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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Colleagues Debate His Legacy

November 9, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: In the early hours of September 11, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once again thrust himself into the public eye, running to help fellow Pentagon employees injured in the attack, and then to marshal the American response.

DONALD RUMSFELD, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense: The attack against the United States of America today was a vicious, well-coordinated, massive attack.

RAY SUAREZ: When the U.S. went after the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the secretary of defense became a popular figure on television.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I always love being introduced by a matinee television idol.

RAY SUAREZ: His news conferences and public appearances not only made news…

DONALD RUMSFELD: I am 69 years old, and I don’t believe it’s ever happened that I’ve lied to the press, and I don’t intend to start now.

RAY SUAREZ: … they were, to many, entertainment.

DONALD RUMSFELD: There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

RAY SUAREZ: Rumsfeld was a major proponent of the war to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, and he repeatedly insisted Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

DONALD RUMSFELD: We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad, and east, west, south and north somewhat.

RAY SUAREZ: Within hours after U.S. troops took Baghdad in April 2003, Rumsfeld was explaining a victory, accompanied by chaos and looting.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I could do that in any city in America. Think what’s happened in our cities when we’ve had riots and problems and looting. Stuff happens! Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes, and commit crimes, and do bad things.

RAY SUAREZ: Later that same year, the secretary told reporters American forces did not face guerrilla war in Iraq.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I guess the reason I don’t use the phrase “guerrilla war” is because there isn’t one. And it would be a misunderstanding and a miscommunication to you and to the people of the country and the world.

RAY SUAREZ: The war turned into an increasingly violent occupation. The secretary was asked by a soldier why troops had to rig their own armor for lightly equipped vehicles. He offered this explanation.

DONALD RUMSFELD: You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.

RAY SUAREZ: When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal erupted, Rumsfeld offered his resignation twice, but President Bush kept him on the job. As the war entered its third year, U.S. and Iraqi casualties mounted, and the questions in hearings and news conferences got tougher, as did the answers.

DONALD RUMSFELD: You ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, understand that it’s complicated, it’s difficult.

RAY SUAREZ: During this latest political campaign, Rumsfeld became a lightning rod; at least 45 members of Congress and candidates called for his resignation. A day after election returns were in, he was out.

DONALD RUMSFELD: These past years — six years — it’s been quite a time. It recalls to mind the statement by Winston Churchill, something to the effect that, “I have benefited greatly from criticism, and at no time have I suffered a lack thereof.”

RAY SUAREZ: Rumsfeld also served briefly as President Ford’s secretary of defense. He’ll leave the Pentagon in December and, after two tours of duty, will surpass Robert McNamara as the longest-serving secretary.

Rumsfeld and national security

Lawrence Korb
Former Pentagon Official
I think by going into Iraq before [Rumsfeld]finished the job in Afghanistan -- and Afghanistan is getting worse now -- I think he made us less safe.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Donald Rumsfeld's legacy, we get two views. Dov Zakheim worked closely with him as the Pentagon's comptroller and chief financial officer from May 2001 to May 2004. He's now a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank. He was assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration.

Dov Zakheim, when the president was making his announcement that the secretary would be leaving yesterday, he said Donald Rumsfeld made America and the world safer. Did he?

DOV ZAKHEIM, Vice President, Booz Allen Hamilton: In some respects, yes. Clearly, we had on 9/11 and right after 9/11 a major crisis, which was, how do we deal with the kind of terrorist threat we didn't remember ever having? Most people weren't alive when Pearl Harbor happened, and it was a very, very different environment then.

And if you recall, in the first weeks afterwards, even when we said we were going to go after Afghanistan, things hadn't moved quickly. A lot of people said, "Oh, this is going to fail. Nothing's going to happen." And then we won, and we won very big in Afghanistan. Clearly that made a difference.

Then we attacked Iraq. People will debate the second part, the second phase of what happened in Iraq. Very few are arguing that the military victory in the first phase was anything but an outright success.

And look what happened with Libya afterwards. Here we had another country that everyone used to call a rogue state, that people worried about that they might have nuclear weapons or support terrorism around the world. They backed off, to use the secretary's phrase. They turned around; they are no longer a threat. So, yes, I would say he did.

RAY SUAREZ: Lawrence Korb, did...

LAWRENCE KORB, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense: I think by going into Iraq before he finished the job in Afghanistan -- and Afghanistan is getting worse now -- I think he made us less safe.

Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terror, and despite what Secretary Rumsfeld said on this show, we knew where the weapons were. He didn't know that. And he said that; that misled the American people.

He didn't send enough troops in there to deal with Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell. Because of that, it allowed the insurgency, which wasn't planned, to metastasize. He refused to recognize it for the longest time.

As a result, our standing around the world has never been lower. Our Army is about to fall apart. He refused to allow the military to call up the Guard and Reserve early on so that they could have enough forces to do with that.

He never put the Pentagon on a wartime footing to make sure that they got things that the soldiers needed, like armor, for example. He basically had planned -- basically, he violated every tenet of the way you're supposed to fight wars.

When you go to war, you obviously hope for the best, but you plan for the worst. He planned for the best; it didn't turn out that way. And as a consequence, we're bogged down now in a situation that probably many people have called the greatest strategic blunder in U.S. history.

Will Iraq determine his legacy?

Dov Zakheim
Former Pentagon Official
To just limit his accomplishments or, if you will, lack of accomplishments, to what happens in Iraq is really unfair to this man.

RAY SUAREZ: I mentioned earlier that the secretary is about to become the longest-ever serving secretary of defense, but, Dov Zakheim, will he be judged pretty much on what you called the second phase in Iraq?

DOV ZAKHEIM: Well, I hope not. Clearly that is not going to be his success. But to judge a man who changed the Pentagon process in a fundamental way, literally dragged the bureaucracy into the 21st century -- before he came on board, there was no Northern Command, which essentially protects the United States. There was no Joint Forces Command, which experiments and is looking to technological change and the way we fight wars in the future.

The way we use Special Operations Forces was totally different. We did well in Afghanistan, and we did well in Iraq, in part because of the way we used those forces. He totally reorganized the way that command functioned. He changed the system of planning, programming and budgeting, very technical stuff, green eyeshade stuff. I was a green eyeshade, so I appreciated what he did.

We changed that system. The last time that system changed was probably under Secretary Laird, which was late '60s. So to just limit his accomplishments or, if you will, lack of accomplishments, to what happens in Iraq is really unfair to this man.

RAY SUAREZ: Unfair?

LAWRENCE KORB: No, I don't think so, because I would disagree in terms of the way he managed the Pentagon. For example, the cost growth of the major weapons system has never been greater. When he came in, the number of weapons systems under development, the cost was about $800 billion. Now it's $1.6 trillion. Even supporters of the Pentagon, like Senator Cornyn from Texas, are complaining about the cost overruns.

He seemed to be completely unaware of what was happening with the Boeing situation. When he was interviewed by the inspector general, he said, oh, he was vaguely aware. A $29 billion program he didn't know about?

And I think the worst thing was that he failed to integrate the personnel and finance systems for the soldiers, and the Guardsmen, and the Reserves, and the active going to Iraq. As a consequence, people got their pay after they were killed and wounded, and he allowed debt collectors to go after these people.

I mean, I think, in terms of managing, he didn't do a very good job, either, which is somewhat surprising given his background. And I think the reason is he had a deputy, up until very recently, who did not want to manage. Paul Wolfowitz was a policy man. He didn't focus on that.

And as a consequence, he basically this year allowed the services to go directly to the Office of Management and Budget to plead their case. That's his job. He's supposed to divvy it up.

The shares of the budget that the services have are the same exactly now as they were when he came in, so despite all of the things -- and he did make some accomplishments -- he really hasn't made a fundamental change.

On Rumsfeld's management skills

Dov Zakheim
Former Pentagon Official
The fact is that he brought in systems -- and I was involved in that -- that did start to improve our financial management.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Dov Zakheim, listening to Larry Korb's litany there, this was a man whose fearsome reputation was as a clever bureaucratic infighter, a man who knew how to use the levers of government.

DOV ZAKHEIM: Sure, and he was. But I think some of the things Larry points out are not entirely fair.

The service shares haven't changed roughly since the 1950s. And, in fact, in some respects, they did change. But we're talking about hundreds of billions of dollars. A small change means tens of billions; that's one thing.

Weapons systems, the cost of weapons systems went up in part because the size of the budget has gone up. It's not at all clear that it has, relatively speaking, gotten worse at all.

To blame the secretary of defense on somebody sending -- somebody in some part of the defense system sending a debt collector after someone, that's not what secretaries of defense do. In fact, if the secretary of defense spent his time checking on tax collectors or debt collectors or those sorts of things, then everybody would blame him, "Why aren't you managing Iraq? Why are you micromanaging?"

The fact is that he brought in systems -- and I was involved in that -- that did start to improve our financial management. When I took over office, we had $2.6 trillion -- that's a lot of money -- $2.6 trillion in obligations that were not properly resourced and recorded. We cleaned that up.

He was managing himself in very, very powerful ways, creating a defense business board, changing our management structures. And then 9/11 happens. And he rightly recognized that, although management was important -- and he never let go of it; I think that's a myth and a canard -- his focus had to be the war on terror.

Testing out new war theories

Lawrence Korb
Former Pentagon Official
The president makes the final decision. But Rumsfeld was trying to prove that you could win wars without a lot of people, to prove his transformation ideas, so he didn't send enough troops into Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Lawrence Korb, the secretary leaves with U.S. troops still in the field in many places and in active hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. How was that whole enterprise managed? And how much of the responsibility for how it was managed rests with Donald Rumsfeld?

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, I think it rests complete -- well, obviously, it rests with the president. The president makes the final decision. But Rumsfeld was trying to prove that you could win wars without a lot of people, to prove his transformation ideas, so he didn't send enough troops into Iraq.

He messed with the Army's logistic system, in terms of supporting the troops. The head of the Army Transportation Command said he threatened to fire anyone who told him he had a plan for the post-Saddam era, as you might call it, phase four of the military operation.

He appointed only people to three- and four-star jobs who didn't disagree with him. Anybody who disagreed with him did not get promoted. I mean, so I think, in terms -- he got his way. There's no doubt about it. And his way turned out to be the wrong way, and particularly not recognizing the insurgency when it started. In the clip you played there, as well, you know, "This stuff happens."

And, you know, Dov talking about a great manager, well, when you went to war, you should have accelerated those processes for armoring the vehicles that you sent over there, for making sure the troops had enough body armor. Troops were buying -- their families were buying it.

And I don't say he has to not for debt collectors, but he has to ensure that the personnel and finance systems are integrated before those people go there.

RAY SUAREZ: We only have time for a quick response, Dov.

DOV ZAKHEIM: Well, first of all, to blame the secretary of defense for some systemic problems, for example, when we contract...

RAY SUAREZ: But respond to what Larry just said.

DOV ZAKHEIM: All right, responding, OK. Armor...

RAY SUAREZ: Is it his responsibility that some of these big things didn't happen, like recognizing that insurgency was starting to gather strength in Iraq?

DOV ZAKHEIM: A lot of people didn't recognize it was gathering strength. The reason was that, if you recall in the first year after the war, you didn't have anything like this level of insurgency. So it caught a lot of people by surprise.

In terms of providing the equipment, the money was there. We pushed it through. The problem was actually getting it out of the manufacturers, and we did accelerate. We were able to get things out as soon as they came off the assembly lines.

Again, one simply has to look at the facts. You've got a lot of issues that one can take with him, but in terms of trying to provide for the troops, making sure they got what they needed as quickly as they could, under what was fundamentally and still is a peacetime system, with a Congress that behaved in a peacetime fashion, you've got to take that into account.

RAY SUAREZ: Dov Zakheim, Lawrence Korb, thank you, gentlemen.