FP Book Club: Charles Kenny's Getting Better

An FP discussion on contributing editor Charles Kenny's new book: Are we winning the global war on human suffering?

For all of the violence, political instability, and environmental degradation in the modern world, FP Contributing Editor Charles Kenny believes that the story of human progress over the past half-century is, on balance, a happy one. In his new book Getting Better, Kenny argues that global development, the project of hauling the world's least fortunate billions out of poverty, is succeeding: Though not every country is there yet, most people are living healthier, more prosperous lives than their parents and grandparents. We gathered some of our favorite policy experts and journalists who know a thing or two about the subjects Kenny tackles in his book -- global poverty, economics, sustainability, and others -- to weigh in on his big idea: Is it true that world is becoming, bit by bit, a better place?

Jeni Klugman: People are healthier and more prosperous than they used to be. But are they freer?

Garett Jones: The success of development is transforming the world's politics, policies, and economies. Are we ready for it?

Bradford Plumer: Can things really be getting better for human beings if the planet they live on is getting worse?

Felix Salmon: Things really are getting better -- but we don't have the faintest idea why.

Charles Kenny: We may not know everything about how development works, but we know enough to get started.

Jeni Klugman: People are healthier and more prosperous than they used to be. But are they freer?

Hello everyone -- this week we'll be talking about Charles Kenny's new book, Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding -- and How We Can Improve the World Even More. It's a subject of considerable interest to me -- since 2008 I have had the honor (and daunting task) of directing the Human Development Report, an annual publication of the UNDP since 1990 -- and Getting Better makes an important point about it: That the progress we've seen in global development over the past few decades is historically unprecedented, has happened faster in developing countries than in the more privileged parts of the world, and too often goes unrecognized amid the doom and gloom of the daily news. Kenny employs a whole range of examples to illustrate these major empirical findings in ways that make the story quite enthralling.

But Kenny is also quick to recognize that the picture is not all rose-colored, even while rejecting the conventional wisdom that development has failed. He has a whole chapter documenting the growing income disparities between the global rich and the global poor, noting that "the average rural Zambian will enjoy a lifetime income of about $10,000, compared to a lifetime income of around $4.5 million for the average resident of New York City." He also reminds us of the failed search for a silver bullet for human development. In some cases the state and public provisions have played a major role; in other places, the market has been more important. Some countries have decentralized approaches, while others have relied significant upon development assistance. 

Rather than being overwhelmed by the economic malaise surrounding thinking about the state of global development, however, Kenny calls instead for recognition that people the world over have seen massive improvements in quality of life relative to their parents, and, that in short, the world is a better place today than it was 60 years ago. He wraps things up with a discussion of the innovations, ideas, and institutions that have helped drive this progress and with a resounding call to policymakers that "income growth should not come at the cost of other elements of quality of life."

For the most part I agree with Kenny's story here -- in fact, we delivered a similar message in the UNDP's 2010 Human Development Report (HDR), where we highlighted the fact that the past 20 years have seen dramatic improvements in key aspects of many people's lives. Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated, and have greater access to goods and services than previous generations. And there has been progress in expanding people's power to select leaders and to hold them accountable.

But the HDR, too, suggests that progress has been varied and diverse. It may be that Kenny pays too little attention to this variability of experience -- average country performance has been impressive indeed, but there has been enormous diversity, and people in a few countries are actually worse off than 40 years ago in terms of the human development index (HDI), a composite measure of wellbeing based on education, health, and income.

Let's compare Benin and Zimbabwe, countries that started at similar levels of HDI in 1970. But while a baby born in Cotonou, Benin today can expect to live 62 years, a baby born in Harare can expect to live only 47.  We also see striking contrasts between China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which started together, in terms of the HDI levels, in 1970.  The pay of an average worker in China grew nearly 2000 percent over the subsequent 40 years, while in DRC, the average worker in 2010 made just one quarter of his 1970 income -- a 75 percent decline! This suggests both that global forces have made progress more feasible for countries at all levels of development, but also that countries differ in whether, and how, they take advantage of the opportunities.

Even acknowledging, as Kenny points out, that some level of income growth has been reasonably widespread, it is hard to be optimistic about the reality that some poor countries have hardly grown at all, or about the fact that the fight against global income poverty has such a long way to go -- for instance, that a "poor Indian's income today is on par with English peasants' income 600 years ago."

But there are other aspects of the narrative that are much more optimistic, such as Kenny's finding that economic growth and human development do not always coincide. This means that rapid sustained economic growth (which for so many countries has continued to be elusive) is not necessarily a requirement for improvements in other areas of human wellbeing -- and that, in fact, "many of the services and treatments most necessary to increase quality of life are very cheap." One only has to compare the Top ten HDI movers in last year's HDR (see Chapter 2, which looks at changes in the composite index of education, health, and income) with the top ten in the Spence Commission's 2010 report on economic growth in the developing world to see that countries making great strides in non-income dimensions of human development are not always the same as those making the best progress in economic growth. In fact, only four of the Spence Commission's success stories make it into the HDR list. What this shows is that progress in health and education can drive success in improving people's lives even in the absence of growth.

While this overall progress in global development is worth celebrating, however, we do need to recognize that the sustainability of existing development paths is in question. The progress that has occurred in recent years has, of course, relied heavily on fossil fuels -- we now know that this is unsustainable. And although challenges remain in measuring sustainability, it's abundantly clear that as the world has become more prosperous it has also become less sustainable. How do we ensure continued and improved global progress follows a more sustainable path? That the needs of the future are not compromised by the way we are meeting our needs in the present?

Another less optimistic aspect of the picture, to which Kenny arguably pays too little attention, is that good things don't always come together -- in particular that it is possible for countries to excel in areas such as health and education, but at the same time to be unsustainable, undemocratic, and unequal. The Arab democracy paradox and the unprecedented spread of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world is a case in point. The progress of Arab countries in dimensions of human development is emphasised in the HDR. Five Middle Eastern and North African countries are among the top 10 in terms of improvements in the HDI -- including Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, with Egypt not far below -- with advances mainly due to significant improvements in health and education. Yet until very recently, at least, many governments in the region paid little more than lip service to the notions of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. This therefore raises the important question of how do we ensure global progress in terms of health, education, and living standards extend further, to encompass civil and political freedoms for all?

Jeni Klugman is the director and lead author of the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report.

Garett Jones: The success of development is transforming the world's politics, policies, and economies. Are we ready for it?

The best things in life have always been free -- and in the modern age, we have ever more of the best things. This is true for those of us in information-economy-driven rich countries, as my George Mason colleague Tyler Cowen notes in Age of the Infovore. But as Charles Kenny demonstrates in his fantastic new book Getting Better, it's also true for developing countries -- even the poorest among them. In both cases, politicians, policymakers, and economists nod, say "good point," and move on: Yes, people are living longer, healthier, safer lives even in countries with awful economies; yes, the Internet makes it easy to enjoy global culture and social interaction at minimal cost. But so what? In fact, the implications of this shift for politics, policy, and economics are enormous -- and several areas are particularly worth addressing:

Politics. The fact that a decent, civilized life can now be acquired with a small income matters for the simple reason that a small income may be all that hundreds of millions of people will ever have. Kenny himself treats the low productivity of sub-Saharan Africa -- to which he devotes much of this book -- as a nearly insoluble puzzle; and in the rich world, the combination of technology-driven inequality and voluntary Infovore-driven downshifting could mean relatively low incomes for hundreds of millions in the rich countries.

Of course, living on $2,000 per year -- Kenny's tentative estimate of the minimum needed for "many elements of the good life" -- in a poor nation is a far different, far worse thing than sharing an apartment while waiting tables in a rich country. But for the political class, the similarities are more important than the differences. In both cases, citizens are moving up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, searching for meaning and community, forcing politicians into the conflict-laden culture wars that arise when citizens are no longer overly preoccupied with more basic wants. In both cases, the political class will find it difficult to generate much revenue on such a small tax base -- after all, most countries tax "necessities" relatively lightly, and evasion is easy when making such small purchases. And in both cases, the political class is controlled by technological forces they lack the expertise to understand. Low-income, modestly satisfied voters will present new political challenges that are still poorly understood.

Technology and teams. Technology, broadly defined, also plays a big role in Kenny's story of sub-Saharan African poverty. Kenny notes that many of the world's best ideas -- peace, education for women, public health care -- are genuine technologies that have spread to many of the world's poorest countries. These are technologies that cost little and generate little revenue directly, but that produce massive gains in long-run well-being.

Other technologies, however, have had a tougher time spreading to sub-Saharan Africa, most notably technologies that rely on team production. Kenny emphasizes this: he notes that the "inventory control systems and production management techniques" which generate so much productivity in the richest countries are little seen in the world's poorest. And as ever-more cutting-edge production relies on team efforts -- R&D is a corporate enterprise, and software, movies, and high finance are all team-driven -- this failure to transfer technology holds Africa back. Kenny has drawn attention to an important, understudied fact of underdevelopment: Business management matters.

Barriers to the Good Life. It's wonderful news that $2,000 per person might be enough to yield some version of a "good life." But for hundreds of millions of Africans, $2,000 per year is $1,500 more per year than they have.  

If the rich countries are going to continue to restrict African immigration -- a policy of geographic discrimination that causes vastly more economic damage than rich-country race and gender discrimination -- and if they don't want to transfer the half-trillion or so dollars per year it would cost to create a semblance of the good life within Africa, then a path to African economic decency will require higher African productivity. But massive emigration, greater transfers, and a productivity boom are all unlikely. So Africans will probably continue to build upon the same successes they have created in recent decades in health, education, infrastructure. In our bad-news-first world, these successes have received too little attention; let's hope that Kenny's book gives the pessimists pause. 

Garett Jones is BB&T professor for the study of capitalism at the Mercatus Center and a researcher at the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University.

Bradford Plumer: Can things really be getting better for human beings if the planet they live on is getting worse?

Charles Kenny's terrific new book, Getting Better, covers a wide range of global development issues: public health, education, democracy -- it's all in there. And Kenny makes a convincing case that the quality of life in poorer countries has improved greatly over the years -- and will likely continue to improve -- even if incomes in those countries remain stubbornly difficult to lift. And yet, there's one topic that Kenny's book touches on only glancingly: the environment.

After all, ecologists have been warning us for some time now that the environmental picture is assuredly not getting better. We're consuming the Earth's natural resources at an unsustainable rate, and humanity's pushing up against some dangerous thresholds in the biosphere. We're pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the air. The planet's getting hotter. The oceans are acidifying. Forests are getting mowed down. Species are vanishing. Freshwater supplies are in peril. So, one might ask, isn't this a good indication that things are going to get worse? What happens when countries like Tuvalu are underwater or rainfall patterns in Africa are disrupted by climate change? Disaster, right?

Except it's not that simple -- and this brings us to a paradox that various ecological experts have been struggling with for some time (and a topic that dovetails nicely with Kenny's book). Last September, a team of researchers led by McGill's Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne published a paper in BioScience that took note of the "environmentalist's paradox." The paradox goes like this: By most standard measures, the planet's ecosystems have been in bad shape for awhile now -- and that's widely assumed to have unpleasant consequences for humanity, particularly for poorer nations. Yet, as Kenny notes, human well-being has never been better. Why is that?

One possible explanation, offered up by Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues, is that humanity isn't really better off. Maybe all the ongoing environmental degradation is making our lives miserable and we just haven't noticed it. For instance, natural disasters seem to be affecting more people than ever before. Yet, overall, this hypothesis is hard to take seriously -- Getting Better offers ample evidence that life is getting better.

A second potential explanation for the paradox, also noted in the BioScience paper, is that, as far as human well-being is concerned, advances in food production have greatly outweighed any of the ecological damage we've wrought. Think about the Green Revolution. Yes, modern-day farming has led to the spread of chemicals everywhere, and yes, we seem to be disrupting the planet's nitrogen cycle, and yes, humans have been depleting water tables-just read this piece on fears that a Dust Bowl may return to the southwestern United States once the Ogallala Aquifer runs dry. But the invention of artificial fertilizer and the development of high-yield crops have allowed the world to feed itself even as the global population has skyrocketed. As Kenny notes in Getting Better (and in a recent FP essay), technological innovation has so far allowed humanity to escape the dire consequences of population growth predicted by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus and his modern intellectual heirs. And that, one could argue, is what matters most.

A third explanation for the paradox? Maybe technology has simply made us less dependent on our surrounding ecosystems than most environmentalists tend to assume. Indeed, as Kenny argues in his book, there's not much evidence that a country's level of development hinges on having a favorable (or unfavorable) climate. It could just be that humans are really good at overcoming environmental disadvantages. We've learned to grow more crops on less land. We know how to desalinate water. We can shelter ourselves from heat waves. After the British chopped down all their forests, they simply developed another energy source -- coal -- without missing a beat. So it's quite possible that technology will help us survive whatever future environmental apocalypses come our way.

On the other hand, it's also possible that future environmental problems will be qualitatively different from the ones we've faced so far. Do we really have the technology to adapt to, say, massive ocean acidification -- or the collapse of the world's fishing stocks? That's hardly a given. And that's why Raudsepp-Hearne and her co-authors floated a fourth hypothesis -- namely, that the worst effects of ecosystem degradation are yet to come. We've put a lot of carbon in the air, and it's taking awhile for that to translate into a few degrees (or more) worth of temperature rise, but once that comes, things will get worse.

Then there's a fifth explanation for the environmentalist's paradox, which gets discussed in Matthew Kahn's excellent book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive In A Hotter Future. Kahn points out that climate change is going to be a big problem that will cause a lot of suffering and misery. But, in all likelihood, overall well-being will continue to improve -- in much the same way that, say, the Vietnam War caused a lot of death and destruction in Vietnam but had very little effect on the country's long-term growth rates. In other words, the observation that things are "getting better" overall can obscure a lot of nastiness at a micro level.

So that's the big question: Will global development keep improving if environmental degradation proceeds apace? What's fascinating about the BioScience paper I mentioned earlier is that there's a lot that researchers simply don't know about the relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being. For now, human existence keeps improving in real and meaningful ways. But is that always going to be the case?

Bradford Plumer is an associate editor of the New Republic.

Felix Salmon: Things really are getting better -- but we don't have the faintest idea why.

In his wonderful book Getting Better, Charles Kenny does indeed peg $2,000 a year as the amount necessary to have a relatively decent life. But it's a calculation which only works backwards: if you look at people with a relatively decent life, they tend to have at least $2,000 a year.

The same calculation doesn't, however, work forwards. If you walked around Africa with a truckload of envelopes filled with 20 $100 bills apiece and handed them out to every single person in every single country, the result would obviously be disaster: quality of life would go down, not up.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of development. When Garett Jones talks about "the half-trillion or so dollars per year it would cost to create a semblance of the good life within Africa," he makes it seem easy, as though we have the expertise and are lacking only in cash. Armed with a budget of $500 billion per year, we could turn Africa into a continent of happy, comfortable people checking off Millennium Development Goals on their way to school -- rather than, say, a vicious and bloody zone of rent-seeking politicians and warlords all trying to get their hands on as many of those billions as they could.

There's also the question of who "we" are. We're Foreign Policy readers, I guess: international policy wonks who know the difference between an MDB and an IFI. (Actually, can someone help me out on that one?) But one of the key messages of Kenny's book is that development is not well understood, even at places like his alma mater, the World Bank. It happens in places where you least expect it, and it doesn't happen -- indeed, sometimes things get worse -- in places where you put in the most effort and money.

So when Jeni Klugman ends her post by asking "the important question of how do we ensure global progress in terms of health, education, and living standards extend further, to encompass civil and political freedoms for all", she's biting off far more than anyone can chew: "We" can't "ensure" anything at all. Certain individuals and organizations can do their best in certain countries, and will mostly but not always do more good than harm -- not that it's easy or even possible to measure either with any accuracy.

As Bradford Plumer notes, the main thing we've learned in recent decades is just how much we don't know. There's an enormous amount of uncertainty involved in looking forwards, especially when it comes to the fundamental resources of food, energy, and water. As Matt Ridley writes in his book The Rational Optimist, we've generally done well to date, by dint of technological advances and by finding new energy resources to exploit. But at the same time there's no shortage of huge resource issues facing a growing world population that don't seem to have any answers at all.

Charles Kenny has as sophisticated an understanding of what causes development and what hobbles it of anybody I can think of. But one of the lessons I've taken from this book is simply that the world is getting better, that it has developed impressively, especially in recent decades, and that the reasons why are so incredibly complex that they're likely to remain largely intractable for the foreseeable future.

Planet Earth is the most complex system it is possible to imagine, with feedback loops and butterfly effects and myriad other indicia of unpredictability. We're seeing impressive improvements in the human condition in most if not all of the world, and the base case scenario is that we'll continue to see the same thing going forwards. Just don't ask me why: any answer is extremely likely to be both unhelpful and facile.

Felix Salmon is the finance blogger at Reuters.

Charles Kenny: We may not know everything about how development works, but we know enough to get started.

First off, my heartfelt thanks to the participants in this book club -- it is an honor to share this space with you and there has been an immense amount to think about in your posts. Second, apologies to all that I'll not even try to respond to everything that has been said -- there's too much to mull over. But a few thoughts and responses about the environment, the variation in global progress, and the role of money:

Jeni and Brad both argue that I don't spend enough time thinking about the global environment, and Felix raises the issue, too. That's surely true: Getting Better does suggest that neo-Malthusians might have a point -- certainly we seem to be using up fossil fuels, aquifers, metals, and even helium in a manner that we can't sustain. The book also notes that carbon dioxide output is one of the few "quality of life" indicators which really does track very closely with income growth. That, and the fact that doubling the incomes of the world's poorest 650 million would take the same amount of money as adding one percent to the incomes of the richest 650 million, suggests where the solution to our global environmental challenges rests: changing behaviors among rich people. Not least, we should be pricing carbon and water -- and helium -- to reflect their costs.

I am enough of an optimist, however, to think that even if we didn't respond to climate change, positive trends might well continue. That's based in part on the fact that even those economists like Nick Stern who are the strongest proponents of tackling green house gas emissions use models that suggest rapid income growth into the future even in the poorest countries. And in part it reflects recent studies like this May 2010 analysis in Nature which suggests the positive impact of malaria eradication efforts are considerably larger than the potential negative effects of climate change-induced malaria spread.

But that we might continue to see progress in human quality of life even the face of climate change, doesn't change the fact that we'd surely see a lot more if we tackled the greenhouse gas issue today. And we wouldn't lose so much natural beauty that we we'll never get back. I hope I'll spend chunks of my retirement in 25 years scuba diving with my daughters to see the real Nemo. Not so much if all of the coral has died off thanks to ocean acidification. So climate change and sustainability concerns more broadly are issues that I certainly didn't intend to downplay.

Brad and Jeni are also concerned that I downplay variation in outcomes -- "the observation that things are ‘getting better' overall can obscure a lot of nastiness at a micro level," as Brad writes. And Jeni adds that "good things don't always come together." There is variation in outcomes. The immense tragedy of AIDS, for example, is that it stalled (or worse) progress in health indicators for a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa for over 15 years. Nonetheless, progress has been remarkably widespread. Even the areas worst hit by the AIDS epidemic have continued to see declining infant mortality, for example. Literacy has been going up everywhere -- even progress on democratization has reached every continent. And in that regard, I'd suggest there is another lesson from the Middle East and North Africa of late. Jeni argues that the last 30 years have shown you can have immense progress in education and health without moves towards democracy. I'd agree, but add that recent events suggest the caveat "for a while …"

Jeni and Garett also suggest that I downplay continued income divergence -- and the chapter on that ("The Bad News") is indeed one of the shortest in the book. That's in part because I don't think income matters as much as it used to -- a bunch of countries have seen negative growth over the past decades and have still racked up broad-based improvements in the quality of life. Nonetheless, people living on $1.25 a day need a lot more income. The good news here is that there are only 700 million of those people today, down from 1.9 billion in 1981. And even Africa has been seeing some fairly rapid growth over the last decade.

When it comes to the challenge of income poverty, Felix worries that "if you walked around Africa with a truckload of envelopes filled with 20 $100 bills apiece and handed them out to every single person in every single country, the result would obviously be disaster." Actually, I think that would be a great thing to do! It is called the helicopter drop in development effectiveness circles. Would we be better off just giving the money to intended beneficiaries rather than trying to build schools, roads or hospitals, or fund the technical assistance to set up a new regulator? I think available evidence suggests the answer to that question is "yes, sometimes." Look at all the material in the almost perfectly titled book Just Give Money to the Poor. (Almost perfectly titled because I wish Bob Geldof had been a co-author -- the book cover would be a brilliant place for the judicious use of his favorite expletive).

Of course I have to agree with Felix's broader point -- it takes more than money for broad-based development. That is, after all, a theme of the book. And again, at least in the case of income growth -- and probably broader institutional change as well -- it is clear that it involves an immensely complex and messy process about which we understand surprisingly little.

But I'd still argue with Felix about the broader point that we don't properly understand any of the causal chains behind the world getting better. Handwashing, or breast feeding, or the idea that you ought to send your daughters to school, or that the police shouldn't beat up peaceful protestors, are not terribly complex. I think the spread of these ideas has been hugely important to improvements in the quality of life. And even with regard to income, we do actually know of a pretty foolproof way to make people from poor countries far richer. Garett points it out: let them move to rich countries.

So, revisiting Getting Better's conclusions again after this discussion, I wish I'd hounded harder on rich countries about migration and the environment, and also made the proposal that "if you are worried about income, try throwing money at the problem." But of course I'd still want you to start by throwing money at my book. Thanks again to Felix, Jeni, Garett, and Brad.

Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. "The Optimist," his column for, runs weekly.



FP Book Club: Donald Rumsfeld's 'Known and Unknown'

An FP discussion on the controversial former defense secretary's long-awaited memoirs.

Not only is Donald Rumsfeld one of the most reviled -- and most intensely defended -- defense secretaries of all time, but he has also become a stand-in for some of the signature security debacles of the Bush era. Guantánamo. Abu Ghraib. The Iraq invasion. So it's no surprise people would have a lot to say about his new and surprisingly intimate memoirs, Known and Unknown -- to date the only insider account of Bush's foreign policy written by someone at such a high level. We went to a bevy of experts and writers to get the full scoop on what Rumsfeld means now -- and what the new book doesn't say.

Bradley Graham: Does Rumsfeld's Book Come Years Too Late?

Peter Baker: Rumsfeld's Secret Tensions With Bush

Thomas E. Ricks: The Two Things Rumsfeld and I Agree On

Kori Schake: Rumsfeld Was the Iago to Bush's Othello

Peter Feaver: Can Rumsfeld Explain His Delay on Katrina?

William Inboden: Should He Have Quit While He Was Ahead ... In 1974?

Bradley Graham: Does Rumsfeld's Book Come Years Too Late?

Neither Donald Rumsfeld nor I seem capable of writing about his life in fewer than 800 pages. That said, we do have rather different perspectives on how much responsibility he should bear for all that went wrong on his watch at the Pentagon.

He does deserve credit at least for doing a lot of homework for this book and, with a team of half-a-dozen assistants, writing a serious autobiography. Although containing no bombshell disclosures about the Bush administration's internal deliberations, the memoir does constitute a substantive critique and adds fresh details, particularly about what Rumsfeld was thinking, saying, and doing, and why. Further, the trove of previously classified documents and private memos that he has promised to release on his website should be helpful to historians, not to mention the just-curious.

No doubt Rumsfeld loyalists will applaud his book for its forceful defense of the Iraq war and its critical portrayals of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and L. Paul Bremer III. But Rumsfeld's legion of detractors will again be frustrated and angered by the former defense secretary's continued refusal to acknowledge more personal responsibility for the war's mismanagement, the mistreatment of detainees in U.S. custody, and the infighting that plagued the Bush administration.

Rumsfeld is not the first to contend that the Iraq conflict would have ended much sooner had power been passed quickly to an interim Iraqi authority, as Pentagon officials had proposed. This thesis is popular among those who pushed for a rapid transfer and for Iraqi exiles to take some governing positions early. But there's little way of knowing whether an interim authority would have been more successful at forestalling or squashing the insurgency, or conversely would have led to problems even worse than those that plagued Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority.

Rumsfeld also complains about going to war with bad information. He chides the CIA for being overconfident about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and for failing to assess the ability of the Fedayeen and foreign jihadists to combat U.S. forces. But particularly given his own frequent warnings over the years about overlooking improbable scenarios, he doesn't take much responsibility for having dismissed the notion before the invasion that Saddam Hussein wasn't lying and didn't actually have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles.

Rumsfeld also contends that the accounts of him as being intolerant and insensitive are overblown. He insists that he welcomed dissent and routinely deferred to those on the battlefield on decisions ranging from troop levels to how to pursue insurgents. "Indeed, I thought that a more accurate criticism would have been that I too often deferred to the views, opinions, and decisions of the generals who were in charge," he writes.

I actually agree that at times he was too willing to accept what his commanders were telling him. But to some extent, they simply got tired of arguing with him -- or were cowed.

Among the other things I wish he had explained was how a non-ideologue like him ended up surrounded in office with neoconservatives. There is no discussion in the book of the role that neoconservatives played on his staff.

The hardest part of the memoir for Rumsfeld to write, I'm told, was the long section on detainees. He remains quite emotional on the subject of Abu Ghraib, though I was surprised he does not go beyond the prison scandal to discuss the large number of other detainee mistreatment cases that emerged. Nor does he address the judgments of James Schlesinger and others that he failed to articulate a clear policy on the handling of detainees, once the old absolute about adhering to the Geneva Conventions was blurred.

Rumsfeld deals at some length in the book with process. He has a low opinion of the way Rice managed the National Security Council, and he thinks Bush should have exerted a stronger hand in resolving differences among the principals. Curiously, though, he doesn't have much to say about Dick Cheney's role in the process or about his frequent contacts with the former vice president.

Rumsfeld also has several complaints about message. He contends it was a mistake for the administration, after finding no WMDs in Iraq, to shift to speaking more about implanting democracy as a rationale for the war. "Rice seemed to be the one top advisor who spoke that way," he writes, "but it was not clear to me whether she was encouraging the President to use rhetoric about democracy or whether it was originating with the President."

And he takes issue with how the administration framed the nature of the global war it was fighting. Instead of calling it a "war on terror," with the enemy being some vague sort of evildoers, he argues that the focus should have been placed on the ideological nature of Islamist extremists. "We ought to have more precisely labeled our enemies as violent Islamists," he writes in the final chapter.

The son of a schoolteacher, Rumsfeld has long been a stickler for precise language. And while in office, he did press Bush to drop the "war on terror" slogan -- but lost. One of the paradoxes about Rumsfeld's troubled time as defense secretary is how someone so attuned to message, with such practiced communication skills and a reputation for deft bureaucratic maneuvering, could have ended up with so polarizing and disparaged an image.

He clearly feels that Powell's State Department group, through background conversations with journalists and authors, did better at shaping the what-went-wrong narrative -- and did so at Rumsfeld's expense. Here's a question then just to get our book club discussion going: If Rumsfeld had tried harder while in office to tell his side of the story, as it now appears in his book, would it have made much of a difference?

Bradley Graham is a former Pentagon reporter at the Washington Post and author of By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld.

Next: Peter Baker's take on Known and Unknown. Click here for the main discussion page.

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.

Next: Thomas E. Ricks's take on Known and Unknown. Click here for the main discussion page.

Thomas E. Ricks: The Two Things Rumsfeld and I Agree On

I think Donald Rumsfeld was the worst defense secretary ever, and that I've written a whole book about the American military fiasco in Iraq 2003-06 in which he played a major role. So rather than review the arguments against him, I thought it might be more interesting to write about a couple of places in his book where I actually agree with him.

Most notably, I think that the former defense secretary is correct to say that it wasn't just the Bush administration that screwed up in Iraq, and that the U.S. military also must be assigned a big share of the blame. He is particularly interesting on the decision during the summer of 2003 to put Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in charge of the U.S. military in Iraq, a move he now calls "inexplicable." He continues:

Whatever the rationale behind the decision, it later became clear that Sanchez had been put in a terrible position. The [assignment] ... called for a senior military official with far more experience. That the Army leadership, with the agreement or acquiescence of CENTCOM and the Joint Staff, slotted him for the top command post was a serious misassessment....

I do not recall being made aware of the Army's decision to move General Sanchez into the top position.... To my recollection, the chief of staff of the Army and CENTCOM leadership did not bring the relevant plans to my attention.

I am not one who thinks that if only the Army had been given more troops in Iraq, everything would have worked out more or less OK. Given the lousy planning and poor leadership displayed, I think that if you had another 100,000 U.S. soldiers, you would have had more problems of the sort we saw, with the Army flailing around conducting huge, unproductive, disruptive "sweeps" and the subsequent widespread abuse of detainees. That didn't happen because of lack of troops, but because commanders did not know what to do with the troops they had, especially when it came to interacting with Iraqis.

Another point Rumsfeld is right about is that that he should have stepped down after the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged in 2004. "More than anything else I have failed to do, and even amid my pride in the many important things we did accomplish, I regret that I did not leave at that point." After that point, he was indeed damaged goods.

Both his correct observations point to a larger flaw in the man, one that generally is not understood by people who only saw him on television. That is, as defense secretary, he was extraordinarily passive. He blustered a lot, but in actually making decisions, especially about personnel picks, he was slow to a fault. Just look at those paragraphs above about finding out that Gen. Sanchez was being put in charge in Iraq. Kind of makes you wonder just who was holding the top job at the Pentagon, and why he wasn't more proactively curious about major decisions being made about Iraq.

Likewise, throughout 2006, as central Iraq was engaged in a bloody civil war and most of Baghdad was ethnically cleansed, Rumsfeld dithered. He tells us now that he was worried about Generals John Abizaid and George Casey, the two top commanders in the war, but did he do anything about them? Nope. (He argues in the book that things were improving in Iraq because the Anbar Awakening got underway late that year, but that was no thanks to him, nor anyone else above the rank of brigadier general at the time, and there is no evidence that the province's awakening would have been sustained without the major policy changes -- most notably General Petraeus's decision to put the Sunni insurgency on the American payroll -- that followed after Rumsfeld, Abizaid, and Casey were booted.)

Rumsfeld, in retrospect, embodied the opposite of the old Teddy Roosevelt maxim: He spoke loudly and carried a small stick. He continues to do that in this strikingly dull book, which might better be called Not My Fault. Here's my scorecard of events and who he blames:

Event                                                                         Blame

Tora Bora and bin Laden's escape                Gen. Tommy Franks, maybe CIA

No WMD in Iraq?                                                Well, Colin Powell gave the U.N. speech

Lousy postwar planning for Iraq                   Structure of U.S. government

Iraq problems, mid-2003                                Gen. David McKiernan

Iraq problems, 2003-04                                  L. Paul Bremer

Iraq problems, 2004-05                                  Condi Rice

Iraq problems, 2006                                          Rice, Gen. John Abizaid, Gen. George Casey

Critical media coverage throughout            Richard Armitage

To me, one proof of Rumsfeld's flaws is that not long after he left, the situation in Iraq turned around and Afghanistan was no longer neglected. Robert Gates arguably has been tougher on the military than was Rumsfeld, and certainly has fired more people. More importantly, he asks better questions. But he speaks softly and acts quickly, and that has given a relieved military the sense that it is being led by an adult.


Next: Kori Schake's take on Known and Unknown. Click here for the main discussion page.

Kori Schake: Rumsfeld Was the Iago to Bush's Othello

Cross-posted at Shadow Government

I had been hoping Donald Rumsfeld's memoir would fall like the proverbial tree in the forest, allowing conservatives to focus on the problems of today. But supportive coverage in the Wall Street Journal suggests the former defense secretary's revisionist "slice of history" is gaining credence and needs to be rebutted. Reading the Rumsfeld memoir was like watching the 2003 documentary about Robert McNamara: Both men are still so convinced they were superior that they are incapable of understanding just how damaging they were. But there should be no doubt that Donald Rumsfeld was the self-aggrandizing Iago to the president's Othello in the Bush administration.

Rumsfeld criticizes the consensus-building approach of Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor, and he's right that the administration attempted to operate collegially long after it was apparent that wasn't working. Yet it never occurs to him this could be one of his "unknown unknowns" and that the national security advisor was carrying out the president's instructions. And he neglects to acknowledge that approach was unsuccessful because he himself would repudiate agreements reached, even after meetings at which the president presided. No decision was ever final unless it was the position taken by Rumsfeld. The Executive Steering Group on Iraq he maligns was established to supervise DOD implementation of agreed policies because the White House lost confidence Secretary Rumsfeld would carry them out. Even in the ESG, DOD was routinely represented by people who claimed no knowledge of agreed policy or professed themselves powerless to implement it because Rumsfeld disagreed.

Beyond throwing sand in the gears of interagency cooperation, Rumsfeld just wasn't a very good secretary of defense. The secretary's paramount responsibility in wartime is to translate the president's political objectives into military plans. Bush's objectives for Iraq were clear: regime change, control of nuclear weapons. A military plan that bypasses Iraq's cities and has no dedicated plans or forces for WMD control is poorly aligned with those goals, and that was nobody's job but Donald Rumsfeld's. Rumsfeld spent his time challenging individual units assigned in the force flow -- work that majors should be doing -- instead of concentrating on the work that only the secretary can do.

By treating the military leadership as an impediment rather than the chieftains of a very successful organization, he unnecessarily alienated an important constituency for any president, especially in wartime. Moreover, he incurred an enormous amount of risk with the "rolling start" plan he spurred CENTCOM into adopting, without giving the president a full appreciation for the costs and benefits of that or other approaches. Military leaders typically want a wide margin of error in campaign plans, because they have a rich appreciation for how much can go wrong, how many elements come into play in unexpected ways. In his determination to show that agility had overcome quantity, Rumsfeld accepted an enormous amount of risk to achieve the president's goals. When military leaders tried to draw attention to the masked risk or increase force levels to reduce it, they were excoriated. This does not just apply to the Iraq war, either: Chief of Staff of the Army Eric Shinseki was vilified by Rumsfeld as early as August of 2001 for questioning the intellectual honestly of the QDR that would have cut two divisions from the Army.

And let us speak of command climate. Rumsfeld defends his constraints on the size of the force in Iraq by claiming the military didn't ask for more. That may well be true, but this was more than two years into Rumsfeld's tenure, in which he had promoted officers to top positions because they shared his vision of a transformation of warfare in which the judgment of ground combat officers was considered "industrial age thinking." After the punitive treatment of Shinseki, and promotion to top positions of "pliant" (James Kitfield's term) generals, the military might be forgiven thinking the civilian leadership didn't want to hear it. It is the civilians' prerogative to determine what resources to commit to wars, and the military believed they were operating within established constraints. That doesn't excuse military leaders not asking for what they needed to win the war, but it also doesn't exonerate Rumsfeld from creating an environment hostile to any disagreement with his well-known views.

His "snowflakes" -- the personal queries from the secretary that came in abundant blizzards -- were a terrible way to manage a large organization. They give staff the impression that the issue at hand is of paramount importance to the secretary, causing major diversions of resources. For example, in the month before the start of the Iraq war, Rumsfeld sent a snowflake to the director of warplans in the Joint Staff asking why we needed a Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan -- a link in flow of plans that addresses apportionment of forces among competing demands. What the secretary was likely demanding, in his abrasive way, was an explanation of the function of the document. No one in either the civilian or military chain leading to Rumsfeld could give the J-7 any idea what the secretary actually wanted, so the staff had to divert attention from refining the Iraq war plans to build a 60-slide briefing justifying continued existence of the JSCP. Rumsfeld threw them out of his office when they came to deliver it, claiming to have no idea why they were wasting his time with the issue. Good executives establish clear priorities for an organization; Rumsfeld ran DOD with scattershot directives that kept everyone off balance.

His ability to cleverly redirect attention to the failures of others does not get Donald Rumsfeld off the hook for having served the president and the country poorly. Conservatives need to repudiate the profligacy of aspects of the Bush administration if we are to regain the public trust, and that is as true for the political and military capital Donald Rumsfeld squandered as it is of the deficit spending conservatives are already at work repairing.

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and holds the Distinguished Chair in International Security Studies at the United States Military Academy.

Next: Peter Feaver's take on Known and Unknown. Click here for the main discussion page.

Peter Feaver: Can Rumsfeld Explain His Delay On Katrina?

I won't pretend to have digested Rumsfeld's entire book, including the hundreds of footnotes and documents available on his website. Using techniques pioneered by one of his deputies in an earlier book, Rumsfeld's memoir is a serious attempt to engage his critics in an argument that has up till now been rather one-sided. Rumsfeld's contribution might itself also be a bit one-sided, but it is a side that has not hitherto enjoyed the column-inches and cable-hours granted to his critics.  

So the book contributes to an overall balanced assessment even if it is not by itself evenhanded. (After all, what memoir is?) For Rumsfeld haters wedded to an unbalanced scorched-earth critique of the administration, the memoir is likely to enrage as much as engage. For ardent Rumsfeld defenders, this book is a lifeline.

What about for the rest of us, including those of us who have an insider's view of the strengths and weaknesses of the administration and in particular of Rumsfeld? For my part, the memoir produces mixed feelings. The sections I read most closely left me not-yet-persuaded on the key points I was hoping to see resolved.

Consider just two examples taken from the period I know best:

Katrina: Many criticisms of the administration's handling of the Katrina disaster were unfair exaggerations, but some were warranted. One that I thought had some merit concerned the Department of Defense's relative reluctance to step into the breach left by the inability of local authorities in Louisiana to work with FEMA. Rumsfeld is sensitive to the criticism. He documents how much the DoD did and how quickly it was done compared with the response to Hurricane Andrew a decade earlier. His facts and figures neatly rebut charges that the DoD did nothing or adopted a response that was, by the end of the first week, incommensurate with the challenge. He also rightly points to deficiencies elsewhere in the system that contributed to the difficulties: an under-resourced and unwieldy Department of Homeland Security and a dithering Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco.

But he does not resolve to my satisfaction the essential critique about delay, which, according to some insiders, was partly due to Rumsfeld's desire to avoid saddling his department with another vast unfunded mandate far removed from its core mission of fighting wars. A close reader can discern Rumsfeld's position in the oblique way he describes the internal deliberations, but the reader perhaps will miss the intensity of the debate inside the White House during those critical hours. In particular, the reader will not pick up how exasperated some White House staffers were with Rumsfeld's position, which, they believed, helped feed a public narrative of an administration out of touch and insensitive to the scale of human suffering. Rumsfeld concludes (a) that Bush ultimately made the right calls on Katrina and (b) that the Department of Defense stepped up in a large way. He may be right about that. But Rumsfeld probably has not mollified those who believe that the administration should have done everything it did 24-48 hours sooner and that Rumsfeld's opposition contributed to the delay.

Iraq Surge: Rumsfeld's discussion of the surge decision is curious. There is an odd error of commission: He has the State department presenting at a June 2006 Camp David meeting a view that was not developed until four or five months later. And a significant omission: He touts at some length (4 paragraphs) one anti-surge perspective that was aired at the Camp David meeting but fails to mention the opposite, pro-surge perspective aired at the same meeting. This omission allows him to avoid addressing whether his own anti-surge position -- at the time, he favored continuing to hand over the fight to the Iraqis despite the deteriorating security situation -- was the correct one.

But he is emphatic on one point: It was the senior military commanders in the field, Generals Abizaid and Casey, who most stoutly resisted additional forces. Left implied: ... and not Rumsfeld. He is factually correct about the views of the field commanders. Let us stipulate for the sake of argument that his implication is also correct: They were more adamant than he was. What I find curious is that this episode is coming nearly 700 pages into a memoir dotted with scores of examples of Rumsfeld pressing subordinates, peers, and even superiors to second-guess their assumptions, revisit their conclusions, and break out of their analytical straitjackets. Why wasn't the Rumsfeld of the previous 700 pages leading the effort to do just that now at the moment of greatest peril in the war effort? Perhaps one answer is that he agreed with his generals and saw no reason to change.

Perhaps another answer is this: A careful reader will note that throughout 2006, when many inside were pushing for a top-to-bottom review of the war strategy in Iraq, Rumsfeld was pushing for a top-to-bottom review of, well, the entire global bureaucracy beginning with the U.S. federal government. In that push, Rumsfeld rightly pointed out that global and U.S. federal institutions were designed in a different era to meet a different array of challenges and opportunities; collectively, they made an unwieldy match to the post-9/11 constellation of threats. He rightly argued that we would always be adjusting on the fly if we did not undertake a massive reorganization, something that would consume an enormous amount of political capital -- which he also (rightly) noted was by this time "in short supply," with the administration under siege and fighting two wars.

The question left unprobed is whether these calls for a massive reorganization may have felt like a distraction from the urgent need to review our strategy in those very wars. Rumsfeld's account leaves open the charge that he showed greater zeal in reviewing the shortcomings of others (especially in matters far from Defense's home turf) than possible shortcomings in his own bailiwick, at least when it came to Iraq.

My reaction to both of these issues may be ironic, since I get the impression that Rumsfeld focused the memoir more as an engagement with his internal critics than with his external critics. Insiders will have a sense of déjà entendu in reading the memoir. They will recognize Rumsfeld's line of reasoning and have the same "yes, but" reaction they had when the argument first was joined. And they will wish that that there was one more round of debate in which Rumsfeld engaged more of those "yes, but what about this..." queries.

If there were such a round, I am confident that Rumsfeld would have important things to say that just might require a tweak or two to my own view. The memoirs document to my satisfaction that Rumsfeld was right about a lot more things than the conventional media account of his tenure would lead you to believe. But he wasn't always right. And I am not persuaded that the champion wrestler has fully grappled with all that needs to be wrestled to the ground.

Peter Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University and coeditor of Shadow Government.


Next: Will Inboden's take on Known and Unknown. Click here for the main discussion page.

William Inboden: Should He Have Quit While He Was Ahead ... In 1974?

One of the paradoxes of history is that while perspective requires time, a person's most recent public role is often the one that remains permanently lodged in the public memory. This is not good news for Brett Favre, and it may not be good news for Donald Rumsfeld, either.

In his memoirs, Rumsfeld seems mindful that our exit from public life determines much of how we are remembered, as he spends 60 percent of the book on just the last six years of his over four decades of public life. Yet what a four decades those were, and they too bear remembering. Consider, that if Rumsfeld had retired from public life in:

- 1974, he would be remembered as an accomplished senior member of the Nixon administration in both economic and foreign policy, after stints as director of the Economic Stabilization Program and U.S. ambassador to NATO;

- 1977, he would be remembered as President Gerald Ford's capable chief of staff and the youngest secretary of defense in American history;

- 1985, he would be remembered as the successful CEO of GD Searle and trusted Middle East envoy for President Ronald Reagan;

- 2000, he would be remembered as an accomplished corporate leader across multiple sectors, a Republican elder statesman, and an expert on numerous national security issues;

- 2002, he would be remembered as the innovative secretary of defense and media darling who insisted on needed reforms at the Pentagon and presided over the stunningly successful defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

But Rumsfeld did not retire from public life until 2006, and even then -- depending on whose account one believes -- his retirement was not entirely on his terms.

His concern in this book, judging by his comparatively brief attention to the earlier decades and the considerable material devoted to his last few years as secretary of defense, is to reshape his legacy based on those final years. For it was in those four years of his public life -- marked by controversies and failures so well known that each needs only a word or two: Iraq WMD, Phase IV, Abu Ghraib, Guantanámo, Shinseki, "Old Europe," "stuff happens," "dead-enders" -- that Rumsfeld's previous accomplishments faded and his current reputation emerged.

Curiously, the beginning of Rumsfeld's memoir hints at his attempt to learn from his own history. The book's first three chapters share vignettes from the Middle East in the early 1980s: Rumsfeld's missions to Baghdad, Lebanon, and other trouble spots as Reagan's special envoy for the region. From these experiences, he drew his own "lessons of history" that shaped his approach to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq two decades later: the need for strength and ruthlessness, the pathologies of the region that make it inhospitable to democracy, the risks of extended troop deployments that make forces vulnerable and create dependencies among the locals, the need for tight coordination between diplomacy and defense policy, and the need to take the offensive against terrorist threats before they materialize.

And some -- perhaps many -- of the lessons that he draws from the Middle East in the 1980s are true, at least to an extent. But history's "lessons" from one context can be precarious to apply in another, just as a person's strengths in one context can be weaknesses in another. For example, Rumsfeld's worry that the fragile government of Lebanon had become dependent on U.S. forces in the 1980s shaped his insistence in 2003 on a light footprint invasion for Iraq and a comparatively rapid troop drawdown and transfer to Iraqi control. But in the Iraq context, as is now well known, the lack of troops led to a death spiral of disorder and violence that was not arrested until the "surge" in 2007.  

Nor does Rumsfeld appear to always follow his own advice and historical lessons. His multiple criticisms of the National Security Council and State Department include the NSC's alleged inability to issue clear presidential directives and the State Department's unwillingness to implement clear presidential directives. Yet when describing Bush's very clear orders to support democratic institutions and human rights in Iraq and elsewhere, Rumsfeld voices his own emphatic disagreement with this agenda, criticizes the State Department for attempting to implement it, and hints at his own refusal to support it.  

How Rumsfeld will be remembered by history remains to be seen. Ongoing events in the Middle East -- demands for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, the fragile yet expanding democracy in Iraq -- are potential cavils against Rumsfeld's skepticism about Bush's freedom agenda. Yet with this memoir he at least provides the valuable service of giving scholars much more material to weigh, as they attempt to turn the unknowns of Rumsfeld's history into the knowns of public memory.

Will Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin, and a coeditor of Shadow Government.

Click here for the main discussion page.