Thursday July 01, 2021
Donald Rumsfeld (1932-2021)
Deflecting the truth with aren't-I-clever grins.
The most recent wave of horrific Republicans has made me all-but-forget just how awful the previous generation of horrific Republicans were, but the death of Donald Rumsfeld yesterday, at age 88, reopened some of those wounds. I don't know if Rumsfeld was the worst of the bunch, but his CV is pretty good: secretary of defense under George W. Bush, who, within hours of the 9/11 attack, was turning his eye not toward the attackers but toward his own foreign policy to-do list, which began with Saddam Hussein and Iraq. You might have heard how that one ended.
George Packer has a good obit on the man on the Atlantic site. He's less kind than me. Excerpt:
Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history. Being newly dead shouldn't spare him this distinction. He was worse than the closest contender, Robert McNamara ... Rumsfeld was the chief advocate of every disaster in the years after September 11. Wherever the United States government contemplated a wrong turn, Rumsfeld was there first with his hard smile—squinting, mocking the cautious, shoving his country deeper into a hole. His fatal judgment was equaled only by his absolute self-assurance. He lacked the courage to doubt himself. He lacked the wisdom to change his mind. ...
Rumsfeld started being wrong within hours of the attacks and never stopped. He argued that the attacks proved the need for the missile-defense shield that he'd long advocated. He thought that the American war in Afghanistan meant the end of the Taliban. He thought that the new Afghan government didn't need the U.S. to stick around for security and support. He thought that the United States should stiff the United Nations, brush off allies, and go it alone. He insisted that al-Qaeda couldn't operate without a strongman like Saddam. He thought that all the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was wrong, except the dire reports that he'd ordered up himself. He reserved his greatest confidence for intelligence obtained through torture. He thought that the State Department and the CIA were full of timorous, ignorant bureaucrats. He thought that America could win wars with computerized weaponry and awesome displays of force.
I had my own Rumsfeld-McNamara comparison after viewing Errol Morris' underappreciated doc, “The Unknown Known,” which was a kind of national follow-up to his Acadamy Award-winning doc on McNamara, “The Fog of War.” Two defense secretaries, two disastrous American wars, but at least McNamara was willing to glimpse himself in the mirror and see the horror. If Rumsfeld glimpsed himself, he was too enamored with what he saw. “Indeed,” I wrote back in 2014, “Rumsfeld, with his nitpicky, overly semantic arguments and pleased-with-himself 'aren't I clever?' grins, makes McNamara, the numbers cruncher and company man, seem like the most soulful person who ever lived.”
Morris' title, of course, comes from Rumsfeld's famous quote about what we know/don't know:
- known knowns: things we know we know
- known unknowns: things we know we don't know
- unknown unknowns: things we don't know that we don't know
- unknown knowns: things we think we know but don't
Rumsfeld was a master of unknown knowns to the end. And now he's left us for the great known unknown. If there's anything to know there, now he knows.