The Impenetrable Donald Rumsfeld

Errol Morris writes about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his complete lack of doubt about any decision he has ever made. Even after a decade of war in Iraq that cost trillions of dollars and found no WMD, he refuses to acknowledge even the possibility that he might have been wrong about anything.

Many people associate the phrases the known known, the known unknown and the unknown unknown with Rumsfeld, but few people are aware of how he first presented these ideas to the public. It was at a Pentagon news conference on Feb. 12, 2002. Reporters filed in to the Pentagon Briefing Room — five months after 9/11 and a year before the invasion of Iraq. The verbal exchanges that followed provide an excursion into a world no less irrational, no less absurd, than the worlds Lewis Carroll created in Alice in Wonderland.

He talked to Jamie McIntyre, one of the reporters who tried to pin down Rumsfeld during that infamous interview, asking what evidence there was that Iraq had WMD. McIntyre’s answers are illuminating:

ERROL MORRIS: I was often struck by the difference between Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara. McNamara said that he never answered the question he was asked but rather the question that he wanted to be asked. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, would never answer the question he was asked or any other question — Ask Rumsfeld a question, and all you get is evasions. But are they just evasions or do they reveal a lack of substance? And McNamara expressed regret —

JAMIE McINTYRE: I know Rumsfeld well enough at this point to know that he’s never going to have this kind of epiphany. He’s never going to have this introspective moment where he realizes, even though we had the best intentions, that many of his decisions turned out to be disasters. It was rare that he would ever admit that he was wrong about anything. Part of his defense was that he was very adept at putting caveats into everything that he said so that he could go back later and cite the caveat. “I never said how long the war would last.” “I never said how many troops would be needed.” “I never said how much it would cost.” He was very slippery. You couldn’t pin him down on things. And his favorite technique, of course, was to challenge the premise of your question and never actually answer it.

To this day, Rumsfeld remains adamant that he was not wrong despite all the evidence that he was (or was simply lying, which doesn’t strike me as unlikely).

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  • Chiroptera

    …even though we had the best intentions….

    I don’t know Rumsfeld personally, so I don’t know: could this be the problem here?

  • smhll

    Even after a decade of war in Iraq that cost trillions of dollars and found no WMD, he refuses to acknowledge even the possibility that he might have been wrong about anything.

    As a skeptical person, this innerrancy strikes me as an unlikely level of accuracy / righteousness for any person to achieve. Not just Rumsfeld.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    If you haven’t seen “Fog of War” it’s – amazing. It’s not about Rumsfeld, it’s about his spiritual mentor Robert S. MacNamara. In the entire documentary, MacNamara reveals a bunch of really interesting stuff (like that they knew the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a navy mistake, no shit!) but he never utters the words “I was wrong.”

    I used to watch Rumsfeld briefings and wonder if the guy had mistakenly thought there was a Nobel Prize for Asshole, and he was angling to win it.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    @smhll – No, really. Guys like Rumsfeld and MacNamara deal with any cognitive dissonance resulting from their actions by convincing themselves that they were absolutely completely right in all respects. It’s easier that way.

  • matty1

    Well it seems unlikely Rumsfeld intended George and Tony’s Excellent Adventure to go quite so badly but best intentions in the sense he wanted people to be happy with the outcome, no I don’t think so.

  • Broken Things

    Rumsfeld and McNamara were quintessential cold warriors. The underlying premise of everything they did was “We are right”. Any failure of their plans, even to the point of determining they made a mistake, could never be associated with the failure of their ideology. Failure was something caused by externalities or a mis-calculation on the global chess board on which they fancied themselves masters. It could not be because of fundamental flaws in their reasoning processes.

  • doublereed

    Whenever I watch Rumsfeld, I am struck by his absolute cowardice. It astonishes me how he’s frightened of answering simple questions or saying simple statements. The fact that he was leader of military forces amazes me.

  • colnago80

    Speaking of Rumsfeld, there’s a brouhaha going on at the Un. of Minnesota over the invitation, at a cost of $150,000, to former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice for an invited presentation. PZ is on the case.

    http://goo.gl/VpmKCx

  • http://www.facebook.com/den.wilson d.c.wilson

    Why are people even talking to Rumsfeld? The man has no credibility whatsoever. He’s practically a character out of Dr. Strangelove. He just slither under a rock and die of shame already.

  • a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Rumsfeld–a perfect example of “not even wrong.”

  • sigurd jorsalfar

    Rumsfeld’s “known knowns” shtick wasn’t complete nonsense. It has logic behind it when presented in the correct form. But Rumsfeld interpreted it to mean that, because it is almost certain that there are things out there that we don’t know, and we can call that ‘knowing’ there are things that we don’t know., you can claim to know specific things that you don’t really know. He may have honestly had himself convinced that this was sound logic.

    For my money, the most comically absurd thing Rumsfeld ever said was when, concerning the fact that the invasion of Iraq was well underway and yet no WMDs had turned up, he was asked by an interviewer ‘do we know where the WMDs are?’ and he replied of course we know where they are – they are in Baghdad and north and east and west and south of there. That was black comedy gold.

    People who know him say he’s just not introspective. That may be so. I’ve often wondered if he’s the type of person who believes admitting you are wrong is always a sign of weakness, so never do it, no matter how obviously wrong you are. A major psychological failing on his part either way.

  • coffeehound

    @6,

    Failure was something caused by externalities or a mis-calculation on the global chess board on which they fancied themselves masters. It could not be because of fundamental flaws in their reasoning processes.

    +1 This is key but it’s also why learning from their mistakes is never going to be an option. They just don’t make them.

  • Olav

    Ed:

    To this day, Rumsfeld remains adamant that he was not wrong despite all the evidence that he was (or was simply lying, which doesn’t strike me as unlikely).

    In fact, this be the single most likely explanation. Only Americans are still fooling themselves thinking that perhaps the war against Iraq was some manner of “mistake”. It was not, it was a crime based on very transparent lies, and most people in the world saw it for what it was even at the time.

    Rumsfeld knew what he was doing, and that is exactly why he will never admit it.

    Why isn’t this evil piece of shite in prison, or rather why is his rotten carcass not hanging from a lamp post somewhere? Along with his buddies from PNAC. And their “best intentions”, too.

  • lancifer

    JAMIE McINTYRE: What you see in Rumsfeld is based on how you feel about him. I actually liked him a lot. There’s a tendency to really demonize him, or, for the few people that really love Rumsfeld, to lionize him.

    I also like Donald Rumsfeld. I don’t “lionize him”. It is clear that several of the people that have posted above are in the “demonize him” category.

    The CIA thought there were WMD’s but that wasn’t the only, or even most compelling, reason to take down Sadam, it was just the easiest to use to scare the public, and US allies, into going along with the invasion.

  • lancifer

    Olav,

    Only Americans are still fooling themselves thinking that perhaps the war against Iraq was some manner of “mistake”. It was not, it was a crime based on very transparent lies, and most people in the world saw it for what it was even at the time.

    Hmm. only Americans huh? Then maybe you can explain why there were no less than twelve UN resolutions warning Sadam that he faced “dire and immediate consequences” if he did not comply “immediately and unconditionally” with the terms he had agreed to when he was defeated in the first Gulf War?

    Resolution 1441 stated that Iraq was in material breach of the ceasefire terms presented under the terms of Resolution 687. Iraq’s breaches related not only to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but also the known construction of prohibited types of missiles, the purchase and import of prohibited armaments, and the continuing refusal of Iraq to compensate Kuwait for the widespread looting conducted by its troops during the 1990–1991 invasion and occupation. It also stated that “…false statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq pursuant to this resolution and failure by Iraq at any time to comply with, and cooperate fully in the implementation of, this resolution shall constitute a further material breach of Iraq’s obligations.” – wikipedia

    You, and many others, perpetuate the rancorous delusion that the US acted unilaterally based solely on the “lie” of WMD’s.

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @13. Olav :

    Only Americans are still fooling themselves thinking that perhaps the war against Iraq was some manner of “mistake”. (1) It was not, it was a crime based on very transparent lies, and most people in the world saw it for what it was even at the time.

    Really? Most people? Only Americans? Citations needed.

    I suggest you read :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationale_for_the_Iraq_War

    then realise that it here were many reasons for this war and these are a lot more complicated than you seem to think.

    Also you need to assign appropriate blame to Saddam Hussein who could have avoided war had he done the right thing and fled into exile before the first shots were fired. Hussein bluffed about WMDs and failed to co-operate with the UN weapons inspectors and others leading to this conflict which should really be called Saddam’s Second War. (The first being the war to free Kuwait after that nation had been occupied by Saddam’s Iraq in circa 1990.)

    Saddam Hussein’s oppressive and brutal regime was a horrendous one and his removal from power well deserved. Let’s not forget that or gloss it over like it doesn’t matter okay?

    What happened after went very terribly wrong again for a lot of complex reasons – much more easily seen from hindsight.

    Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and neoconservatives got a lot of policies wrong and made some appalling mistakes that led to people dying. But the whole war and aftermath isn’t solely their fault – others incl. Saddam Hussein and the warring Islamist religious sides and Al Quaeda in Iraq and more also bear a lot of the responsibility and blame. I don’t think we should overlook that and fall for simplistic conspiracy theories or place all the blame on the US side. It wasn’t that simple.

    I don’t think its fair to call the Iraq war either a mistake or a crime because neither of those descriptions are really adequate or accurate.

  • zenlike

    Anyone surprised our resident AGW denialist and our resident muslim hater are both cheerleaders of the Iraqi war?

  • Pieter B, FCD

    GHW Bush and Brent Scowcroft wrote in 1998 “While we hoped that popular revolt or coup would topple Saddam, neither the U.S. nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state. We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf. Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in “mission creep,” and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible. We had been unable to find Noriega in Panama, which we knew intimately. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger and other allies pulling out as well. Under those circumstances, furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-cold war world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the U.N.’s mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different–and perhaps barren–outcome.”

    Aside from finding Saddam, everything in that graf came true.

  • Pieter B, FCD

    The opening segment of “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week (3/21) was a 1:1 with Errol Morris. It showed just what a sucker Maher is for what Daniel Dennett called “deepities,” simplistic statements that superficially seem profound. Maher apparently thinks that Rumsfeld is some sort of deep thinker based on his rhetorical taldancing.

    I’m reminded of Ezra Klein’s description of Dick Armey: “A stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.”

  • pocketnerd

    Thus Spake ZaraPieter B, FCD:

    Aside from finding Saddam, everything in that graf came true.

    I’d say they got that part right as well — we did have to “occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.” And as predicted, it left us “an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land” for years afterwards.

  • dingojack

    Lance – and how many UN resolutions are there warning (or condemning) Israel over building settlements on the West Bank? Next stop Jerusalem! (Hey we can even dust off Shrub The Least’s ‘crusade’ remarks, that’ll go down a treat). @@

    Stevo – uh no, no we didn’t. There were massive street protests everywhere in the lead up to the war. Various other countries had warned the CIA and the State Department that the sources of intelligence from the Iraq were poor and unreliable (see CURVEBALL), even Colin Powell (who had been chosen to be the invasion’s cheerleader-in-chief) was appalled at the paucity (both qualitatively and quantitatively) of information he was expected to present to the UN. Even at the time the allies, their Secret Services and their people knew that it was a crock.

    The reason the invasion went belly-up after the initial ‘success’ (if you can count hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, critically damaged infrastructure and so on, a success) was because the Americans took out the guy who would have re-built the country and replaced him with the incompetent political ‘friend’ of the Republicans, Paul Bremner. His sacking of the armed forced and the police led to the beginning of the counter-insurgency we see in Iraq today.

    Dingo

    ——–

    PS: Pocketnerd – who found Saddam Hussein? I thought it was the Iraqis. (But I could be wrong).

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @ ^ dingojack : Saddam Hussein was caught by US troops specifically :

    ..the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno and led by Col. James Hickey of the 4th Infantry Division, with joint operations Task Force 121—an elite and covert joint special operations team. They searched two sites, “Wolverine 1” and “Wolverine 2,” outside the town of ad-Dawr, but did not find Hussein. A continued search between the two sites found Hussein hiding in a “spider hole” at 20:30hrs local Iraqi time. Hussein, armed with a pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle, and provisioned with USD$750,000 in cash, did not resist capture.[2]

    Source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Red_Dawn

    Stevo – uh no, no we didn’t.

    Didn’t what? I’m not sure what part of my comment you are talking about there. Certainly the anti-war marches you refer to etc .. happened and there was some controversy (understatement!) among the public if not the world leaders at the time about just how good the case for war was but this doesn’t negate anything I’ve said – which is, basically, that it was a complicated situation and more to it than what Olav (#13) claimed.

    His (Bremer’s) sacking of the armed forced and the police led to the beginning of the counter-insurgency we see in Iraq today.

    That was one factor – not the sole one.

    Don’t think its fair to overlook the role played by terrorists and Jihadist that flooded in or the sectarian Shia-Sunni Iraqi violence which contributed as much if nor more to the troubles post Saddam’s removal.

    @17. zenlike :

    Anyone surprised our resident AGW denialist and our resident muslim hater are both cheerleaders of the Iraqi war?

    You are in error on at least two counts. I am not “cheerleading” for the Iraq war as any reasonable reading of my comments shows. Nor am I a Muslim hater. I hate the extremist Jihadist, Salafist and Wahhabist forms of Islam the ideology but not Muslims as individual people.

  • dingojack

    Stevo – My apologies I thought you said ‘we had good reasons’, which was untrue.

    Al-Queda needed chaos to get a foot-hold, and ‘our man in Bagdad’ Bremner provided it by ‘lighting the powder trail to the magazine’, that, ultimately, pushed resistance and resentment past the tipping point into full-blown insurgency..

    Dingo