The title of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s new memoir, “Known and Unknown,” comes from a remark he made about whether Iraq had supplied or was willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me,” he quipped in 2002, “because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Rumsfeld’s memoir plays a fast and loose game of dodge ball with what are now “known knowns” and “known unknowns” about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tedious, self-serving volume is filled with efforts to blame others — most notably the C.I.A., the State Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority (in particular George Tenet, Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and L. Paul Bremer III) — for misjudgments made in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the failure to contain an insurgency there that metastasized for years. It is a book that suffers from many of the same flaws that led the administration into what George Packer of The New Yorker has called “a needlessly deadly” undertaking — that is, cherry-picked data, unexamined assumptions and an unwillingness to re-examine past decisions.
Not only does Rumsfeld frequently assume a smug, know-it-all tone — he says he warned President George W. Bush to “tone down any triumphalist rhetoric” in his end-of-major combat-operations speech, made on May 1, 2003, in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner — but he also displays a tendency, familiar to viewers of his news conferences, to make bold assertions with no pretence of substantiation.
Of a war that has already cost the United States more than $700 billion and claimed more than 4,400 American lives, Rumsfeld writes: “Knowing what we later learned and recognizing the costs, there is not a persuasive argument to be made that the United States would be in a stronger strategic position or that Iraq and the Middle East would be better off if Saddam were still in power. In short, ridding the region of Saddam’s brutal regime has created a more stable and secure world.”
And of the argument that the war in Iraq diverted troops and resources from Afghanistan, leading to the resurgence there of the Taliban, Rumsfeld simply declares, “It was precisely during the toughest period in the Iraq war that Afghanistan, with coalition help, took some of its most promising steps toward a free and better future.”
Although most of this book is written in flat-footed prose (largely devoid of colourful Rummyisms), this former Secretary of Defense tends to be tart — even snide — in his depictions of colleagues, with the notable exception of his old friend, Dick Cheney, whom he worked with back in the Ford administration and whom he says he thought could serve George W. Bush as both vice president and defence secretary.
In the course of “Known and Unknown” Rumsfeld tells the reader he regrets not resigning in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal (which he blames on “a small group of prison guards who ran amok in the absence of adequate supervision”). He says that he offered to resign twice but that President Bush pressed him to stay on. He also acknowledges that some of his more cavalier remarks — “stuff happens,” he said of the looting and lack of law and order in post-invasion Baghdad — were “a mistake.” For the most part, however, he sidesteps or stonewalls allegations, in the words of his biographer, the Washington Post reporter Bradley Graham, that he became the very “personification of the arrogance and misjudgments of the Bush administration,” from its embrace of idées fixes and impatience with dissenting viewpoints to its inability to correct course.
Rumsfeld contests the observation (widely made by military officers, journalists, other administration insiders and members of the Coalition Provisional Authority) that his preoccupation with executing the Iraq war with a light, fast force had crippling consequences for the military’s ability to secure Iraq — to establish law and order, seal the country’s borders and guard armament caches. “Too many troops could hurt our ability to win Iraqi confidence,” he writes, “and it could translate into more casualties, because more troops would mean more targets for our enemies.” In addition he repeatedly disputes some of his colleagues’ neo-con ideas of exporting democracy and nation building, contending that “American sacrifice” has given Afghans and Iraqis the “opportunity to build better” societies, but that these “are not our broken societies to fix.”