Peter Baker: Rumsfeld's Secret Tensions With Bush
It must be daunting enough to write an 800-page memoir, but to do so after your life has already been chronicled by someone of Brad Graham's caliber must be doubly so. The only thing I can imagine being more daunting is to follow Brad Graham in a discussion of the subject he knows so well.
But here goes. The early reviews of Donald Rumsfeld's new book have focused on the score-settling elements, no surprise in Washington where that is a time-honored ritual of autobiographies. The former defense secretary details the issues he had with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, and most especially L. Paul Bremer III, elaborating on stress points that have been known for years.
More interesting, though, was Rumsfeld's complicated relationship with President George W. Bush, the man who recruited the nation's youngest defense secretary to become its oldest as well, only to push him out six years later amid a pair of overseas wars. Where Rumsfeld's clashes with other players on the Bush national security team were more or less common knowledge, less evident until now were the tensions with his commander in chief.
Rumsfeld is careful to write about Bush with respect and, at times, admiration -- and he expresses absolutely no resentment about being forced out by the president after the 2006 midterm elections that handed Congress over to Democrats. He credits Bush with protecting the country after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and recounts choking up in the Oval Office when Bush expressed concern over Rumsfeld's son, Nick, who was battling drug addiction at the time.
More broadly, Rumsfeld defends the president against the public caricature. "I found him to be unlike the picture the press was drawing of him as uncurious and something of a slacker," he writes of his first substantive meeting with Bush in 1999 before he was elected president. "He asked serious questions, was self-confident, and had a command of the important issues."
But Rumsfeld also makes clear that he differed with Bush on some pretty critical issues. He had little interest in the "freedom agenda" espoused by Bush. He writes that Bush should have found ways of asking Americans to share in the burdens of the war on terror by weaning off foreign oil or volunteering for military or civilian duty. And for that matter, he does not like the term "war on terror," arguing that Bush should have framed it more forthrightly as a struggle against Islamist extremists.
Perhaps most importantly, he faults Bush, at least implicitly, for a dysfunctional National Security Council policymaking process that pitted departments and major figures against each other and created a confusing chain of command for Iraq under Bremer. "NSC meetings with the president," he writes, "did not always end with clear conclusions and instructions."
The roots of all this make it more interesting. Rumsfeld is open about his fractious relationship with Bush's father, going back to their days in the Ford administration. As defense secretary the first time, Rumsfeld was blamed for pushing George H.W. Bush into a job, CIA director, that would remove him as a possible rival for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1976.
Rumsfeld recounts the episode in the book and all but accuses the elder President Bush of lying about what happened. As a condition of confirmation to the CIA job, Senate Democrats insisted that Bush forswear joining the ticket in 1976. Rumsfeld quotes Bush saying he resisted only to have President Gerald R. Ford accept the demand. But Rumsfeld cites Ford's own autobiography as well as a letter he solicited from the former president in 1989 stating otherwise. "It was George Bush's decision to agree not to accept any Vice Presidential nomination," Ford wrote.
Ancient history, of course, but for the fact that the son of Rumsfeld's rival would later recruit him back to the cabinet. "It was no secret to Governor Bush that his father's relationship with me lacked warmth," Rumsfeld writes, with understatement. He adds, "I thought it spoke well of him that he was interested in meeting me himself to draw his own conclusions."
Rumsfeld's gentle treatment of his disagreements with Bush mirrors the former president's approach in his own recent memoir, Decision Points. In that book, Bush offered a couple criticisms of his defense secretary. He wrote that "Don frustrated me with his abruptness toward military leaders and members of my staff" and that Rumsfeld mishandled the retirement of General Eric Shinseki, who had warned of the need for more troops in Iraq. Bush "felt blindsided" that he had not been shown pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib before the day they were aired on television.
But Bush rejected Rumsfeld's resignation after Abu Ghraib not once but twice, saying that "I didn't blame him" for the abuse and "didn't want to turn him into a scapegoat." He depicted Rumsfeld as "a decent and caring man" who "had valuable experience and shared my view of the war on terror as a long-term ideological struggle." He too told the story of the emotional Oval Office moment over Rumsfeld's son, though in his recollection he did not specifically ask about Nick and the emotions burst out after a casual how's-the-family question.
Either way, Bush and Rumsfeld both skated gingerly around the decision to replace the Pentagon chief in 2006, perhaps unwilling to pick at the scab. Bush wrote simply that "change was needed" without saying what he thought Rumsfeld had done wrong, if anything. Rumsfeld cites "declining public support for the Iraq war and for the administration" and the worry that a Democratic Congress would summon him for politically motivated testimony, causing distractions for the president.
Those looking for mea culpas in Known and Unknown over the handling of Iraq or Afghanistan or Abu Ghraib will no doubt be disappointed. But the book places the reader in Rumsfeld's chair and is a serious stab at telling the history of a consequential period in America through the eyes of one of its most consequential players. It will be an important addition to the history of our time.
All of which brings us around to Brad's incisive question -- would it have made a difference if Rumsfeld had done more to tell his side of the story much earlier? Yes, on some level. For all his media savvy, Rumsfeld lost control of his own image as the war went south. At the same time, Peter Wehner, a former Bush White House aide, liked to say that when it came to Iraq what they had was not a communications problem but a facts-on-the-ground problem.
Four years later, the facts on the ground have improved, after enormous cost to all involved. That was a price Don Rumsfeld says he was prepared to pay.
Peter Baker is a White House correspondent for the New York Times and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, where he is working on a book about the Bush presidency.