Understanding Rumsfeld

William F. Buckley
Posted: Oct 26, 2003 12:00 AM

The memorandum by Donald Rumsfeld circulated we are told, to only four people, brings to mind the lesson my old friend and mentor, the strategist James Burnham, once told his fellow editors. "My father would say, pointing his finger one by one at the four people seated around his desk . . . So — John knows our secret, Jim knows it, Bruce knows it, and Andy knows it. That means," retracing the figures with his finger, "eleven hundred and eleven people know it." When Donald Rumsfeld became secretary of defense (for the second time) he marveled at how impossible it was to keep a military secret. It is not easy to suppose that when he wrote out the electrifying memo asking whether, in fact, the United States at war was displacing more terrorists than were being generated, he really thought that only John, Jim, Bruce, and Andy would see it. Of course. It quickly became front page news.

Donald Rumsfeld is a central political figure in our time. Those curious to know more about him and his life than can easily be picked up in the press should read Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait, a biography by Midge Decter, who manifestly has spent time with her subject and, in a profusely illustrated book, has taken a long look at him.

One learns from this book that Rumsfeld has a way of, well, sizing things up. He was an auxiliary figure in Washington as a young Princeton graduate until he decided to move on, which he did, to four uninterrupted terms as a congressman. Then one day he resolved that his unfamiliarity with the foreign scene had to be remedied, so he got himself nominated, after performing corresponding favors for President Nixon, ambassador to NATO. When the dust settled after Watergate, he was asked to take on secretary of defense, which he did. After the end of President Ford's term, Rumsfeld decided he had had enough of the public sector, and went to back to his native Chicago to head up a huge pharmaceutical company.

He brought it out of the woods, refined his knowledge of management expertise (get rid of superfluous employees), and made a fortune. A few years later, he did this again for General Instrument, a broadcast and technology company in Chicago. In between he gave thought (idle, as it turned out) to running for president and gave critical attention to two commissions that inquired into the proliferation of missile technology and the complementary need to develop U.S. anti-missile technology. And then, of course, President-elect George W. Bush tapped him to serve again as secretary of defense.

That was an august assignment for an executive now accustomed to dealing with bureaucracy with the shears available in the private sector. Ms. Decter tells us of the creeping immobilization of the Defense Department in 2001. No money appropriated by Congress could be used by the DOD other than for the specific purpose designated. The Department had to submit 905 reports to Congress every year, to respond to 2,500 weekly inquiries or complaints from members of Congress. It was monitored closely by 24,000 outside auditors and inspectors. The overhead was such that only l4 percent of DOD manpower was directly related to combat operations.

And so on. What evolved was the Rumsfeld widely admired and ever so widely resented — by some in his staff, and by many in the press and in Congress — for his directness of style, for his willingness to face his critics with his contentious self-confidence, and, of course, for his identification as supreme military actor in the Iraq war.

But now suddenly, the ever-confident Rumsfeld privately confesses to eleven hundred and eleven people that he can't be sure it is all working, our war against terrorism. He asks that question in the same spirit as, in other careers, he'd pause to ask basic questions, causing in him not paralyzing ambiguity, but hardheaded, Yankee inquiry into what was being accepted as his standing commission in life, like congressional service, service abroad, service in the private sector, service, one more time, in the Pentagon. There his fidelity to the commander in chief is whole, but his powers of inquiry are unimpeded.

We can expect more discussion on that basic question, are we winning in Iraq? If not, what is to be done? It is by no means inconceivable that the answers here will be by Donald Rumsfeld.