, sorrowful tragedy. To Rumsfeld, it became “a symbol of American weakness” and “an invitation to further aggression”. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, the Soviet Union wasted no time in exploiting that weakness, with academic and opinion leaders turning a blind eye. Rumsfeld was not surprised. “Sympathy for the Soviets,” he writes, had been “a longstanding sentiment among the American elite.”

In late 1975, Rumsfeld moved again, this time to the Pentagon as defence secretary. His aim was to slow the Soviet onslaught and to restore US military credibility, an effort that found him at cross purposes with just about everyone: hidebound generals, congressmen in hock to defence contractors and devotees of détente such as secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

Ford’s defeat by Jimmy Carter sent Rumsfeld back to Chicago and private life. For the next two decades, he made money as a successful chief executive of Searle pharmaceuticals, served as an occasional envoy (including a notorious mission in 1983 “to cultivate warmer relations with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq”) and agitated from the sidelines against any hint of pusillanimity. Rumsfeld’s brisk account of his years out of power form an awkwardly inserted parenthesis. His eagerness to get back in the game is palpable, as suggested by his own abortive bid for the presidency in 1988.

In 2001, that chance finally came when George W Bush returned him to the Pentagon as defence secretary. All the old problems remained: the previous administration had gutted defence, responded ineffectually to provocations and allowed itself to be cowed by generals who remained stuck in the past. Rumsfeld’s initial charge was to fix all that, investing US forces with greater “agility, speed, deployability, precision, and lethality”. Preoccupied with this task – the enemy he worried about most was a change-averse bureaucracy – Rumsfeld failed to anticipate and did nothing to thwart the events of September 11 2001.

Still, the 9/11 attacks reaffirmed his thesis: once again, weakness had proven provocative. The overarching purpose of “the war on terror” – Rumsfeld now regrets the name, preferring war against “violent Islamists” – was to demolish once and for all the perception that the US was some sort of patsy. Projecting toughness, rather than promoting democracy, defined the object of the exercise. Rumsfeld simply wanted to show the locals who was boss – the Bush Doctrine of “anticipatory self-defence” conferring the necessary grant of authority – and then move on. Transforming the US military to assert unquestioned global supremacy ranked well ahead of transforming the Muslim world by exporting liberal values.

Although Rumsfeld is fond of using the term strategy, what becomes apparent is that the Bush administration never developed anything resembling an actual strategy after 9/11. To get its message across, Rumsfeld simply wanted the US to crack heads whenever and wherever the need arose. If that implied a military effort lasting decades, that was all right with him.

The initial success achieved by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan seemingly demonstrated the feasibility of this approach. Even so, Rumsfeld struggles to explain the haste with which Bush shifted his attention to Iraq. Two weeks after 9/11, he reports, the president was privately urging his Pentagon chief to put Saddam at the top of the list of those needing to have their heads cracked. That Saddam was actively stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fell into the category of “known knowns”, with the question of when to pass a nuclear device to terrorists his to decide. In the event, no such weapons existed. Rejecting charges that the administration lied about the Iraqi WMD programme, Rumsfeld writes: “The far less dramatic truth is that we were wrong.” Acquitting the administration of dishonesty, he enters a plea of incompetence. The emphasis on WMD turned out to be a “public relations error”.

Much the same applies to his cursory treatment of matters such as torture and detention. He says critics misunderstood or wilfully distorted the truth, or misleadingly implied that unfortunate incidents such as Abu Ghraib were more than mere aberrations. Again, if there was fault to be found, it lay in the realm of PR: “Half-truths, distortions and outright lies were too often met with little or no rebuttal.” Rumsfeld’s conscience remains clear.

To disguise its failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the administration “changed the subject to democracy promotion” – a position Rumsfeld thought wrong-headed. In his own estimation, his views didn’t carry that much weight. Although offering nothing but praise for Bush (and describing Dick Cheney as “uniquely influential” without ever explaining what the vice-president contributed), Rumsfeld describes the national security team on which he served as deeply dysfunctional. He is unsparing in his criticism of Colin Powell, portraying him as personally weak and captive to a cowardly, if not traitorous State Department. “Powell tended not to speak out” at National Security Council meetings and seemed reluctant to express any disagreement with Bush.

Yet Rumsfeld reserves his most scathing attacks for Condoleezza Rice, depicted as out of her depth and given to twaddle. At one NSC meeting, in the presence of a cringing Rumsfeld, Rice announced that “human rights trump security”. In interagency disputes, the national security adviser “studiously avoided forcing clear-cut decisions”, preferring a “bridging approach” that maintained superficial harmony while papering over differences. Her shop became a black hole in which little if anything got done. Here lay the real explanation for why Iraq became something akin to a replay of Vietnam. In short, don’t blame Rumsfeld: nobody was paying him any attention.

Above all, after Saddam’s fall, Rumsfeld argued in vain for a prompt exit. He rejected comparisons of Iraq to Germany or Japan in 1945 – midwifing Arab democracy was never going to be easy. His own preferred model was France in 1944: liberate and quickly transfer sovereignty to someone qualified to exercise it. Although never venturing who he had in mind for the role of Charles de Gaulle, Rumsfeld wants it known that Ahmed Chalabi, the shifty Iraqi exile leader, was never his candidate.

Absolving himself of responsibility for the ensuing debacle finds Rumsfeld disowning the very people he chose to implement US policy in occupied Iraq. He describes as “inexplicable” the appointment of Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, an officer of indifferent ability, to command all US forces in theatre. (In his own memoir, Sanchez writes that Rumsfeld personally interviewed him for the post.) LPaul Bremer, Rumsfeld’s choice for the position of US pro-consul in Baghdad, turned out to be arrogant, insubordinate and dishonest. In perhaps the book’s most audacious passage, Rumsfeld summarises his complaint with Bremer while simultaneously placing himself on the side of the angels: he found it difficult, he writes, to get Bremer to “accept the idea that Iraq belonged to Iraqis, and that Iraqis were entitled to their own culture and institutions”.

Rumsfeld also had problems with pundits and retired generals who charged him with refusing to provide the numbers of troops needed for the mission. The charge was false; Rumsfeld insists that he was open to sending reinforcements if they were needed. Again and again he asked commanders in the field if they had any unfilled needs but never received “any responses that they wanted more forces or that they disagreed with the strategy”. Granted, there was the odd slip of the tongue – it turns out that his “stuff happens” reaction to anarchy in Baghdad, interpreted as flippant, was his way of paying tribute to the transition “between the old order and the new”. Yet, on balance, Rumsfeld judges his performance as largely without fault.

Anyway, in the end, it was all worth it. Venturing into the realm of unknown unknowns, Rumsfeld conjures lurid images of all that might have happened had the US not invaded Iraq, offering a veritable litany of apocalyptic possibilities. Above all, by conveying weakness, inaction would have paved the way for Islamists to erect a “single theocratic empire that imposes and enforces sharia”. Instead, by toppling Saddam, Rumsfeld writes with characteristic certainty, the US “has created a more stable and secure world” – a judgment not sustained by recent and ongoing developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“I don’t spend a lot of time in recriminations, looking back or second-guessing decisions,” Rumsfeld writes. Neither does he evidently devote much time to serious reflection. Known and Unknown is tendentious rather than instructive. The reader who wades in should expect a long, hard slog, with little likelihood of emerging on the far side appreciably enlightened. Rather than seriously contemplating the implications of the events in which he participated, Rumsfeld spends more than 800 pages dodging them.

That ham-handed and ill-advised US policies rather than perceived weakness might endanger American security; that weakness itself might be a self-inflicted wound, incurred as a result of embarking upon reckless or unnecessary wars; that self-restraint might preserve or even enhance genuine strength: even to suggest these possibilities is to call into question the pernicious “known knowns” to which Rumsfeld so desperately clings, even if doing so causes incalculable damage to the country he professes to love.

Andrew J Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is ‘Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War’ (Metropolitan)

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