July 27, 2009 — CNAS Chief Operating Officer Nate Fick reviews the Bradley Graham book By His Own Rules for The Washington Post.
"The blizzard is over!" Donald Rumsfeld declared in the last of some 20,000 memos -- or "snowflakes" -- that had become a hallmark of his contentious tenure as secretary of defense. During the summer of 2003, a squall of snowflakes and counter-snowflakes blew through the offices of Rumsfeld and Gen. John Abizaid, the newly appointed head of U.S. Central Command, about the definitions of "insurgent" and "guerrilla warfare." Rumsfeld, over Abizaid's objections, resisted acknowledging the enemy in Iraq as an organized force because doing so would have suggested that the U.S. presence there was likely to be long and costly. But his denial merely delayed the inevitable, and, as in a real snowstorm, the cleanup began only after the last flake fell.
Rumsfeld is not a simple man. But the two biggest questions about his tenure at the Pentagon -- why the United States invaded Iraq, and why it so bungled the aftermath of the Hussein regime's fall -- are often answered with only the simplest of explanations: ideology and hubris.
In this meticulously researched and compelling book, veteran Washington Post reporter Bradley Graham acknowledges these contributors to the national-security travails of the Bush years, but he highlights another as well: the secretary of defense's unwavering commitment to military transformation, his vision of a leaner, more lethal Department of Defense. The early phases of the war in Afghanistan apparently vindicated this concept, while the prospect of war in Iraq promised a wider proving ground for it -- but the nasty counterinsurgency campaign that followed threatened to undermine it.
Having served briefly as Gerald Ford's secretary of defense (which makes him both the youngest and oldest man ever to fill the role), Rumsfeld re-entered the Pentagon in 2001 expecting not to lead troops in war, but to fight the bureaucracy to transform the way the United States waged war. In a speech to Defense Department employees on the day before al-Qaeda crashed an airliner into the Pentagon, he declared, "The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America. . . . It stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk. . . . It's the Pentagon bureaucracy." Twenty-four hours later the building was in flames.
Rumsfeld initially appeared to relish his new role as secretary of war. As often as once a day, he conducted televised press briefings with virtuoso skill, weaving blunt talk with folksy charm. When asked one Sunday whether the United States was close to catching Osama bin Laden, he answered with a characteristic rhetorical question: "If you're chasing a chicken around the barnyard, are you close or are you not close until you get him?" President Bush nicknamed him "Rumstud."
Graham shows that Rumsfeld's commitment to his transformation agenda never waned despite the operational burdens of two major wars. In his 2002 annual report to the president and Congress, Rumsfeld argued, "Some believe that, with the U.S. in the midst of a difficult and dangerous war on terrorism, now is not the time to transform our Armed Forces. The opposite is true. Now is precisely the time to make changes." The broader point here about process innovation rings true, as echoed in Rahm Emanuel's now-famous adage: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."
Like Robert McNamara, his Kennedy-era predecessor at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld is often portrayed as some sort of corporate Prometheus, bringing the light of the private sector to a lumbering bureaucracy. While some of McNamara's systems analysis innovations -- such as the planning, programming and budgeting system (PPBS) -- are still in use nearly half a century later, many of Rumsfeld's changes have already been slowed (the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany) or halted (ambitious satellite systems), even as the defense budget has continued to soar.
Andrew Card, Bush's first White House chief of staff, summarizes Rumsfeld's tenure this way: "It's my belief that he had an expectation of what his job would be as secretary of defense, and it probably centered around transformation. . . . And then a war got in the way. Transformation had been a labor of love for him. The war became a labor of responsibility."
Rumsfeld acknowledged in announcing his resignation that "I have benefited greatly from criticism, and at no time have I suffered a lack thereof." He surely suspected what the broad contours of this book would be, and yet he sat for multiple interviews with Graham, as did Vice President Dick Cheney, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone, close associate Larry Di Rita and Rumsfeld's wife, Joyce. The result is a careful, human portrait that avoids the predictable cheap shots while eviscerating Rumsfeld's style, many of his decisions and their effects. Whether denying the existence of an insurgency in Iraq, waging bitter bureaucratic battles with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice or shunning non-military instruments of national power, Rumsfeld contributed to a culture that made the wars on his watch both longer and bloodier than they had to be -- a cardinal sin for troop leaders from corporal to commander in chief.
Rumsfeld's successor, Robert Gates, has swiftly distanced himself from his predecessor. Their stylistic differences -- in dealing with allies, the uniformed services, the Congress and the State Department -- are well-known, but Gates's personnel decisions reveal the most significant change: In six tumultuous years marked by more bark than bite, Rumsfeld fired only one top official, Army Secretary Tom White; over only two-and-a-half-years, Gates has removed or declined to retain six. Gates has restored both civility and accountability to a Pentagon that has been truly transformed by his presence.
One interpretation is that real transformation -- like fighting insurgents -- is less about building weapons systems and more about changing minds. Where Rumsfeld sent snowflakes, Gates sends pink slips, and that could make all the difference.