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Known and Unknown: a Memoir

Donald Rumsfeld’s dangerous desire to be right.

Donald Rumsfeld was arguably the most pol­arising figure in the Bush administration. Although he was a regular participant in Tony Blair's fortnightly videoconferences with the president, I met him only once and was in no position to decide whether he was indeed the ogre his enemies suggested. Intelligence, determination and clear thinking are vital skills in politics, and too few leading politicians possess them. Yet, without judgement, these all too easily become intellectual arrogance, obstinacy and bullying. Judging by this book, Rumsfeld was on the wrong side of that dividing line.

Rumsfeld held a remarkable succession of senior jobs in Washington: youthful Republican congressman in the Johnson era, a series of White House jobs under Richard Nixon, followed by ambassador to Nato, chief of staff to Gerald R Ford, the youngest ever secretary of defence, Middle East envoy for Ronald Reagan and, finally, the oldest defence secretary, under George W Bush. He possesses a huge depth of first-hand historical experience and a good memory for detail (he is able to recount a very unfunny joke he told Deng Xiaoping in 1974).

It would have been good to hear rather more about those years and about the lessons he learned, but Rumsfeld is anxious to mount a defence of his record on Iraq and devotes most of the book to it.

He recruited the young Dick Cheney to work for him, first in Nixon's Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969 and then again, in 1974, as his own sidekick when he worked for Ford. The relationship endured, and Cheney helped secure the defence job for Rumsfeld in 2001. The caricature has it that the pair worked together to impose a neocon agenda on Bush, pulling the strings behind the scenes to con­trol the president. Rumsfeld denies that this was the case. He says that Cheney was "uniquely influential as vice-president" but claims he had very little to do with Cheney in government and that it was Bush who took the decisions. The denial is not wholly convincing, however, though the caricature is certainly overstated, too.

This is a mean-spirited book. Rumsfeld is particularly tough on Colin Powell. He blames him for the decision not to remove Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war in 1991 and accuses him of becoming the representative of the US state department to Bush, rather than the president's representative to the state department. Rumsfeld asserts that Powell allowed the media to be briefed that he was standing up to Bush on Iraq, but was too cowardly to raise any objections himself in meetings of the National Security Council (NSC).

Yet Powell is not his only target. Condoleezza Rice is criticised as too academic and too inexperienced, and more committed to reaching compromises in the NSC than to making hard decisions. Rumsfeld describes sending a series of memos to her and Andy Card, Bush's chief
of staff, telling them how the NSC should be run, and being surprised when they didn't implement the changes he proposed. His modus operandi in government appears to have been to tell everyone else how to do their job and to ask what the former US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer described as "infuriating questions" in a series of "snowflakes" - memos barked into a Dictaphone and typed up by his secretaries. Rumsfeld expresses surprise that he was accused of a series of power-grabs by the CIA, the state department and the military, yet by his own account that seems to have been exactly what he was up to.

He is fascinated by secret intelligence. He turned down the opportunity to be head of the CIA and chose instead to return to the Pentagon, where he began a war with the agency.

In 2004, he stopped accepting its briefings because he felt he had been accused of "politicising intelligence" by asking difficult questions. Rumsfeld suggests that the problem in Iraq was a failure of intelligence, because the CIA had failed to predict what would happen after the invasion when al-Qaeda and Iran intervened. He set up his own parallel intelligence effort, attaching particular importance to one Iraqi
exile, Ahmad Chalabi, now largely discredited, but whom he continues to defend.

My perception, from the vantage point of Downing Street, was that Rumsfeld grabbed control of postwar Iraq from the state department. It then became very difficult for us to exert any influence over what was happening on the ground as things went increasingly wrong. The president would agree to Blair's suggestions about what needed to be done during our videoconferences, but nothing would happen. We then included Bremer and the generals in Iraq in these discussions, as well as Cheney and Rumsfeld, but still nothing would happen. It seemed to me that Rumsfeld kept the controls in a black box and followed his own counsel.

He presents the situation quite differently. He says here that, far from his being in charge, there were too many hands on the steering wheel in Iraq. He wanted the state department to take control of civilian matters there, but Powell was reluctant to do so. And Bremer, far from following his instructions, constantly went straight to Rice and Bush.

According to Rumsfeld, everyone else was to blame for what went wrong. Generals Richard Myers and Tommy Franks were responsible
for there being insufficient troops in Iraq at the beginning. George Tenet, the CIA director, was to blame for not asking for more troops to attack Tora Bora as Osama Bin Laden fled Afghan­istan. And Rumsfeld was always the one person to propose good ideas, such as the "surge" in Iraq, even though it happened after he had left the Pentagon. Those who opposed him, such as Generals Eric Shinseki, the army chief of staff, and Jim Jones of the marine corps, were guilty of insubordination.

In all this, Rumsfeld is guilty of the sin of retrospection. He is trying to justify his positions after the event rather than describe how he tackled problems at the time. Most politicians writing their memoirs can't resist doing this, but here the relentless self-justification is distinctly wearing.
Rumsfeld has always had a colourful turn of phrase and is proud of being a plain-speaking son of Illinois. I never understood the ridicule heaped on him for his rambling thoughts about "knowns", "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns". It seemed to me that he had correctly summed up the central problem facing governments, particularly when taking military action - the "unknown unknowns", or the law of unintended consequences.

In fact, he is less a plain speaker than a foot-in-mouth merchant, witness his "Stuff happens" remark about the outbreak of looting in Baghdad in April 2003, or the internal memo on interrogation techniques in which he said he didn't understand why there was so much fuss about requiring Guantanamo detainees to stand for four hours, because he stood for eight to ten hours a day (he used an upright desk in his office at the Pentagon). He doesn't mention another instance, from March 2003, when he blurted out that Britain might not participate in the invasion of Iraq after all because of Tony Blair's political difficulties - just as Tony was facing a tense vote in the House of Commons and still desperately trying to round up the votes at the UN for a second resolution.

Indeed, Rumsfeld makes it clear he was not a big fan of a second resolution and thought that it was pursued solely for the prime min­ister's benefit. And evidently he is not at all keen on coalitions; as he argues: "The mission should determine the coalition, not the coalition the mission."
He takes great relish in having been the first person to make a distinction between the "old" and the "new" Europe just before the invasion of Iraq, even though he admits that he meant to say old and new Nato. Describing the incident, he makes a revealing slip, writing that he was pleased at upsetting the "elites in Paris and Bonn". It appears to have escaped his notice that Germany had moved its capital to Berlin more than a decade earlier. And this is the problem. The fact is that "Rummy" was past his sell-by date. He was stuck in the 1970s and a kind of Republican politics that didn't work in a new millennium. It would have been far better if the president had sacked him in the summer of 2001, as he considered doing when the defence secretary became unpopular with Congress.

Rumsfeld and Cheney were what we in Brit­ain would call "Whitehall warriors": they had learned how to drive the inter-agency process in Washington and could run rings round everyone else in doing so. Yet, to what end? They were far better at process than they were at substance. Rumsfeld likes to suggest he is a strategist, but he is not. His main idea is that American weakness, or the perception of it, is provocative. He says he learned this as Reagan's Middle East envoy when the US pulled out of Lebanon. It led him to conclude that America should be "forward-leaning". But his idea of being forward-leaning is limited to taking pre-emptive military action when US interests are threatened; there is no sense of a wider mission to support human rights or democracy.

There are no revelations of importance here, and the relentless desire always to be right is deeply off-putting. Even now, Rumsfeld insists that there were links between Saddam and al-Qaeda, that there was an active WMD factory near Khurmal in northern Iraq, and that it was a mistake to have stopped the first assault on Fallujah. He reminds me of none so much as the Bourbon monarchs after the restoration in France: in Talleyrand's description, "they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing". Let me leave the last word to him, however. Describing Nixon's notorious Watergate aide John Ehrlichman, with whom he worked, he writes: "Certainty without power can be in­teresting, and even amusing; certainty with power can be dangerous." The same could be said of Donald Rumsfeld. l

Known and Unknown: a Memoir
Donald Rumsfeld
Penguin, 704pp, £25

Jonathan Powell was chief of staff to Tony Blair between 1995 and 2007. His book “The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World" is published by the Bodley Head (£20)

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle