column of October 28, 2003, concerning Donald Rumseld's performance as Secretary of Defense as the Iraq insurgency worsened. In particular, his habit of writing self-exculpatory memos. Before, of course, he turned to writing self-exculpatory books.
So what’s up with Don Rumsfeld? Was the Secretary of Defense being truthful, or just wacky, when he wrote the now-famous memo of October 16, in which he declared that the war on terror would be “a long, hard slog”? Or was he being cynically shrewd? Was it part of a plan to secure a better place in history for himself than for the war he helped start?
Right now, speculation about Rumsfeld is all over the place. The headline in Newsweek.com lauded him for showing “rare candor.” But Time’s Joe Klein diagnosed him as suffering a “slow motion public nervous breakdown.” For his part, the defense chief said that he was just trying to inject “a new sense or urgency” into America’s war on terror.
Rumsfeld is famous for peppering subordinates with “Rummygrams,” also called “snowflakes,” because they fly so freely around the Pentagon. As a man who knows his way around Washington--he was elected to Congress in 1962--he must have known that his “slog” memo would be leaked. The document was not classified, and he subsequently told reporters that he has no plans to investigate the leaking. Indeed, he joked on October 23, “I re-read the memo in the paper and thought, not bad.”
So when he wrote, “Is our current situation such that ‘the harder we work, the behinder we get?’” he must have known he would be shaking up the happy-talking Pentagon bureaucracy--and also quaking the even happier-talking folks at the White House.
Some of Rumsfeld’s boat-rocking might stem from his experience in the business world; he ran two Fortune 500 companies in the 80s and 90s. Indeed, there’s no more radical, rapidly-mutating environment these days than corporate America; the ex-CEO would have been familiar with the work, for example, of business guru Tom Peters, author of books with such provocative titles as Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution.
But there’s another possible explanation for this most notorious Rummygram: the author is establishing some CYA for himself. CYA? In a family newspaper, let’s say it stands for “Cover Your Anatomy.” At a time when the Bush administration’s spin on Iraq is coming unspun, it can’t hurt for Rumsfeld to have his doubts and reservations loudly on record.
Moreover, the nation’s 21st secretary of defense might wish to avoid repeating the bitter experience of his Pentagon predecessor, the 8th secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, who oversaw the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1968. In fact, Rumsfeld resembles McNamara--same glasses, same hair, same business-oriented, no-nonsense manner. Yet for his brilliance, McNamara was one of the greatest failures in the history of DOD.
Through his time in office, McNamara was a loyal supporter of the war. And for a quarter-century thereafter, as articles and books and documentaries about Vietnam, most of them critical, cascaded forth, he kept his silence.
Finally, in 1995, after his reputation was mostly mud, McNamara threw some mud of his own--on himself. He published a book entitled In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in which he wrote of himself and his war-leading colleagues, “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” Part of the problem, he said, was inadequate discussion--“groupthink”--among top officials.
McNamara might have felt better for finally unburdening himself, but the critics were savage in their response. Why, they wanted to know, had he kept quiet for all those years when he was in office and could have made a difference?--and while tens of thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, died?
But now, this Sec Def has solved that problem, at least for himself. If the situation in Iraq gets better, fine; nobody will remember that Rumsfeld wrote a memo in which raised concerns about “mixed results” as of late 2003. Indeed, Rumsfeld might even be able to claim that his “snowflake” helped turn Iraq around.
But if Iraq goes badly, well then, nobody will be able to say that he hadn’t issued a prescient warning. In a few years, everyone involved in the Iraq war will be writing a memoir, seeking to tell his or her side of the story. But now, they’ll all be reacting to Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense who always understood the importance of being on the offense.