By His Own Rules

The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld


By Bradley Graham

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Once considered among the best and brightest of his generation, Donald Rumsfeld left office as the most controversial Defense Secretary since Robert McNamara, widely criticized for his management of the Iraq war and for his difficult relationships with Congress, administration colleagues, and military officers. Was he really the arrogant, errant, controlling Pentagon leader frequently portrayed-or, a brilliant visionary caught in a whirl of polarized Washington politics, dysfunctional federal bureaucracy, and bad luck? Bradley Graham, a longtime Washington Post reporter who closely covered Rumsfeld’s challenging tenure at the Pentagon, offers an insightful biography of a complex and immensely influential personality.


To Seymour and Kalmaine
And to Russell

Face time with the president is political gold in Washington, so Donald Rumsfeld moved quickly after taking charge at the Pentagon to secure regular private meetings with President George W. Bush. Now, nearly six years and many meetings later, the defense secretary arrived in the Oval Office prepared to raise a delicate, personal matter.
His opportunity came as talk that day, in September 2006, turned to Iraq. The conflict there was going badly. Violence had metastasized into a civil war. Plans to begin a major drawdown of U.S. troops had stalled. Iraqi forces still appeared unready to assume charge of security, and the Iraqi government, riven by sectarian strife, was doing little to unite the nation. In Washington, much of the blame for the mess in Iraq had fallen on Rumsfeld. He had failed to plan adequately for the occupation, was slow to develop a counterinsurgency campaign, and had alienated too many people with his combative, domineering personality.
By then, Rumsfeld had hung on to office longer than most of his predecessors in the top Pentagon job. But with congressional elections approaching in the fall, he had become a campaign target, vilified by Democrats and considered a political liability by many Republicans. If, as was increasingly anticipated, Democrats won control of one or both chambers of Congress, it would mean more hearings for Rumsfeld and more punishing interrogations. In recent days, Rumsfeld and his wife, Joyce, had discussed the prospect of his stepping down.
“We said there’s no way he would stay if either the House or the Senate went Democratic because he would be the issue,” Joyce recalled months later. The criticism “would have been relentless until he was gone.”
Sitting with Bush, Rumsfeld broached the possibility of his departure. A “fresh pair of eyes” on Iraq might not be a bad thing, the secretary remarked. He made no explicit offer to resign. Still, his inference was unmistakable.
Or so the president thought. Although Bush didn’t pursue the point, he told a senior White House official afterward what Rumsfeld had said. Bush took the comment as a sign of Rumsfeld’s own recognition of the political realities closing in on him. “In the president’s mind, Rumsfeld had cracked the door open,” the official recounted. “And whether the president wanted to kick it open or not was up to him.”
The question of whether to keep Rumsfeld had dogged Bush and his senior advisers for months. It had been raised after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in early 2004 and several months later in the wake of Bush’s reelection. It had come up again as the Iraq War worsened during 2005, and once more in the spring of 2006 when a number of retired generals stepped forward to appeal for Rumsfeld’s dismissal.
Each time, Bush resisted letting Rumsfeld go, even rebuffing several suggestions that he do so by his own chief of staff, Andrew Card, and other senior aides and advisers. Bush had still valued Rumsfeld’s counsel and also worried that the disruption caused by replacing a secretary in wartime could be risky. Moreover, Rumsfeld had been unfailingly loyal to the president, and he had a powerful ally in Vice President Richard Cheney, who owed his own rise in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford four decades earlier to Rumsfeld. Cheney and his aides liked Rumsfeld’s hard-charging style and argued that the secretary had been right on a number of things where others had been wrong.
Importantly, too, the Pentagon leader had championed the administration’s signature drive to reform the U.S. military. From the beginning of his tenure, he had proclaimed “transformation” his main slogan and had pushed to create a more agile, adaptable military. He had relentlessly challenged existing assumptions and had advocated new principles of warfare, insisting on the need for change in confronting new and evolving threats to the United States.
He had taken on the Army early, its heavy forces and cumbersome deployments standing as a symbol of the bureaucratic inertia he was determined to overcome. Eventually during his tenure, the Army was restructured into more flexible, more easily deployable units. And he had pressed all the services—Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps—to work more cooperatively. Before Rumsfeld was finished, his constant churning had led to a rewriting of U.S. war plans to emphasize speed and fewer troops, a repositioning of U.S. forces around the world to shrink bases in Europe and Asia that dated from the Cold War, and a rearrangement of the military’s regional and functional commands to fill gaps and adjust to new dangers.
Outside the Pentagon, in interagency deliberations, he had emerged as a forceful conservative voice on a range of national security policies and a fierce guardian of what he considered military prerogatives. Publicly, he had performed as the administration’s most spirited spokesman, sparring sharply with the media. All in all, Rumsfeld had become the most powerful secretary of defense since Robert S. McNamara.
But he was also the most controversial. His methods were offensive to many. Senior officers complained that he treated them harshly. Legislators groused that he was either unresponsive to their requests or disrespectful in personal dealings, and senior officials at the State Department and the White House portrayed him as uncompromising, evasive, and obstructive. Despite his reputation as a shrewd politician and skilled bureaucratic operator, Rumsfeld had lost the confidence of so many lawmakers and strained so many relations inside the administration that few were willing to argue for his staying on.
The dismal facts on the ground in Iraq were such that even Rumsfeld, with his customary glass-half-full outlook, couldn’t gloss over them. He had acknowledged in other conversations with Bush and presidential aides that things in Iraq weren’t going “well enough or fast enough.” Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, encouraged Bush to work Rumsfeld’s phrase into his own public remarks. Bolten was concerned about a disconnect between the administration’s stay-the-course message and American public opinion about the war, opinion that had become exceedingly negative during 2006.
Intensified efforts over the summer of 2006 to secure Baghdad by relying on Iraqi forces as well as on U.S. troops had failed to quell the violence for long. The escalating turmoil had called into question Rumsfeld’s strategic premise that Iraqi forces could be trained and rushed into service to take over the counterinsurgency fight so that U.S. troops could go home. Bush himself, prompted by his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, had belatedly begun challenging the course in Iraq that Rumsfeld and U.S. military commanders were pursuing.
As Bush started looking for a new approach, he had to confront the question of whether to retain the secretary so closely associated with what looked like a doomed strategy. By early October, he had all but resolved to let Rumsfeld go. Even so, he was adamant that the announcement of Rumsfeld’s departure be postponed until after the elections. He did not want it seen as a politically expedient attempt to boost Republican chances at the polls. Bush’s aides, in turn, advised against waiting too long after the elections and running the risk of triggering a Democratic drumbeat for Rumsfeld’s head.
A White House rump group was formed to choreograph the probable change in Pentagon leadership in the context of other postelection moves. It included Bolten; Hadley; Karl Rove, the president’s top political adviser; and Dan Bartlett, Bush’s counselor and communications chief. They settled on making the announcement about Rumsfeld the day after the elections, although the move was contingent on Bush’s finding someone to take over at the Defense Department. He started looking seriously at Robert Gates, the president of Texas A&M University, a former CIA director, and a favorite of Bush’s dad.
Rumsfeld suspected his time was running out. But he was not informed of the White House plan. For his part, Bush, hiding his intentions, went so far as to engage in a deliberate deception, telling news service reporters a week before the elections that the defense secretary would be staying on.
The president’s feint confused even Rumsfeld’s wife, whose own political instincts were keen, to say the least. “I thought, What is that about?” she recalled. “I had kind of been winding down, thinking it’s almost over. And then that statement came out, and I thought, Oh, my gosh! So then I started thinking, I’ve got to get myself—forget Don—I just have to get myself the energy to get through another two years.”
The weekend before the elections, as Bush met secretly at his Texas ranch with Gates and decided to make the switch, Rumsfeld rushed to complete an options paper on Iraq for the president. As was his custom with important documents, Rumsfeld asked General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Eric Edelman, the head of the Pentagon’s policy branch, to help refine it. To prevent copies from circulating outside his office, Rumsfeld insisted that the two senior officials come in person and make changes on the spot. “He really got frantic about it—that it be done and given to the president,” said Delonnie Henry, Rumsfeld’s personal secretary. “He was just obsessed about this options paper.”
Dated November 6, one day before the elections, the memo, titled “Iraq—Illustrative New Courses of Action,” showed Rumsfeld coming around to accepting some change in approach. “In my view it is time for a major adjustment,” he wrote. “Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.”
But what Rumsfeld had in mind still came nowhere near the magnitude of the shift being contemplated by Bush and the National Security Council staff. He stopped well short of proposing any coherent new plan. Instead, he provided a laundry list of twenty-one “illustrative options,” many purely tactical. His aim appeared to be to promote discussion rather than to rally others around a decision. Refraining from endorsing any particulars, he simply divided the options into two groups—one worthy of consideration, which he labeled “above the line,” and the other, a less favorable set, placed “below the line.”
Those he favored tended to amount to an intensification or acceleration of the existing strategy—more U.S. trainers, more U.S. equipment for Iraqi forces, and more resources for the Iraqi ministries of Defense and Interior. The basic thrust was to draw down U.S. troops and shift to an advisory mission. In the other group of less attractive choices were options pushed by the proponents of doing more—shifting more U.S. forces into Baghdad to control it, surging more U.S. troops into Iraq, staging a Dayton-like peace process like the one used in the Balkans conflict in 1995, partitioning Iraq, and setting a firm withdrawal date.
The memo reflected Rumsfeld’s predilections and his weaknesses. He liked lists. He often approached problems by spelling out options. He favored analysis. And yet, he was lost. Although he recognized the need for change, he was unable to embrace a bold new initiative and uncertain about just what action to recommend.
There was no small measure of irony in Rumsfeld’s poor management of the Iraq War and his other failures as defense secretary. None of his predecessors had come into the job with as much experience or potential. He was the only person ever to get a second shot at being defense secretary, having served once before in the mid-1970s. During stints in several senior government positions under both Nixon and Ford, he had developed a reputation as an able administrator and an effective bureaucratic infighter. In a subsequent career as a corporate chief executive, he had turned struggling businesses into profitable enterprises—and made himself wealthy in the process. Even in his youth he had shown a talent—particularly on the wrestling mat—as a first-rate competitor adept at sizing up opponents and taking them down.
Yet as the war in Iraq grew into the administration’s most serious challenge, Rumsfeld remained most dedicated to his military transformation agenda. A hands-on manager in Washington, he inexplicably deferred key decisions in Baghdad on personnel and strategy. He was sluggish in responding to evolving conditions, averse to acknowledging an insurgency, reluctant to recognize that Iraqi forces were not yet ready to take over from U.S. troops, and resistant to the idea of raising U.S. force levels. Even as the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq worsened in the middle of 2006, Rumsfeld remained fixated on finding ways to facilitate the turnover of responsibility to Iraqi troops and to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
He was hardly alone in this view. The top U.S. generals in the region—Army general John Abizaid, who oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and Army general George Casey Jr., who commanded U.S. troops in Iraq—strongly supported the idea of continuing to shrink U.S. military involvement in Iraq. They shared Rumsfeld’s sense of urgency about placing more responsibility in the hands of the Iraqis and avoiding the risk of greater dependency on U.S. involvement. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, too, under Pace’s leadership, did not see how the U.S. military, already badly strained by three years in Iraq, could consider building up there.
This consensus in upper military ranks left little room for alternative views inside the Pentagon. Edelman had mounting reservations about the existing strategy. But he regarded Rumsfeld and his field generals as unreceptive to other opinions. Jack Keane, a retired general and former vice chief of the Army on friendly terms with Rumsfeld, had tried, during a meeting in September 2006, to urge the embattled secretary to change course but had made little headway. “I thought there was a general resignation about him that I hadn’t seen before,” Keane recalled months later. “I thought probably it was because he was realizing the war was not going well, and people were coming to him and telling him so—not just critics but people he respected.”
Rumsfeld had confided nothing even to his closest Pentagon aides about the possibility that he might soon be gone. His staff joked that they would probably be the last to know. But hints began emerging in mid-October.
Delonnie Henry, Rumsfeld’s secretary, noticed an increased interest by her boss in his archives. Rumsfeld kept lots of personal files—and had done so for years—checking from time to time that the records were being properly organized, updated, and digitized. He was a stickler especially for tallies—tallies of when and how long he had conferred with members of Congress, met with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked to the media. Other records tracked the trips he had taken and foreign dignitaries he had seen.
Measuring things seemed to satisfy a certain compulsion in Rumsfeld and allowed him to gauge progress. He had even devised a way of measuring how he was doing as secretary of defense in a list labeled “accomplishments and initiatives” that was periodically updated. The staff referred to it as “Rumsfeld’s greatest hits.” Although he had often denied worrying about his legacy, his private record keeping and public touting of achievements suggested otherwise.
Other subtle signs also indicated that Rumsfeld might be anticipating the end. He put a hold on his regular purchase of season tickets for sports events. He seemed less concerned about getting prompt responses back to the many memos he issued to subordinates.
Victor E. “Gene” Renuart Jr., who as a three-star Air Force general was Rumsfeld’s senior military assistant at the time, detected a change in the secretary’s mood prior to the elections. “He clearly was more thoughtful about things,” the general recalled. “I didn’t press him, nor did he offer. But you could sense something was on his mind. He was a little more quiet, more reserved, just not quite his normal personality.”
After Bush decided on Gates, Cheney called Rumsfeld to deliver the news. Rumsfeld remembers responding, “Fair enough. That makes sense. Let’s get on with it.” He then proceeded to get his affairs in order.
His thirty-nine-year-old son Nick—the youngest of his three children—had arrived in town with no advance notice to Rumsfeld’s staff, which was unusual. The trip was presented as a last-minute thing—a chance to visit with the folks and watch the election returns. Actually, Nick spent Monday, November 6, with Joyce at the family’s house in Washington, D.C., preparing a letter of resignation that Rumsfeld had composed. While Joyce entered it into a computer, Nick helped set up the printer using stationery with the letterhead “The Secretary of Defense.” The letter consisted of four brief paragraphs:
Dear Mr. President:
With my resignation as Secretary of Defense comes my deep appreciation to you for providing me this unexpected opportunity to serve.
I leave with great respect for you and for the leadership you have provided during a most challenging time for our country. The focus, determination and perseverance you have so consistently provided have been needed and are impressive.
It has been the highest honor of my long life to have been able to serve our country at such a critical time in our history and to have had the privilege of working so closely with the truly amazing young men and women in uniform. Their dedication, professionalism, courage and sacrifice are an inspiration.
It is time to conclude my service. As I do so, I want you to know that you have my continuing and heartfelt support as you enter the final two years of your Presidency.
Respectfully, Donald Rumsfeld
Left unstated was any particular reason for the resignation. Rumsfeld chose not to try to explain. It was simply time to go.
At a meeting with Bush the next afternoon, on November 7, Rumsfeld presented his resignation letter. The election results that evening revealed an overwhelming victory for the Democrats, handing them control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1994. American voters had delivered a repudiation of the Bush administration and its Iraq policy.
The next morning, a White House courier arrived at the Pentagon with an envelope for Rumsfeld and instructions not to leave until the secretary of defense had received it. Rumsfeld, attending a briefing on Iraq across the hall from his office, took the envelope and placed it in his briefcase to look at later. It contained a handwritten letter from Bush accepting Rumsfeld’s resignation and praising him for his service to the nation.
Shortly before word of his departure was officially announced, Rumsfeld began calling in his most senior aides one by one, telling each the news. Pace walked out of Rumsfeld’s office appearing pale. “He looked like he’d seen a ghost,” Henry observed. Matt Latimer, the secretary’s main speechwriter, teared up. “You’ve been a star,” Rumsfeld told him, sounding unusually effusive. Such expressions of appreciation were not Rumsfeld’s style. Stories about how sparing he was in voicing gratitude, let alone praise, were legendary among those who had worked for him. Aides knew they were doing a good job if he didn’t tell them they weren’t or if he gave them more work to do. “That was just the way it was,” Henry said. “But I think at the end there, he was really awkward. He was overwhelmed.”
Preparing for a White House appearance with Bush that afternoon, Rumsfeld scribbled some notes for a few remarks on the yellow, legal-sized paper he often used. He faxed a draft to Joyce at home to review. He was particularly concerned his remarks not sound defensive.
Shortly before 3:00 p.m., Rumsfeld headed to the White House, where, in a brief Oval Office session, Bush declared that “new leadership” and a “fresh perspective” were needed to guide the military through the difficult war in Iraq. He portrayed Rumsfeld’s departure as a mutual decision, saying that he and the secretary had held “a series of thoughtful conversations” and that Rumsfeld understood that “Iraq is not working well enough, fast enough.”
Bush’s reference to a series of talks evidently referred to broader discussions that had taken place between the president and the defense secretary about the situation in Iraq, potential changes in U.S. strategy, and plans to dispatch new U.S. military commanders to the region. There had been no explicit conversation between the two men about Rumsfeld’s departure before Bush’s decision to pick a replacement.
“The president, at least in his own mind, felt that through some of these conversations about the strategy, Rumsfeld was also giving clear signals that new leadership made sense,” one presidential aide explained later. A blunt discussion about Rumsfeld’s leaving was not necessary, another White House official suggested. “I think they both understood where they were in the conversation,” the official said. Additionally, there was often a certain formality about Rumsfeld, and the president, until he had finally decided the time had come for Rumsfeld to go, may have been reluctant to say something that could have been misunderstood. “Rumsfeld is businesslike and might have interpreted a comment from the president as sending a signal, prompting him to tender his resignation immediately,” the official said.
Rumsfeld, for his part, was wary of making a formal offer to resign. He had done so twice in the spring of 2004 following the Abu Ghraib revelations, and he did not want to be seen as someone who kept submitting his resignation as a technique to try to defuse calls for his removal and shore up his political standing. To have talked to Bush this time about stepping down would, in his view, have been final.
When it was Rumsfeld’s turn to speak at the White House event, he limited his remarks, thanking the president for the opportunity to serve and praising the professionalism and dedication of U.S. forces. He made no effort to defend his record, nor did he acknowledge any missteps on Iraq. But recognizing the target for blame that he had become, he invoked the words of an earlier civilian warrior who considered himself misunderstood by critics. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, he said, “I have benefited greatly from criticism, and at no time have I suffered a lack thereof.”
He made only one reference to the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hunt for terrorists worldwide, calling it a “little understood, unfamiliar war, the first war of the twenty-first century—it is not well known; it was not well understood; it is complex for people to comprehend.” The comment, coming at the tail end, sounded like a parting shot tinged with the frustration Rumsfeld himself had felt in trying to understand the new global fight and figuring out how best to combat it.
Even with the heated speculation about Rumsfeld before the elections, the defense secretary’s exit stunned Washington. In bearing the brunt of attacks for the administration’s conduct of the Iraq War, Rumsfeld had to some extent served to shield Bush from criticism. His departure confirmed what a damaging political liability he had become, although Bush was still unwilling to concede publicly that his defense secretary had made serious mistakes. To the contrary, the president praised Rumsfeld for having been “a superb leader during a time of change.”
Many of Rumsfeld’s friends were offended by the White House’s seemingly rushed and unceremonious handling of the announcement of Rumsfeld’s resignation. To his supporters, the day-after news conference—which concluded with Bush patting the defense secretary on the shoulder as he ushered him out of the Oval Office—was insensitive and unbefitting of Rumsfeld’s long career of public service.
To others, though, the end of Rumsfeld’s tenure came too late. A number of Republican lawmakers complained bitterly that Bush had not cut Rumsfeld loose before the elections, when the move might have provided a boost at the polls for some GOP candidates. While presidential aides had anticipated some gripes about the timing, the extent of the anger within party ranks surprised them.
Once away from the Pentagon, the former secretary effectively disappeared from the political scene, rarely appearing in public and declining most requests for interviews. When he initially agreed to see me for this book, he put talk about Iraq off limits. But at our final interview in late 2008, he relented and addressed a number of aspects of the war. Still, he had little to say when asked about regrets, and he scoffed at a question inviting him to acknowledge any mistakes. At times he seemed unsure himself of what to think about certain decisions or events, waiting for some later opportunity to review the facts and to reflect.
The story of Donald Rumsfeld is an exceptional personal drama that has had profound consequences for the United States and the world. It is an instructive tale of what can happen when a man, once considered among the best and brightest of his generation, meets his greatest challenge late in life and ends up being relieved of duty, widely despised and branded a failure.
Hubris and miscalculation, obstinacy and mismanagement, bad advice and bad luck all played a part in bringing Rumsfeld down. Given his leading role in two wars that have become national sinkholes, his association with some of the most shameful incidents in modern U.S. military history, and his personification of the arrogance and misjudgments of the Bush administration, Rumsfeld is likely to remain a deeply controversial figure for many years, easy to caricature and easy to loathe.


  • The Washington Post
    "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."

    "Donald Rumsfeld has been excoriated by both Democrats and Republicans for his handling of the Iraq war. This biography reveals a more nuanced picture than the conventional wisdom would suggest."

    Jamie Fly, executive director of The Foreign Policy Initiative
    "Washington Post reporter Bradley Graham chronicles the full span of Rumsfeld's remarkable career in a surprisingly balanced and fair new biography...Graham does an excellent job of tracing the man's meteoric rise in Washington, relaying insights from friends and associates about the famed Rumsfeld management style, which some call one of his biggest faults."
  • Thomas E. Ricks, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of The Gamble and Fiasco
    "Donald Rumsfeld is one of the most interesting and troubling figures of the Bush era, and Bradley Graham is the perfect writer to explore his reign at the Pentagon. Graham, a veteran military reporter, is scrupulously fair in weighing Rumsfeld's strengths and weaknesses. This is likely to be the definitive book on Rumsfeld, one that historians will turn to a century from now."

    LA Times
    "Among the handful of books likely to stand above mere topicality....What's particularly remarkable about the qualities Graham brings to this project is the extraordinary fair-mindedness with which he approaches his subject. He does not stint on analysis, but Rumsfeld's considerable virtues--flawless integrity and an unshakable lifelong commitment to civil rights, for example--are treated right alongside his overweening flaws: arrogance, a bullying intellect, tireless self-promotion. The result is an engrossing biography; its thorough, capacious reporting leaves those value judgments not absolutely required by the weight of evidence to the reader. There's a sturdy, old-fashioned quality to Graham's approach to his subject and this material, and the match works brilliantly. This is, in other words, a major--and highly important--American political biography.

On Sale
Jun 23, 2009
Page Count
832 pages

Bradley Graham

About the Author

Bradley Graham spent more than twenty-five years at the Washington Post in various reporting and editing assignments focused on military and foreign affairs.

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