The Defense Secretary Who Let Bin Laden Get Away
I like Donald Rumsfeld. I’ve always thought he was a hard-working, intelligent man. I respected his life in public service at the highest and most demanding levels. So it was with some surprise that I found myself flinging his book against a wall in hopes I would break its stupid little spine.
“Known and Unknown,” his memoir of his tumultuous time in government, is so bad it’s news even a month after its debut. It takes a long time to read because there are a lot of words, most of them boring. At first I thought this an unfortunate flaw, but I came to see it as strategy. He’s going to overwhelm you with wordage, with dates and supposed data, he’s going to bore you into submission, and at the end you’re going to throw up your hands and shout, “I know Iraq and Afghanistan were not Don Rumsfeld’s fault! I know this because I’ve now read his memos, which explain at great length why nothing is his fault.”
Fault of course isn’t the point. You’d expect such a book (all right – you’d hope) to be reflective, to be self-questioning and questioning of others, and to grapple with the ruin of U.S. foreign policy circa 2001-08. He was secretary of defense until 2006, in the innermost councils. He heard all the conversations. He was in on the decisions. You’d expect him to explain the overall, overarching strategic thinking that guided them. Since some of those decisions are in the process of turning out badly, and since he obviously loves his country, you’d expect him to critique and correct certain mindsets and assumptions so that later generations will learn. When he doesn’t do this, when he merely asserts, defends and quotes his memos, you feel overwhelmed, again, by the terrible thought that there was no overall, overarching strategic thinking. There were only second-rate minds busily, consequentially at work
Second-rateness marks the book, which is an extended effort at blame deflection. Mr. Rumsfeld didn’t ignore the generals, he listened to them too much. Not enough troops in Iraq? That would be Gen. Tommy Franks. Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. troop movements? Secretary of State Colin Powell. America’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction? “Obviously the focus on WMD to the exclusion of almost all else was a public relations error.” Yes, I’d say so. He warned early on in a memo he quotes that the administration was putting too much emphasis on WMD. But put it in context: “Recent history is abundant with examples of flawed intelligence that have affected key national security decisions and contingency planning.”
A word on the use of memos in memoirs. Everyone in government now knows his memos can serve, years later, to illustrate his farsightedness and defend against charges of blindness, indifference, stupidity. So people in government send a lot of memos! “Memo to self: I’m deeply worried about Mideast crisis. Let’s solve West Bank problem immediately.” “Memo to Steve: I’m concerned about China. I’d like you to make sure it becomes democratic. Please move on this soonest, before lunch if you can.” A man in the Bush administration once told me of a guy who used to change the name on memos when they turned out to be smart. He’d make himself the sender so that when future scholars pored over the presidential library, they’d discover what a genius he was.
Most memos prove nothing. It is disturbing that so many Bush-era memoirs rely so heavily on them.
But the terrible thing about the Rumsfeld book, and there is no polite way to say this, is the half-baked nature of the thinking within it. The quality of analysis and understanding of history is so mediocre, so insufficient to the moment.
Which gets me to the point at which I tried to break the book’s spine.
If you asked most Americans why we went into Afghanistan in the weeks after 9/11, they would answer, with perfect common sense, that it was to get the bad guys – to find or kill Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers, to topple the Taliban government that had given them aid and support, to destroy terrorist networks and operations. New York at the time of the invasion, October 2001, was still, literally, smoking; the whole town still carried the acrid smell of Ground Zero. The scenes of that day were still vivid and sharp. New York still isn’t over it and will never be over it, but what happened on 9/11 was fresh, and we wanted who did it to get caught.
America wanted – needed – to see U.S. troops pull Osama out of his cave by his beard and drag him in his urine-soaked robes into an American courtroom. Or, less good but still good, to find him, kill him, put his head in a Tiffany box with a bow, and hand-carry it to the president of the United States.
It wasn’t lust for vengeance, it was lust for justice, and for more than justice. Getting Osama would have shown the world what happens when you do a thing like 9/11 to a nation like America. It would have shown al Qaeda and their would-be camp followers what kind of unstoppable ferocity they were up against. It would have reminded the world that we are one great people with one terrible swift sword.
The failure to find bin Laden was a seminal moment in the history of the war in Afghanistan. And it was a catastrophe. From that moment – the moment he escaped his apparent hideout in Tora Bora and went on to make his sneering speeches and send them out to the world – from that moment everything about the Afghanistan war became unclear, unfocused, murky and confused. The administration in Washington, emboldened by what it called its victory over the Taliban, decided to move on Iraq. Its focus shifted, it took its eye off the ball, and Afghanistan is now what it is.
You’d think, nearly a decade after the events of Tora Bora, that Mr. Rumsfeld would understand the extent of the error and the breadth of its implications. He does not. Needless to say, Tora Bora was the fault of someone else – Gen. Franks of course, and CIA Director George Tenet. “Franks had to determine whether attempting to apprehend one man on the run” was “worth the risks.” Needless to say “there were numerous operational details.” And of course, in a typical Rumsfeldian touch, he says he later learned CIA operatives on the ground had asked for help, but “I never received such a request from either Franks or Tenet and cannot imagine denying it if I had.” I can.
Osama bin Laden was not “one man on the run.” He is the man who did 9/11. He had just killed almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, in a field in Pennsylvania. He’s the reason people held hands and jumped off the buildings. He’s the reason the towers groaned to the ground.
It is the great scandal of the wars of the Bush era that the U.S. government failed to get him and bring him to justice. It is the shame of this book that Don Rumsfeld lacks the brains to see it, or the guts to admit it.