Getting to know Donald Rumsfeld

April 5

Donald Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known” (handout image)

This is a guest post by University of Connecticut political scientist Stephen Benedict Dyson.

“Why is this man smiling?” asks the tagline for The Unknown Known, a new documentary portrait of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld by writer and filmmaker Errol Morris. The pointed nature of the question, and the comments Morris has made during the movie’s publicity spree, leave little doubt as to the director’s view of his subject.

In The Fog of War, an elegiac study of Robert McNamara, Morris authored a sympathetic portrait of another former secretary of defense reflecting on the balance of good and bad in his life. Morris paints with colder colors in this new film. Philip Glass’s soaring soundtrack from The Fog of War is replaced here by a foreboding score that would not be out of place in a horror movie. Where McNamara was shot in extreme close-up, his rheumy eyes and crooked teeth conveying a sad vulnerability, Morris keeps his camera at a greater distance from Rumsfeld, and this time we get little avuncular warmth from the star of the movie. Yet the negative impression is not a product only of directorial choice, since Rumsfeld does not engage in the open reflections on his legacy that led many to reconsider their views of McNamara.

I have watched The Fog of War many times, and have come to think of it as McNamara arguing his case before a sort of celestial high court, waiting to see whether he is going up or will be sent down at the end of his life. If this is Rumsfeld’s trial, the defense has decided to filibuster. As Morris says, “Having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq War than when I started.”

Morris sees Rumsfeld as a merchant of dogma whose verbal sparring is designed to evade and confuse. When I made my own inquiries into Rumsfeld and Iraq, I found a questioning, often quite uncertain executive, beholden to the limits of what can be known about the world and what can be done to shape it. His record seemed to show an indecisive rather than a dictatorial character.

However fascinating the former secretary of defense is, knowing Rumsfeld can take us only part of the way toward knowing what happened in Iraq. In my view, Rumsfeld’s relationship with President George W. Bush is at the core of the puzzle. Bush and Rumsfeld were polar opposites in style and, in the end, in their prescriptions for what to do in Iraq. Where Rumsfeld saw questions, Bush saw only answers. Where Bush thought in headlines, Rumsfeld buried himself deep in footnotes. When an insurgency broke out in Iraq, Bush cried “bring ‘em on!” whilst Rumsfeld tasked aides with bringing him dictionary definitions for insurgency, guerrilla war and belligerency, “each on a single piece of paper.”

The two men came to disagree on what to do with the country they had invaded. Bush was prepared to stay and fight to win; Rumsfeld thought the United States had little capacity to shape Iraqi politics and should expend few resources trying to do so. If Iraq had a civil war, Rumsfeld believed that was a problem for Iraqis to resolve. The great tragedy of the story is that Bush and Rumsfeld did not directly address their differences, and so followed a middle-ground compromise between these two positions from the invasion in 2003 until the 2007 troop surge. Bush wanted to stay and win, Rumsfeld to leave, and so U.S. policy was prone to drift.

The definitive story of the Iraq War cannot come from Rumsfeld looking directly into a camera (Rumsfeld: “I think, Errol, that you are chasing the wrong rabbit here.”) It can emerge only when Bush and Rumsfeld look each other in the eye and talk frankly about how much they differed. Capture that on film, and the fog that has surrounded the U.S. war in Iraq will finally be lifted.

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