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By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld

In the spring and summer of 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld busied himself putting together a detailed briefing for Congressional leaders and national security officials that would outline where he saw threats in the post Cold War world. In many respects, he was on the money, focusing his presentation on terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyberwarfare, and rogue nations. The plan was to alarm Congress enough to give Rumsfeld the political backing he needed to undertake a massive overhaul of how the Pentagon did business, and to drag the American military out of its Cold War mindset and into the realm of complex 21st century threats.  

It was to be Rumsfeld’s blueprint for his tenure as Secretary of Defense, the “next Mr. X article” as one of his aides said, comparing it to the famous 1947 Foreign Affairs article by George F. Keenan that laid out the policy of containment that the United States would largely follow until the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

But the briefings were never presented as Rumsfeld had planned. The first one was scheduled for September 17, 2001, but by that point the case that Rumsfeld wanted to present had already been made in the form of jetliners used as missiles aimed at American civilian and military targets. While the 9/11 attacks in one sense interrupted Rumsfeld’s plans for the transformation of the American military from a heavy force structured to fight two near peer competitors simultaneously into a lighter, networked force that uses the latest technologies to move quickly across several theaters; in another sense the technological revolution spurred by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan helped to bring the Rumsfeld dream into reality—though he never seemed able to fully grasp how to manage this change.  

Rumsfeld is a study in infuriating contradictions. An intelligent, driven, energetic man who was successful both in a previous stint in government—he was a Congressman, then Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense in the Ford administration—as well as in the private sector, he seemed to fall apart as Bush’s SecDef. During the critical years from 2001-2006, Rumsfeld is revealed in Bradley Graham’s book to be a bullying micromanager who complains about the number of water glasses on the table for Pentagon lunch meetings and sends so many needling memos—some of them about how to write memos—that underlings in the Pentagon referred to them as “snowflakes.” He becomes involved in so many of the mundane staffing decisions at the Pentagon, and forces his way into so many beuracratic turf battles with other members of the Bush administration and Congress, that you wonder where he found the time to plan two wars. To take on all these tasks while continuing to push for transformation of the Pentagon’s culture, hardware, strategic concepts and daily operations is a nearly impossible task, and Rumsfeld’s ultimate failure is that while pushing in so many directions, he rarely seemed interested in answers, instead confining himself to keep pushing for more ideas, and asking more questions. He was a micromanager who also was fond of asking the big questions, but never actually got around to doing the heavy lifting of answering them. Robert Soule, the Pentagon’s chief program analyst at the time, told Graham that “Rumsfeld had the reputation coming in as a really decisive guy, but he wasn’t at all.”  

He also undermined his own plans by insisting on insulting the Joint Chiefs of Staff in surprisingly large and pathetically small ways. He refused to meet with them in “the Tank,” the meeting room where the Chiefs hold their meetings; would call the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Richard Myers, away during his own meetings with the Chiefs; cut them out of the loop in his dealings with the Pentagon’s regional commanders; shut them out of the planning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and continually inserted himself in decisions over which officers to promote, which has traditionally been the responsibility of the service chiefs. If all that sounds like a lot of energy to expend on proving a point, he also would also do small things like seat the Chiefs in the back row at some meetings, just to prove a point. 

The tragedy of all of this is that Rumsfeld’s head was in the right place when he took the helm in 2001. The Pentagon was mired in its own groupthink, with expensive and obsolete weapons systems designed to defeat a Soviet enemy that no longer existed being pushed by a system that didn’t know any other way. His forward-looking reform agenda actually resembles, in some respects, the one current Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is successfully pushing through Congress and the Pentagon. But Rumsfeld’s problem was that he never tired of asking questions, always putting off answers until he had more information—and when more information was provided, finding more questions to ask. Overall, Graham paints a picture of a Pentagon staff that was forced into constant battle against a bullying and obtuse boss who spent more energy on issuing blunt dismissals of their briefings and producing a constant hail of snowflakes, than actually doing the work of leading.