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Rumsfeld Dishes, But Harbors Few Second Thoughts, In His New Memoir

Donald Rumsfeld: "As I began to come to terms with what had happened at Abu Ghraib, the events left me feeling punched in the gut.”
Donald Rumsfeld: "As I began to come to terms with what had happened at Abu Ghraib, the events left me feeling punched in the gut.”
WASHINGTON -- This time, it’s Donald Rumsfeld’s turn.

Ex-President George W. Bush published his own political memoir just a few weeks ago. Now Bush’s former secretary of defense is getting into the act with "Known And Unknown: A Memoir" his new book that recounts a rich political life ranging from his Washington beginnings as a junior congressman all the way up to his role as the guiding hand behind America’s post-9/11 wars in the Middle East.

The title plays off a signature moment from February 2002, in the leadup to the Iraq War, when the former U.S. defense chief tried to rationalize the absence of evidence linking the Iraqi government to weapons of mass destruction:

Given the man's famously combative nature, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that Rumsfeld -- in his memoir -- refuses to back away from his most controversial positions.

He certainly doesn’t give an inch on the Iraq War. Though Rumsfeld concedes that the weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration used as its primary public justification for conducting the war never turned up, he insists that removing Saddam Hussein legitimized the 2003 invasion anyway.

“I have no doubt that given the facts that were made available to President Bush in 2003, I would have made the same decision…,” Rumsfeld writes.“Ridding the region of Saddam’s brutal regime has created a more stable secure world.”

No Second Thoughts

Speaking in an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News earlier this week, Rumsfeld put it this way:

"What you know today can help you unthink your thinking about tomorrow. It can't help you with things you were thinking about back then," he said. "Back then, there was reasonable confidence that [Saddam Hussein] had these weapons."

Nor does Rumsfeld register second thoughts about the Pentagon’s crucial failure to capture Osama bin Laden in the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. He contends that no one ever provided him with credible intelligence that Bin Laden was on the scene – and that his generals never asked him for the extra troops that would have prevented Bin Laden’s escape. The fault, it would seem, rests squarely on the shoulders of then-CIA Director George Tenet and General Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command: “If someone thought Bin Laden was cornered, as later claimed, I found it surprising that Tenet had never called me to urge Franks to support their operation.”

And as for that postinvasion looting in Iraq that paved the way for the collapse of Iraqi institutions and a swelling insurgency? Rumsfeld claims that the reports of looting were simply the gross exaggerations of an “irresponsible” Western press: “The looting made it appear that postwar Iraq was descending into chaos…,” he writes dismissively. “I thought the looting was tragic, but I did not fault our troops.”

One can’t help but wonder how the Iraqis who lived through it all will react to that one.

But the 815-page memoir has a lot of other stories to tell besides these.

Meeting Saddam Hussein

Rumsfeld’s career in politics goes back to 1962, when he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Illinois. He remained in Congress for seven years, then left to serve in a variety of jobs in the Nixon administration. Many who know of Rumsfeld’s six-year term as President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense might not realize that he held the same job before, under President Gerald Ford in 1975-77. Back then, he jumped into the job after a yearlong stint as chief of staff in Ford’s White House.

After spending a few years in the private sector, Rumsfeld would return to politics again in 1983, this time courtesy of Ronald Reagan, who recruited him to serve as a presidential envoy to the Middle East. It was in this capacity that Rumsfeld met with Hussein in 1983 – an event that Rumsfeld uses to kick off the book. Rumsfeld archly notes that the encounter, at which he was filmed shaking Saddam’s hand, would become “the subject of gossip, rumors, and crackpot conspiracy theories for more than a quarter of a century.”

In Rumsfeld’s telling, the whole business was a fairly straightforward case of great-power politics. Iraq, at the time, was at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country now regarded by Washington as one of its major enemies in the Middle East.

“As odd as it might sound, [Hussein] came across as rather reasonable…I did not expect that Saddam’s regime would play such a prominent role in our country’s future – and in my life – in the years ahead.”

The book, of course, does offer its share of revelations. Rumsfeld reveals that he offered to resign twice in the wake of the devastating Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004, when photos surfaced that detailed mistreatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers.

“Unacceptable acts had been visited upon human beings in U.S. charge,” he writes. “The ramifications were so great that, as the head of this department of 3 million people, I felt compelled to step forward to take responsibility for the institutional failure. As I began to come to terms with what had happened at Abu Ghraib, the events left me feeling punched in the gut.”

'Misjudgment On My Part'

Yet Bush refused to let Rumsfeld go. Rumsfeld speculates that Bush didn’t believe that his resignation would make the scandal go away, and that he was worried about the consequences of shedding the head of the Pentagon in the midst of two difficult wars. Rumsfeld accepted the president’s decision.

“I now believe that this was a misjudgment on my part…More than anything else I have failed to do," he writes, "and even amid my pride in the many important things that we did accomplish, I regret that I did not leave at that point.”

Fans of Washington insider politics, meanwhile, will find plenty to chew over.

Rumsfeld does not hesitate to dish on the personal squabbles that plagued the Bush administration. Rumsfeld accuses Condoleezza Rice, who filled the post of National Security Council head in Bush’s first administration, of misunderstanding the nature of the job. He blames her for bad management, writing that “meetings were not well organized,” agendas frequently changed, and minutes poorly kept.

And he is particularly harsh on Colin Powell, whom he shows making the case for the invasion of Iraq in a famous session of the UN Security Council and then, in Rumsfeld’s words, claiming that he was “somehow innocently misled into making a false declaration.” Rumseld writes: “Powell was not duped or misled by anybody, nor did he lie about Saddam’s suspected WMD stockpiles. The president did not lie. The vice president did not lie. Rice did not lie. I did not lie. The Congress did not lie. The far less dramatic truth is that we were wrong.”

Rumsfeld, in his book, is particularly galled that Powell issued an apology for the looting of Baghdad’s Iraqi National Museum and vowed to recover stolen artifacts.

As "Known And Unknown" shows once again, no one will ever fault Donald Rumsfeld for fudging his words.

Christian Caryl is RFE/RL's chief Washington editor