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Foreign Policy: Rumsfeld's Book Is Years Too Late

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talks with the news media after a meeting at the Pentagon in 2006. Rumsfeld released a memoir this week titled Known and Unknown, an autobiography offering, among other things, his account of U.S. foreign policy under Bush. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talks with the news media after a meeting at the Pentagon in 2006. Rumsfeld released a memoir this week titled Known and Unknown, an autobiography offering, among other things, his account of U.S. foreign policy under Bush.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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.

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.

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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?

Read Peter Baker's opinion of Donald Rumsfield's new memoir at Foreign Policy.