Known and Unknown: A Memoir by Donald Rumsfeld

My most recent read is about a very polarizing figure in the George W. Bush Administration – Donald Rumsfeld.  His book, Known and Unknown: A Memoir, chronicles his life – mainly his political life.  It is not a quick read by any imagination at 726 pages, but it flows well for the most part.

The book is divided into 14 parts which generally cover his childhood, Navy career, Congressional terms, various roles in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, private sector career, and stint as Secretary of Defense in the Bush Administration.  A majority of the book (close to 500 pages) covers his years in the Bush Administration.

One word describes Rumsfeld’s political life – fascinating.  He was obviously an important player in the Bush Administration, but I did not know how influential he was in his earlier political career – especially in the Nixon and Ford Administrations. He had relatively minor roles in the Nixon Administration until he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to NATO.  Under Ford, he was the Whitehouse Chief of Staff and then the Secretary of Defense.  In each of these roles, he brought his own style of leadership – allowing his subordinates to do their jobs without much interference from him unless they screwed up.

I normally stay away from political books because of my aversion to the subject, but I found this book interesting and engaging because of Rumsfeld’s unique personality – abrasive and a straight shooter.

I won’t dissect his political career in detail, but I will give my general thoughts on his time in the Bush Administration (I am most comfortable analyzing this era).  For instance, I think he was a key person in helping Bush to decide to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq – he was key not just because of his position as Defense Secretary, but also because of his beliefs in eliminating the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

With regard to Afghanistan (and for that matter all of the Middle East), he argues that the Afghan form of Democracy will be much different from our or Europe’s form of Democracy.  The West has a deep history in democratic principles, but the Middle East does not have that same history.  So, Rumsfeld argues (fairly convincingly) that we should not have high expectations for a pure democratic government in Afghanistan.

Regarding Iraq, Rumsfeld explains his thoughts on the war.  He firmly believes in not directing military commanders on how to fight the war.  He rarely questioned decisions made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff with the exception of the general who replaced General Tommy Franks after the invasion.

Rumsfeld tries to address some of the most controversial issues of the Iraq War.  For instance, his stance on the charge that there were not enough troops on the ground to handle the Iraqi insurgency is that he depended on the military commanders (CENTCOM and Iraq) to tell him when more troops were needed – he contends that he asked several times whether send more troops and each time he was told that there were sufficient numbers.

Another controversial issue is the handling of Iraq after the end of hostilities following the invasion.  Rumsfeld argues that the Coalition Provisional Authority botched the transition from Coalition military rule to the Iraqi civil government.  Their ineptitude led to the insurgency.  I commend Rumsfeld for defending the Department of Defense, but I think he should take some responsibility – after all, one of his subordinates Paul Wolfowitz argued that we should attack Iraq while we were still engaged in Afghanistan.  I think this was a mistake because our military was stretched too thin.

Rumsfeld does not shy away from taking shots at the major foreign policy figures in the Bush Administration.  Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell are poorly portrayed at times.  Rice is accused of trying to make decisions based on consensus and Powell is accused of being influenced by the career diplomats rather than influencing the career diplomats.  Rumsfeld does not hold back his scorn for the State Department bureaucracy – he claims they were more interested in serving their own agendas rather than the agenda of Bush.

I think you will find Known and Unknown an enlightening and interesting read.

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