Drawing upon Rumsfeld’s memoir, Bradley Graham’s Rumsfeld biography, and The Unknown Known (which director Errol Morris discusses above), Mark Danner tries to get inside the mind of the former defense secretary:
Having watched from the Oval Office in 1975 the last torturous hours of the United States extracting itself from Vietnam—the helicopters fleeing the roof of the US embassy in Saigon—Rumsfeld would be condemned to thrash about in his self-made quagmire for almost four years, sinking ever deeper in the muck as nearly five thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. He was smart, brash, ambitious, experienced, skeptical of received wisdom, jealous of civilian control, self-searching, analytical, domineering, and he aimed at nothing less than to transform the American military. The parallels with McNamara are stunning.
And month after month in his arrogance and tenacity he would deny an insurgency had taken root. Month after month, as the shortcomings of the army he had sent into Iraq—too small, too conventional, not configured or equipped or trained to fight an insurgency and thus fated in its impotent bludgeoning to make it ever worse—became impossible to deny, he would go on denying them, digging in his heels and resisting the change he had to know was necessary. And even as it became undeniable that Rumsfeld’s war, far from deterring or dissuading prospective terrorists, increasingly inspired and fostered them—that the image of strength and dominance he sought had become one of bumbling and cruelty and weakness—the power of his personality and of his influence over the president meant that for month after month, year after year, he was able to impose his will—and define the world we still see around us.
I think it’s worth comparing – even though the differences are as stark as the similarities – the response to failure in Iraq in Bush’s second term with the response to the failure of healthcare.gov in Obama’s. Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney simply refused to acknowledge any failure at all. They were incapable of it. But more important, their fellow Republicans absolutely refused to break ranks or air criticism. The neocons knew their central project had collapsed in the sands of Mesopotamia and in the tortured gulag of black sites around the world, but they sure as hell weren’t going to rock the boat before the mid-terms. Bush was famously asked to name a failure of his in his first term in the 2004 debates – and couldn’t. In his second Inaugural, instead of reflecting on the catastrophe in front of everyone’s eyes, he upped the ante to the goal of using force of arms to wipe all tyranny off the face of the earth!
Now compare Obama, who swiftly copped to a massive error, allowed himself to be knocked about like a punching bag at a press conference, squarely explained why in his mind he had not actively deceived Americans about not losing their plans, and pivoted to fixing the error.
The Democrats, far from remaining in lockstep unity, are all over the map, as they so often are. Their instant panic is almost as bad as the Republicans’ denialism. But only almost. Because of their skittishness and his own integrity, Obama is capable of acknowledging reality and adjusting to it in ways Bush never was. He has not publicly told Kathleen Sebelius that she is doing a heckuva job. He hasn’t actually joked about people losing their insurance, as Bush once did about not finding weapons of mass destruction, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Rumsfeld was both completely divorced from reality, while also constantly affirming that he, and he alone, was in close contact with it. That proved to be a particularly damaging – and arguably sociopathic – combination for this country and the world. Obama is very different. We wanted a president who could admit error, take responsibility and adjust. We got one. Even though so many have now forgotten what a rare and precious thing that is.