Donald Rumsfeld was a gifted politician and a ruinous leader adept at avoiding reckoning with his choices. That combination led to what is considered an impressive career in Washington and a legacy of destruction that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.
On September 10, 2001, Rumsfeld gave a speech that demonstrated just what a capable politician he was. He explained that bureaucratic waste was undermining the Pentagon’s ability to carry out its mission. The idea of cutting government spending was mainstream in the Republican party, but shrinking the Pentagon budget was a difficult position for the Secretary of Defense to take. Rumsfeld, a Navy veteran and former member of Congress with decades of experience in the private sector as well as in multiple Republican administrations, including serving as Secretary of Defense in the Ford administration, was well-suited to make this case. Rumsfeld reassured the employees and those who worried that his organizational plans might leave America’s armed forces worse off: “Some might ask, how in the world could the Secretary of Defense attack the Pentagon in front of its people? To them I reply, I have no desire to attack the Pentagon; I want to liberate it.”
Following the attacks of the day after the bureaucratic waste speech, Rumsfeld would champion an argument for liberation elsewhere. Any cuts to the Pentagon were abandoned as the United States quickly launched a war in Afghanistan. Soon after, Rumsfeld became one of the lead advocates for war against Iraq. “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if Iraq were similar to Afghanistan?” he said. “If a bad regime was thrown out, people were liberated, food could come in, borders could be opened, repression could stop, prisons could be opened. I mean it would be fabulous.”
Rumsfeld used his political nous to push for war in Iraq, unencumbered by facts or potential consequences. In June of 2002, Rumsfeld gave a press conference in Kuwait City, falsely claiming that Iraq had chemical weapons and raising the specter of a latent nuclear weapons program. There was a dark irony in Rumsfeld being at the forefront of the campaign to justify going to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Saddam had been the recipient of an infamous handshake from Rumsfeld, who at the time was President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy to Iraq, along with American support for his genocidal war against Iran and the Iraqi Kurds. Rumsfeld would go on to compare Saddam to Hitler as part of his advocacy for war.
Rumsfeld got what he had been asking for in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq. He had assured Americans that it would be a quick war: “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” It would last eight years and lead to the devastation of Iraq, destabilization of the Middle East, and cascading consequences for the United States. Although Rumsfeld had claimed that there was a plan in place for rebuilding Iraq after the invasion, one never materialized, which political scientist Mike Mazarr called, “One of the most egregious cases of negligence in US foreign policy history.” Rumsfeld had stated that the war in Iraq would likely cost under $50 billion. The United States ended up paying more than $1 trillion for the dismantling of the Iraqi government, which left widespread corruption, crippled state capacity, and an environment ripe for extremist groups. By the time he was fired by President George W. Bush in 2006, the best estimate is that there had been at least 267,792 killed in Iraq, likely significantly more, most of whom were civilians and 4,550 of which were US service members. None of the figures were made public, however, due to a policy put in place by Rumsfeld.
Following his death on Wednesday, Rumsfeld’s allies quickly came to the defense of his legacy with revealing praise. John Bolton praised Rumsfeld for killing off arms control agreements. Christian Whiton returned to an old line, claiming that, actually, the invasion of Iraq was righteous and good and it was those who came after Rumsfeld who messed up the occupation. Andrew Card, Chief of Staff in the George W. Bush administration, said of Rumsfeld that he “was restrained in not saying that we should go from — automatically from the war in Afghanistan to the war in Iraq.” It is a peculiar definition of restraint.
The tributes from Bolton, Whiton, and Card carried on the history of Rumsfeld avoiding responsibility for what he wrought. He never displayed contrition for hundreds of thousands lives taken by the wars he helped orchestrate. Confronted with evidence of widespread looting and the breakdown of Iraqi society under US occupation, Rumsfeld responded, “stuff happens.” He was unwilling to reckon with the calamitous mistake of the war in Afghanistan, despite his near-singular responsibility for it being drawn out. In the face of being found responsible by Congress for approving the use of torture on US prisoners, Rumsfeld justified his decision, saying it was necessary for catching Osama Bin Laden — an argument devoid of both morality and evidence. Errol Morris’ documentary on Rumsfeld, “The Unknown Known,” conveys in an unsettling manner that Rumsfeld was adroit at rationalizing his choices and any attempts to force him to reckon with their consequences by media figures, historians, or the public, had failed.
Although he may have avoided a personal reckoning, it is important for there to be a public accounting of the legacy of Rumsfeld. The importance has nothing to do with justice — it is too late for that. Rumsfeld never faced anything close to what could be called justice for actions that have been called war crimes. Rumsfeld was able to live out his retirement in comfort, able to chummily chat with the media and develop his own Solitaire app. The importance is for those who hold power today and tomorrow. These leaders need to know that, even if they occupy a position that insulates them from immediate personal consequence, something that they hold precious — their legacy — will ultimately reflect the choices they made. Rumsfeld’s legacy should be — and really is — one of ruin.
Evan Cooper is an associate director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council.