Wrestling With History

Why the conflict that has cost 2,000 American lives may not be Donald Rumsfeld's No. 1 priority.
Why the conflict that has cost 2,000 American lives may not be Donald Rumsfeld's No. 1 priority.
By David Von Drehle
Sunday, November 13, 2005

If only he could show us the memo.

"It's still classified, I suppose?" says Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, looking toward his assistant.

"It's still classified," Lawrence DiRita replies, "along with a lot of the underlying planning."

Rumsfeld nods, apparently disappointed. He is interested in sharing the memo because the memo, as he outlines it, demonstrates that his critics are utterly mistaken. He did not dash heedless and underprepared into Iraq. Rumsfeld foresaw the things that could go wrong -- and not just foresaw them, but wrote them up in a classically Rumsfeldian list, one brisk bullet point after another, 29 potential pitfalls in all. Then he distributed the memo at the highest levels, fed it into the super-secret planning process and personally walked the president through the warnings.

"It would have been probably October of '02, and the war was March, I think," of the following year, Rumsfeld explains. "I sat down, and I said, 'What are all the things that one has to anticipate could be a problem?' And circulated it and read it to the president -- sent it to the president. Gave it to the people in the department, and they planned against those things. And all of the likely and unlikely things that one could imagine are listed there. It was just on the off-chance we'd end up having a conflict. We didn't know at that stage."

Some might quibble with Rumsfeld's description of the historical moment. At the time he wrote the memo, dated October 15, 2002, Congress had recently voted to give President Bush complete authority to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. A White House spokesman had just confirmed that invasion plans were on Bush's desk -- detailed plans, we now know, which Rumsfeld had been shaping and hammering and editing for much of the previous year.

In other words, there was far more than an "off-chance" of conflict. All that remained to be done was for the president to reach his official decision. The train was loaded, its doors were shut, and it was ready to leave the station.

Rumsfeld never pretended there was anything off-chancy about the timing of the memo when he discussed it with Bob Woodward, who wrote about the document in his authoritative history of Iraq war preparations, Plan of Attack. In that account, Rumsfeld portrayed the memo as a warning blast, an attempt to do "everything humanly possible to prepare" Bush for the awful responsibility that had settled onto his presidential shoulders -- and his shoulders alone. For there comes a point when even the secretary of defense must realize that "it's not your decision or even your recommendation," Rumsfeld reflected with Woodward. By which he meant the Iraq war wasn't Don Rumsfeld's decision or recommendation.

As if to underline the point, Rumsfeld also told Woodward that he couldn't recall a moment, in all the months of planning for the war, when Bush asked whether his defense secretary favored the invasion. Nor did Rumsfeld ever volunteer his opinion. ("There's no question in anyone's mind but I agreed with the president's approach," he added.) So what was in the memo? Dire scenarios ranging from disasters that did not happen, such as chemical warfare and house-to-house combat with Saddam's troops in Baghdad, to bad things that have indeed come to pass, such as ethnic strife among Iraq's religious factions and the successful exploitation of the war as a public relations vehicle for the enemies of the United States.

Rumsfeld raises the subject of this memo near the end of an interview in his spacious Pentagon office. Outside the tinted blast-proof windows and across the Potomac, a brutal summer sun bakes the domes and cornices of Washington, but Rumsfeld is wearing a fleece vest over his shirtsleeves. He often finds his office chilly. Rumsfeld appears relaxed, charming, expansive. It seems awfully helpful of him to want to share a classified memo written expressly for the president of the United States, who was wrestling with his awesome power to wage war.

But then you wonder: Why did Rumsfeld write that memo, at that moment, and why is he flagging it now?

If the point of the memo was to nudge George W. Bush's hand from the throttle of the engine, to halt the train of events at the last moment, then it was too little too late. Rumsfeld would have known this after 40 years inside the sanctums of government. Plans have a way of gathering momentum as surely as boulders running downhill. One of "Rumsfeld's Rules," the booklet of maxims and tenets he has coined and updated through his lifetime in management, notes that "it is easier to get into something than to get out of it." The time to stop an idea is before it gets moving.

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