Rumsfeld’s Regrets (There Aren’t Many)

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Next month will mark the eight-year anniversary of the Iraq war’s shock-and-awe opening. And as Egypt descends into political turmoil, the meaning of that war is getting a new assessment. But the old battle lines are familiar. Some conservatives say the fall of Saddam Hussein and the emergence of a fragile democracy in Baghdad set the stage for a popular anti-authoritarian revolt in Cairo. At least as likely, the frothing anti-Americanism generated by the war made a U.S.-aligned dictator like Hosni Mubarak appear all the more unpopular and removed from his country’s vox populi.

Just in time for this re-litigation of the Iraq war comes the long-awaited memoir of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.According to pre-publication accounts of the 815-page tome, Rumsfeld’s time in quiet political exile since his November 2006 resignation has left him with only modest doubts and regrets about the most derided Pentagon tenure since Robert McNamara’s day. On the fundamental question of his tenure, Rumsfeld writes that invading Iraq was not a mistake, on the grounds that the Middle East would be “far more perilous than it is today” were Saddam still in power.

Maybe. The Middle East is awfully perilous as it is. But it’s also true that Saddam is no longer menacing his neighbors or torturing his people and that the seeds of democracy have been planted in the world’s most repressive region.  The question is to what degree and how honestly Rumsfeld wrestles with the costs to the U.S., and to the thousands of Americans and Iraqis who died as a result of the invasion. We’ll only know when fuller excerpts become available.

Rumsfeld does show contrition on some lesser scores–but only up to to a point. He reportedly regrets confidently saying of Iraq’s presumed WMD stockpiles in 2003 that “we know where they are.” He wishes he’d resigned after revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib–not because he felt any personal responsibility (he doesn’t)–but because of “the continued drum-beat of ‘torture’ maintained by partisan critics of the war,” as the New York Times quotes him as writing. Note his decision to put the word torture in quotation marks, and to attribute that critique to “partisan critics of the war.”

Likewise on the question of troop levels, Rumsfeld makes a minor concession while dodging the larger point. He reportedly writes that he never denied requests from U.S. commanders in Iraq more troops. This may be a strictly accurate description of the chain-of-command conversation, but the question is more complicated. Former Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer has said he asked Rumsfeld for hundreds of thousands more troops as the insurgency was roaring to life in May 2004. In the following months, numerous current and retired military officials let it be known through the media (often anonymously) that they felt more troops were desperately needed. Rumsfeld now concedes that, “[i]n retrospect, there may have been times when more troops could have helped.” Well, of course. The question is whether Rumsfeld should have understood this at the time and taken action. It’s not clear that U.S. commanders in Iraq felt comfortable speaking freely to an intimidating and sometimes brow-beating secretary of defense whowas  known to prefer a lighter troop footprint in the early months after the invasion. Particularly after the humbling example of General Eric Shinseki, whom Rumsfeld publicly rebuked for publicly suggesting before the invasion that many more troops might be required.

Rumsfeld also makes clear, reasonably enough, that not everything was his fault. He pin much of the blame for what went wrong in Iraq on a dysfunctional White House planning process run by national security advisor Condoleeza Rice, at whom Rumsfeld’s camp has sniped before. But he goes a step further–somewhat surprisingly so, for a self-styled loyal soldier–and points a finger at George W. Bush as well. Rumsfeld, writes the Post, “suggests the former president was at fault for not doing more to resolve disagreements among senior advisers.”

That may be true. Although that also seems to presuppose that the Iraq war could have been the neat and tidy affair some of its proponents had imagined were the bureaucratic channels functioning properly, the decision-makers signing off quickly. Ultimately the real question is whether the war should have been fought in the first place. Nothing in the early reports about this book suggest that’s a question upon which Rumsfeld cares to linger.