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Don Rumsfeld, playing a dead-end game in his memoir

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, February 6, 2011;

"We're changing the culture of America from one that has said . . . 'if you've got a problem, blame somebody else,' to a culture in which each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make."

- George W. Bush

Don Rumsfeld is a dead-ender.

Not in the meaning of the phrase as we understood it in 2003, back when he prematurely described the Iraqi insurgents as mere "pockets of dead-enders."

No, Rumsfeld is a dead-ender under the revised definition, provided by the former defense secretary in his score-settling memoir. In this telling, being a dead-ender means you are tough and formidable.

We receive this wisdom on Page 674 of Rumsfeld's book, "Known and Unknown," which at 815 pages is his longest snowflake ever. "Some in the media mistook my use of the phrase 'dead-enders' to mean I was suggesting that victory was imminent," he writes in the soon-to-be-released memoir, a copy of which was obtained by The Post's Bradley Graham. "In fact, my meaning was exactly the opposite - namely that our forces were locked in a bloody struggle with an enemy that would fight to the bitter end."

To support his point, he provides an ambiguous quote from April 2004: "The dead-enders, threatened by Iraq's progress to self-government, may believe they can drive the coalition out through terror."

Well played, Rummy! Except that isn't the quote that caused people to think he was suggesting imminent victory. It was this one, from 10 months earlier: "In those regions where pockets of dead-enders are trying to reconstitute, General [Tommy] Franks and his team are rooting them out. In short, the coalition is making good progress." In the same news conference, he dismissed the resistance as "small elements" and unorganized "remnants" whose rebellion "will end."

This is the essential Rumsfeld: fighting to the dead end in the face of overwhelming fact.

There had been some question about whether Rumsfeld would use his memoir to apologize for what went wrong in Iraq, as Robert McNamara's memoir did for Vietnam. But after four years of reflection, Rumsfeld remains dismissive of those less brilliant than he is - which is pretty much everybody.

The National Security Council: "I didn't think the NSC was doing its job well."

Iraq administrator Jerry Bremer: "I would have entered Iraq with a notably different mind-set had I been in Bremer's shoes."

National security adviser and then Secretary of State Condi Rice: "Taking on an operational role in Iraq was a grievous mistake."

The generals: "There were many times when the decisions on the ground didn't seem right - such as the first battle of Fallujah - but I took pains to try not to micromanage."

And President Bush: "It is fair to ask," he writes, why differences "between State and Defense were not better resolved. . . . Only the president could do so."

Rumsfeld is the latest to join a circular firing squad of former Bush administration officials continuing their bureaucratic disputes in published form - what former Bush Pentagon official Doug Feith dubbed the "I-was-surrounded-by-idiots school of memoir writing."

In his own book, Feith blamed Colin Powell and the CIA. Former CIA chief George Tenet wrote a memoir blaming Vice President Dick Cheney and Rice. Bremer's memoir blames Rumsfeld. Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's book blamed Karl Rove. Rove's memoir blamed McClellan. Bush revealed that he considered replacing Cheney.

Rumsfeld, for his part, fingers Bremer as "reluctant to cede any significant authority" to the Iraqis. He "strenuously objected" to reconstituting the Iraqi army, and he "argued against" having the Pentagon handle Iraqi police training.

Surprisingly, Rumsfeld blames his own generals, too. "General Franks told me in 2008 that, in hindsight, his recommendation to stop the flow of additional troops into Iraq . . . might have been a mistake," Rumsfeld confides. And: "Generals [John] Abizaid and [George] Casey were still uneasy with the idea of deploying more troops."

Continuing the feud that plagued his tenure, he blames the State Department for just about everything. The ill-fated de-Baathification "was promoted in the State Department's Future of Iraq Project." The Pentagon's training of Iraqi police was delayed by "objections of some in the State Department bureaucracy" and Powell's "turf-conscious deputy," Richard Armitage.

Ultimately, he blames the president because Bush never "firmly resisted" State. "There were far too many hands on the steering wheel, which, in my view, was a formula for running the truck into a ditch," he writes.

So much finger pointing can cause a repetitive-motion injury. Fortunately, Rumsfeld takes a break to reflect. "I don't spend a lot of time in recriminations," he writes.

Of course not. That would surely be a dead end.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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