Sunday, 23 February 2014

Donald Rumsfeld's "Known and Unknown" A Book Review

Donald Rumsfeld's "Known and Unknown" A Book Review

Donald Rumsfeld was twice, once in the 1970's and again after the millennium, the US Secretary of Defense. He also served as a member of the United States Congress in the sixties and was the United States Ambassador to NATO in the early seventies. He was also President Fords Chief of Staff in the White House and a Special Envoy to the Middle East for President Reagan. His memoir is of great interest if your interested in the Government of the United States from the 1960's to 2006. Of interest to me was his involvement as Secretary of Defense during two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as his views on terrorism. It also highlighted the difference between Conservatives and Right-Liberals.

Liberalism and Conservatism
Mr. Rumsfeld first won office in 1962 running the United States Congress, all of his political career he has called himself a Conservative Republican. But he is quite clearly a Right-Liberal, here are the principles he put on his business card when he won the Republican party primary for his district:

"PRINCIPLES: firm foreign policy, strong defense and a freer trade policy, effective civil rights measures, reduction of the debt, incentives for increasing economic growth".

One of his opponents a Mr. Burks said that Mr. Rumsfeld wasn't hard-right Conservative. At first glance all of the principles seem Conservative, but what does "a freer trade policy" mean? What does "effective civil rights measures" mean? What does "incentives for increasing economic growth" mean? They are all Liberal principles.


One of the great tragedies of the Reagan administration was the suicide attack on the US Marines barracks in  Beirut, Lebanon. It killed 241 Americans and 1 Lebanese civilian. To put it into perspective it was the largest loss of life in a single day for the US Marines since the battles on Iwo Jima in 1945. On the same day 58 French soldiers and 5 Lebanese civilians, a mother and her 4 children were killed in another suicide attack. President Reagan and President Mitterrand both said that the attacks would not force them to leave Lebanon. But within a year France, Italy, Britain and the United States had withdrawn from Lebanon. The retaliation was ineffectual and the attacks joined a long list of terrorist attacks that received no or little response. It is a frustrating story to look at terrorist attacks on the West going back to the 1960's and seeing so little being done to fight back. Mr. Rumsfeld gives a very good account of his time as a Middle East Envoy and both the limits of America's power and the policy of wishful thinking that believes that pretending terrorism comes from nowhere that it will vanish back into nowhere. Each successful terrorist attack encourages more and the lack of a military response simply makes it easier. The reality is that most terrorism is state sponsored, a part of their foreign policy and when we do not response militarily we invite further attacks as we have shown it works. Mr. Rumsfeld is also very scathing of letting the law handle terrorism when it is a problem of foreign policy. He gives a very damning example of when the "Blind Sheik", responsible for the 1993 World Trade Centre Bombing was on trial, the Prosecutor was required to hand over details of how the FBI had obtained information and from who. The Defence then released that information, exposing informers and techniques alike to the terrorists.


After the 2001 terrorist attacks the United States demanded that those responsible be handed over for trial. The Taliban Government of Afghanistan decided to play games and the United States and it's Allies invaded Afghanistan and installed a new Government. The war continues but for the first 5 years Mr. Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense and he made many of the decisions relating to the war. In theory invading a landlocked country on the other side of the world was the big problem. But the capabilities of the United States meant it was achieved. The Taliban was driven from office, a new Government created and the country stabilised. Fighting continued during all of this time but it was on a much smaller scale until 2006 when the mistakes that had been made came back to bite. Mr. Rumsfeld discusses two of the biggest problems that were made in Afghanistan. But interestingly he doesn't mention what I regard as the biggest mistake, having the King abdicate in exile and creating a republic. King Zahir was crowned in 1933, was overthrown in a military coup in 1973 and died in 2007. It was his overthrow that started the disaster that Afghanistan is today and the Afghan people know this, his return would have given a legitimacy and stability to the new Government that nothing else has. The second problem that he does discuss is the idea of trying to create a modern western state in Afghanistan, something most Afghans don't want but which many have insisted is the end goal of the war. This simply breeds support for the Taliban as foreign ideas are forced onto the country. Thirdly he talks about the lack of support from the rest of the US Government, the State Department was normally short of the number of personal promised and they tended to be younger and less experienced than required. They were keen and brave in many cases but the lack of experience really told.


What many forgot, even at the time was that the United States had not one reason to invade Iraq but multiple reasons. Iraq had signed a number of agreements that it had either broken outright or was using to play games. It agreed to disarm any Nuclear, Biological, Chemical weapons or development programmes it may have. There is no evidence that that ever happened, Iraq made lots of excuses but it continued to try and get weapons and to have the ability to rebuild it's weapons capacity. It constantly attacked American and British planes in the no-fly zones, trying to shoot them down. It hampered the United Nations efforts to inspect for Nuclear, Biological or Chemical weapons, despite having agreed to do so. It corruptly used the Oil for Food program to rearm and to obtain funds, neither of which were the purpose of the fund. While all this was going on the dictatorship continued to kill and torture, even before the invasion it was infamous for it's use of rape as a political weapon. Not to mention that Iraq had invaded two of it's neighbours under Saddam Hussein. Mr. Rumsfeld mentions a number of other reasons and lists the failure of the United States Government to remind people of the many reasons it had to go to war against Iraq as one of the biggest failures of President Bush's administration, I agree. The other big problems he mentions in regards to Iraq were the troop levels and the lack of any firm idea about how long America was going to remain in Iraq. Some wanted only a few weeks, others wanted decades. This lack of clarity lead to much of the confusion between various actors, military and civilian, American and Iraqi, American and foreign and American and American as no one was quite sure how long they were expected to do something. It was a big factor in not setting goals and as no goals were set goals could not be met. The troop levels were particularly interesting, Mr. Rumsfeld said it was a constant question he asked, was there enough troops in Iraq. Most of the time the commanders were very consistent and said yes, that there were enough US troops in Iraq. Whats clear is that wasn't true and it's strange that the commanders should be so convinced that there were. One reason was that more US troops on the ground could mean more US casualties. It would also have meant more control over areas, but the real problem was that there was no clear goal on raising, training or deploying Iraqi military or police units. It also took a long time to understand the unique conditions of Iraq, it's people and political culture.

The United States Federal Government

A surprise for me was reading the institutional shortcomings of the United States Government. I was surprised that each President seems to decide how they want the White House staff organised. I would have thought there was more structure. I have also noticed before and this book confirms it that the lack of a proper cabinet Government in the united States is a bad idea. The United States seems to have taken half of the idea of a cabinet but it is really a very decentralised system. So instead of the different departments working together because the cabinet makes them it seems these issues continue much longer than they need to. Setting goals in Iraq should have been someones job, but no one except the President can do that, maybe the fault in this case does lie with President Bush. The faults of the National Security Advisor is also clear, whoever has the job seems to be in conflict with both the Secretary of State and of Defense, because they are not advising so much as deciding US policy.

As a book this was easy to read if your interested in the subject matter, if your not don't bother. The writing is good and there is much information on Donald Rumsfeld's life and political career. If your at all interested in his life and career I do recommend you read his memoir.

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