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What Rumsfeld Knows


A Review of Known and Unknown: A Memoir by Donald Rumsfeld


By Eric Wessan


"There are three ways knowledge can be categorized: known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns." So begins Known and Unknown, the new memoir from Donald Rumsfeld. This point is that there are certain items of knowledge that you can know, such as that there is an al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. There are other points or tidbits of information that you lack, but that you know that you lack, such as the exact composition or location of those forces. Then there are pieces of information you do not even know you lack, and therefore cannot even seek out.

Known and Unknown focuses on illuminating Rumsfeld's role in government for the past almost fifty years that Rumsfeld has been involved with politics in Washington. While some of the most contemporary and controversial material occurs close to the end of the book, this details Rumsfeld's incredibly interesting life and career. It allows observation of one of the most influential men on US defense policy from the 1960s to today. Unlike Bush's recent Decision Points, this biography follows a chronological timeline through life.

This biography is definitely not dry. Rumsfeld comes off as not only smart and witty, but also quite sharp. He interjects his various stories of state affairs and deciding policies with fairly humorous anecdotes from his life. An early one involves his ten year old quest for a Schwinn bicycle. Another involves his "patriotic duty" to serve as an escort for the Miss America pageant in 1954. Later on, some of the lighter moments are concerned when Rumsfeld is serving overseas as Ambassador to NATO. One moment of fun irony was in the first dealing that Rumsfeld had with Saddam Hussein. He spoke about how Saddam was extremely open to work with "France in particular".

This sort of prescience was not alone for Rumsfeld. There is a joke that if everyone just listened to Jack Bauer the show "24" would be called "12". A similar epithet could be given to Rumsfeld. While serving at times as a congressman, chief of staff, defense secretary or even CEO, Rumsfeld seems to have a streak of prescience. Whenever an administration made a mistake, Rumsfeld seems to have spoken against it, or sent one of his "snowflake" memos to counter it. These were called "snowflakes" because they were small, white sheets of paper that would come straight out of his Dictaphone in a flurry of action. Throughout his career, "snowflakes" were the way that Rumsfeld communicated with others and took note of what occurred. Taking Known and Unknown at face value it seems to be true that Rumsfeld could do no wrong.

In a similar vein, Rumsfeld's smart comments oftentimes turn caustic. Rumsfeld creates narratives of people. He introduces a person and within the first time mentioned you can tell how much Rumsfeld likes or dislikes him or her. Two excellent examples of this are Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. Throughout Known and Unknown, Cheney comes off as a protégé of Rumsfeld. As time progresses Cheney moves from assistant job to assistant job, all on Rumsfeld's recommendation. It is very clear through repetition that Cheney's involvement in government was incredibly beneficial, and also entirely due to the actions taken by Rumsfeld. Later, when Cheney becomes Vice-President, an air of paternalism is still apparent. Condoleezza on the other hand is introduced by refusing to serve on a board with Rumsfeld. She later goes on to make negative gestures concerning the quality of Rumsfeld's suits. It is no surprise later on when Rumsfeld repeatedly talks down Rice's decisions as oftentimes poor.

One major sticking point throughout Known and Unknown is that of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. He has various relationships with different departments throughout his presidency, but arguably most important were his two tenures in defense. Mr. Rumsfeld was the youngest and later oldest Secretary of Defense. An interesting note is that both times Rumsfeld entered the Pentagon, he entered as a reformer. Whether young or old, he bucked tradition and tried to force steps of modernization and rationality among an organization that comes off as steeped in the past. Even while Rumsfeld's respect of the Pentagon is quite large, Rumsfeld is seen as a necessary savior among a generally hide-bound or inertia filled mess.

The heart of this memoir though, focuses on Rumsfeld's relationship with Iraq. It is quite clear that Rumsfeld thought that we should have invaded Iraq, and that we should have removed Saddam Hussein. While Colin Powell now claims that he was misled, or lied to, Rumsfeld dismisses this as poppycock. He goes so far as to say that Powell probably had more intelligence in the State Department than he had in Defense. Everyone believed that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, and that he was limiting weapons inspections in order to hide it. Rumsfeld produces much evidence that even though no WMDs were found in Iraq, Saddam had the capability to create WMDs on short notice. The fertilizer and pesticide factories could easily have been converted to produce chemical and biological weaponry. These facilities with two uses were almost as dangerous as actually having stockpiles of WMDs. For this reason, Rumsfeld is very unapologetic about the decision to invade Iraq.

Rumsfeld had a very clear plan for how Iraq round two was supposed to go. He felt that the United States should get into Iraq, clear out Saddam and then transition to Iraqi forces as quickly as possible. He did not believe in protracted state building, nor did he believe in occupation. A few times throughout the memoir, Rumsfeld offers resignation. This illustrates Rumsfeld's willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the policies he believes in. When the scandal broke in Abu Ghraib was one instance in which he was willing to resign. Even in his failures (which were according to Known and Unknown no actual fault of his own) allowed Rumsfeld to show his savvy.

Rumsfeld notes some gaping problems that existed in the structure of American defense and intelligence gathering. Originally, he pushes for the Abrams class tank to exist in the form it exists today. While much of the upper echelons in the military seemed to favor a different schematic that would have been slower and non-NATO compatible, Rumsfeld pushes for the new tank to have cannon that is a little smaller, but of the same caliber as US allies. This is just one instance of Rumsfeld reforming the defense department to make it faster and more lethal. Another note is his increase in the use of smart weaponry, really pushing for a modernization of the US armed forces.

With Iraq though, the idea that Rumsfeld was always right takes a little bit of a beating. Throughout his memoir, Rumsfeld seems to know how to act correctly albeit sometimes his superiors do not agree or listen. With Iraq, Rumsfeld's strategy seemed light. While it was obvious that he had specific goals he wished to reach, such as the quick overthrow of Saddam, he was not successful for planning what came after. The idea of a quick transition seemed to be a non-option almost immediately after the main military action ended, but Rumsfeld refused to accept it. The surge, brought about mostly by his successor Robert Gates and General David Petraeus, would likely not have happened had Rumsfeld stayed in office.

Known and Unknown provides an incredibly interesting viewpoint of how one man has had a lifelong relationship with US government. Donald Rumsfeld is a character and a wit that embraces his foibles, even as he sets himself upon a self-righteous pedestal. In the end, Rumsfeld embraced one of his famous quotations when writing his memoir. Whether or not the events occurred as he stated, he would definitely still say, "I believe what I said yesterday. I don't know what I said, but I know what I think, and, well, I assume it's what I said."