Donald Rumsfeld, the ultimate known unknown of American politics

Out of America: A documentary just out in the US shows the hard-nosed former defence secretary unapologetic over the Iraq debacle

Share

One way and another, I've been writing about American politics and government for more than 20 years, and of the most inscrutable, most disconcerting and ruthless operator over those years, I've no doubt. Bill Clinton, George W Bush, even Dick Cheney? No, there's only one answer: Donald Rumsfeld. If you doubt me, then go and see the new documentary The Unknown Known, by the film-maker Errol Morris, about one of the two most controversial defence secretaries in modern US history.

The title stems from one of those whimsical nuggets for which Rumsfeld was famous, indeed for which he was once almost loved. Before we get into the bad Rummy – the bureaucratic thug who bested even such masters of the art as Henry Kissinger, the man seemingly without soul or core beliefs, adept at shuffling blame on to anyone but himself – let us remember he was briefly a national hero. In those traumatic weeks and months after 9/11, his truculent Pentagon press conferences, oozing authority and swagger, were the best free show in town.

Asked one day about evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld delivered his celebrated epistemological riff about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. And, of course, unknown knowns, "the things we think we know that it turns out we did not know". Or was it the other way round? Who cares? It made a splendid soundbite.

In the meantime, in cahoots with his old friend Cheney, Rumsfeld was running rings around Secretary of State Colin Powell (and, many would say, President Bush). Geoff Hoon, Rumsfeld's British opposite number, was by all accounts scared stiff of him. He wasn't a neocon, rather a hard-nosed pragmatist who believed that US military power was there to be used.

The other candidate for most divisive defence secretary is Robert McNamara, who ran the Pentagon during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was a leading architect of the Vietnam disaster. In his heyday, McNamara was regarded much as Rumsfeld is now, as arrogant and never admitting to error. But, in his case, that changed.

First, in a 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, and then in Morris's 2004 documentary The Fog of War, McNamara acknowledged that "we were wrong, terribly wrong" over Vietnam, as Washington failed to understand that the conflict was not part of a communist push for global domination, but a post-colonial civil war in which the US had no part. Talking to Morris, an anguished McNamara confronts the basic moral dilemma of war: "The human race must think more about killing … How much evil must we do in order to do good?"

Better late than never, those who can never forgive the US for what it did in Vietnam will dryly respond. But critics of the Iraq war should not look for any similar mea culpa from Rumsfeld. The only lesson of Vietnam, he declares, is that "some things work out, others don't". As for Iraq, whose post-invasion agonies he famously dismissed with the observations that "freedom is messy" and "stuff happens", his verdict is merely "time will tell".

Of remorse, there is none. Yet the Iraq invasion, of which Rumsfeld was a prime mover, was if anything a less forgivable war even than Vietnam – indeed, it was perhaps the greatest foreign policy blunder of modern US history. Vietnam was incremental, starting from modest beginnings and spurred by the understandable, albeit mistaken, belief that one more US push could settle things.

The invasion of Iraq, by contrast, was a hubristic war of choice. In terms of blood, if not treasure, it may have been less costly than Vietnam. But the consequences have been disastrous. Directly and indirectly, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives, while Saddam's overthrow served only to advance the interests of America's real adversary in the region, Iran. Add to that the damage inflicted on America's reputation by Abu Ghraib and the like.

To be fair, Rumsfeld offered his resignation when those horrific images of the abuse of Iraqi detainees at the prison run by the US military became public. (Inexplicably, Bush refused to accept it.) But for the rest – torture, the inexcusable lack of post-invasion planning, the colossal intelligence failure over Saddam's alleged WMD – Rumsfeld either obfuscates or pins the blame elsewhere.

Yet the foreign policy consequences of Iraq are huge. If the earlier misguided war produced a "Vietnam syndrome" expunged only by the successful 1991 Gulf war, the post-invasion scars are at least as deep. In general, the US is less assertive on the foreign stage; in particular, fear of involvement in another land war in the Middle East has kept President Obama out of the Syrian conflict, when US intervention at an earlier stage might have limited the slaughter.

But Rumsfeld is not one for soul-searching. The only moment in the documentary when he shows real emotion is when he talks about the miraculous recovery of a wounded US soldier. For the rest, it is that smirk, the cocky sophistry of a man certain he's the smartest guy in the room, who will never be pinned down.

For that reason, The Unknown Known is fascinating stuff, but also unsatisfying and ultimately disappointing. Morris himself concedes as much. "I'm not interested in cracking the nut," he told Slate magazine earlier this month. "I'm interested in exploring the nut, if that makes sense." The end product is an old emptiness.

Watching the film, I was reminded of a day at school, when my classics master made a joke about the great political scandal of the moment. What, he asked us, was the Latin for "I throw up a smokescreen in front of"? The answer was "Profumo". "Rumsfeld" may lend itself to German jokes, not Latin ones. But the parallels are indisputable. Only this time the fog, the smokescreen, is unlikely ever to clear.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Canteen Assistants Required

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's Frozen...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities & Operational Administrator

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen ...

Ashdown Group: Sales Support - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Internal Sales Executive ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Smart Meter Engineer - Gas and Electric - Dual Fuel

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the installa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Two out of five marriages end in divorce but filling in the paperwork wrong can prove very costly  

Divorce is bad enough without the legal process around it making it so much worse

Simon Kelner
 

What Lord Myners tells us about the Royal Mail sell-off shows just how good the City is at looking after itself

Chris Blackhurst
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum