Dark Mode
Sunday, 23 June 2024
Known unknowns about Donald Rumsfeld
Ian Black

It’s hard to imagine a positive and respectful obituary of Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of defense under President George Bush at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And when his death was announced last week, at the age of 88, there were indeed very few. Donald Rumsfeld

Rumsfeld was a key figure in the historic and bitterly divisive decision to invade Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the US - despite Saddam Hussein not having weapons of mass destruction, as Washington and its allies maintained at the time.

Bush admired Rumsfeld, who had served as defense secretary under President Gerald Ford at the height of the Cold War, describing his appointee as a man of "great judgement" with a "strong vision". But within hours of 9/11, Rumsfeld was already floating the idea of retaliation not just against Afghanistan-based Osama Bin Laden - the main suspect - but on Iraq too.

The catastrophic consequences of that decision in March 2003 are still with Iraq, the Middle East and the world nearly two decades later. It was, in the words of one US columnist, “one of the most baffling, hare-brained and ultimately bloody choices in the history of American national security.”

With Rumsfeld in charge, US forces swiftly overthrew Saddam but failed to maintain order afterwards. The result was that Iraq plummeted into chaos with a savage insurgency and sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. US troops remained in Iraq until 2011, long after he left the Pentagon in 2006.

Obituaries naturally noted that Rumsfeld played a vital role ahead of the war. He warned repeatedly of the dangers posed by Iraq’s WMD but no such weapons were ever discovered. Documents that surfaced later showed that Rumsfeld was well aware of the gaps in intelligence about WMD, but he consistently presented the claims to the public as if they were certainties.

In January 2003, for example, he declared that Saddam had “large, unaccounted for stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, including VX, sarin, mustard gas, anthrax, botulism and possibly smallpox”. He also described “an active Iraqi program to acquire and develop nuclear weapons.”

Following the successful invasion of Afghanistan that overthrew the Taliban, Bush’s reference to the “axis of evil” comprising Iran, Iraq and North Korea, paved the way for a bullish interventionism that became known as the “Bush doctrine.” Given the post 9/11 influence of the defense department, it was Rumsfeld who called the shots, along with vice-president Dick Cheney, and the head of the CIA, George Tenet.

Rumsfeld caused other longer-term damage. In the course of 2004, Bush twice refused to accept his offer to resign after photos emerged of US personnel abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad – a scandal that sparked international condemnation. The photos showed US troops laughing and giving thumbs-up signs as prisoners were forced into sexually abusive and humiliating positions.

American treatment of detainees in Iraq and foreign terrorism suspects at a prison “facility” set up under Rumsfeld at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, also attracted global criticism. The harm done to America’s reputation because of what were termed “enhanced interrogation techniques” remains grave to this day.

Historians also blamed the defense secretary for making decisions that led to difficulties in Iraq. Rumsfeld insisted on a relatively small invasion force, rejecting the views of many generals. That minimal force was insufficient to stabilize Iraq when Saddam fell. He was also accused of being slow to recognize the gravity of the insurgency in 2003 and the threat it posed. "Stuff happens," he told journalists in April 2003 amid growing chaos.

His man in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, also made two fateful and decisions: dissolving the Iraqi military – creating a pool for armed resistance rather than making use of them as a reconstruction force, as was originally planned. Bremer’s second error barred from Iraq's government even junior members of the former ruling Ba’ath Party, emptying ministries of officials.

Rumsfeld was infamous for holding conferences in which he sparred imperiously with reporters. A memorable moment came in 2002, when he gave a much-mocked answer about "known knowns" and "known unknowns" - generating ridicule after being asked whether there were indeed any WMD in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld

In his 2011 memoir, entitled Known and Unknown, he expressed no remorse over the decision to invade Iraq, which cost the US $700 billion and 4,400 American lives, as well as over a quarter of a million Iraqi dead and five million displaced. “Ridding the region of Saddam’s brutal regime has created a more stable and secure world,” he wrote.

It did not: as Iranian militias entered Iraq, they established the "Shia Crescent" that connected them by land to their allies in Syria and to Hizbullah in Lebanon. In due course, opposition to the Iraqi invasion was a key factor in the failure of the US to intervene in Syria’s bloody civil war in 2011, and its disastrous human and political consequences, despite President Barack Obama call for Bashar al-Assad to go. Rumsfeld left a more devastating legacy that he admitted. Donald Rumsfeld

levant      levant