rumsfeld's war [home]
paths to power

james mann

Let's start with Don Rumsfeld in the Nixon administration. Who is he?

Rumsfeld is a member of Congress all through the mid-'60s, and by 1968 he's getting restless. He wants to do something new. He's trying to advance in the House. That doesn't quite work out because he's got some enemies there. ... Finally, in the spring of '69, they offer him the job of head of the Office of Economic Opportunity. They offer him the job to run an agency that Nixon hates. He's looking around for someone to kind of be his aide-de-camp, sit outside his door. And he finds this quiet, unassuming guy who's kind of wandering around Capitol Hill named Dick Cheney. Rumsfeld brings in Cheney as his assistant. ...

I think with one exception, hes probably the most skillful bureaucratic knife fighter that has worked in government for the last half century.

To everybody's surprise, particularly the surprise of his Republican friends, Rumsfeld digs in and really pushes hard for the program. Well, he does that for about two years, and enough's enough. ... He wants to get involved in Vietnam policy, and he tells Nixon, "Why don't you appoint me to be some sort of special aide in charge of reconstruction in Southeast Asia?" They think that the war is beginning to wind down, and he says, "You've got people in charge of the war, but you need someone in charge of postwar reconstruction." You look back 35 years later, and Rumsfeld, many, many years later, when it comes to Iraq, has not paid enough attention to postwar reconstruction. But the first thing he tries to do in foreign policy in the beginning of his career is to become involved in postwar reconstruction. It's just a little historic irony.

During that time in the White House, he begins to push for quicker action to bring the Vietnam War to a close. ... Nixon and [Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman and [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger sit around and talk about firing Rumsfeld because he is too much of a dove on Vietnam. But they don't do that. Rumsfeld stays on, and eventually he gets an appointment overseas to become ambassador to NATO. And in many ways he's very lucky, because this appointment to be the ambassador to NATO in Brussels takes him out of Washington as the Watergate scandal is breaking. He's thousands of miles away, and so he doesn't really get tarred with any sort of association with the Nixon administration as it's going down the tubes.

How old is he when he leaves Congress and goes into the Nixon White House as the director of OEO, and what's he like?

He's in his 30s at the time. He's quite young. What's he like? Everybody around him perceives him as ambitious. He's intelligent, and he's especially good on his feet in the public. ... He also makes enemies because he pushes hard. The difference between these two people who were linked to each other on and off for 30 years, Rumsfeld and Cheney, is Rumsfeld -- if there's a dispute in the bureaucracy, Rumsfeld, if you're opposed to him, he'll come right at you. He will tell you you're wrong. He'll say, "No." There's nothing indirect about him. Cheney tends to be very low-keyed. If Cheney were going to let you go, he'd say, "Look, it's just the business of government," or "It's just the way things work; it's not you." Rumsfeld would just tell you you're fired.

photo of mann

In his recent book Rise of the Vulcans - The History of Bush's War Cabinet, James Mann detailed the intertwined relationships and intellectual disputes of six advisers to George W. Bush who have shaped the administration's foreign policy: Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Wolfowitz, Cheney and Armitage. Here in this interview, Mann details who they are, how they think and operate, and the larger context to their story: the ideology and idealism of the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration up against the "realists" more moderate views on war and foreign policy. Commenting on the latest turn in their battle, Mann says, "After September 11, all through the war with Iraq, the neo-conservatives won the argument. But with the violence, with the chaos, Iraq didn't turn out the way they expected. And the result is that the neo-conservatives who were really ascendant on Iraq policy are now in decline." This interview was conducted on June 30, 2004.

People would be probably very surprised that Don Rumsfeld, in the Nixon administration, was viewed as at least a centrist and probably a liberal.

I think people are surprised to hear that, absolutely. One of the open questions is when did he become a hawk. When he gets sent to Brussels, it's really his first direct involvement and responsibility for foreign policy and military issues, and he becomes pretty hawkish then. ... Everybody saw Rumsfeld as a political figure, someone who wanted to be president of the United States. And so whatever position he took, they thought it might help his political ambitions. And it may have been, but, in fact, when Rumsfeld became a hawk in the mid-70s, he stayed a hawk.

My impression from reading your book was that his relationship with Nixon was almost mentor-student at times.

Right. Nixon was a politician. Nixon ran for elective office. Rumsfeld was the only guy in the White House that was a politician, and Nixon could identify with someone who had to run for office, who had to take the hits, take the criticism. Nixon tended to be full of self-pity about criticisms of him: "You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore." Well, Rumsfeld is the one guy around him who knew what it's like to run for office, and so I think Nixon identified with Rumsfeld, the politician. And Rumsfeld goes in for advice to Nixon many times.

So Rumsfeld sits there in Brussels and sees the idea of coalition around NATO. He sees stasis kind of settle in, how cumbersome it all is. I had the feeling that some kind of seed was being planted there. What was that?

There are people who knew Rumsfeld at the time or who had known Rumsfeld over the years who think that his attitudes towards Europe were shaped by those years at NATO. To be ambassador to NATO, to be involved in NATO, it's a very cumbersome process -- lots of meetings, lots of sort of endless talk, lots of hand holding. You have to meet with the defense minister of a country that may not be the most powerful country in the world. And Rumsfeld, who has kind of a "let's-get-down-to-it; what's-really-important-here" approach to life, really constitutionally is not meant for that kind of diplomacy. Patience is not one of his things.

How does he find himself back in Washington? In what job? How does he handle it?

He's an old friend and political ally of Gerald Ford from the '60s. When Ford sees that he's about to take over as president of the United States, one of the things that he does is he calls Rumsfeld, and he asks him to come back and help run the new administration. And Rumsfeld agrees to do this. At first it is temporary, but it is going to be permanent. And one of the first things Rumsfeld does then is call his old aide-de-camp from OEO and White House days, Dick Cheney. ...

Over the course of the next year, a couple of things happen. Rumsfeld, as White House chief of staff, begins gradually to challenge Henry Kissinger's authority. It's little things first: It's paperwork; it's who clears off on the speeches; it's personnel. But one way or another, within a year, even the White House press corps is writing that Rumsfeld is challenging Kissinger. And Cheney, of course, is working as Rumsfeld's aide.

Finally, in late '75, Rumsfeld becomes secretary of defense; Cheney becomes White House chief of staff; and Kissinger, who up until that time has had two jobs, secretary of state and national security adviser -- the only time someone has done this -- loses the job of national security adviser.

That's the beginning of the end of Henry K.

That's right. Soon after Rumsfeld becomes secretary of defense, he really begins challenging Kissinger on all kinds of things -- arms control, the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitations Talks] negotiations with the Soviet Union. Although Kissinger had been at odds with the previous secretary of defense, Rumsfeld proves an even tougher adversary than his predecessor. ...

What is Cheney like as the chief of staff for Gerald Ford?

At the time he's about 34 years old. He's the classic, perfect staff guy. He's the quiet guy who gets in the office first and leaves last, doesn't show up at parties. He's the guy who knows the inner workings from day to day. I found memos of the Ford administration where Cheney, as deputy White House chief of staff, is arranging to get the White House toilets fixed, getting a backrest for Betty Ford on her helicopter, sending out the White House Christmas cards.

Then, as Rumsfeld leaves, he suddenly, in his early 30s, becomes White House chief of staff. And he is perceived as a moderate. He's not contentious. Everybody who sees his internal memos knows how conservative he is. He's very hawkish on Soviet policy. But as far as manner, he's very, very low-keyed.

Let's move with Rumsfeld across the river and over to the Pentagon in 1975. When he gets there, what is the state of the American military?

The American armed forces have just suffered a defeat. Meanwhile, [in] the American military, there are all kinds of racial disputes. There have been drug problems in Vietnam. The military is in bad shape. And secondly, in the wake of Vietnam, there's an open question of what is going to happen to America's military deployments.

Let's bring some other characters on the stage. Richard Armitage is where and what by the mid-1970s?

Armitage got out of the Naval Academy in the late '60s, went off, served on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam. At the time of the Tet offensive, he is listening to all this traffic. He feels like he would like to be part of the action. He volunteers for shore duty, and he then takes a first posting working for what are called ambush teams in Vietnam, working with South Vietnamese units to try and deal with and combat the Vietcong. And he likes it so much that he volunteers a second time, and then a third. ...

In the last days of the war, he goes off into one American military base at Vien Hoa to help pack things up on his own as the base is coming under fire from North Vietnamese units. So he works on that, and finally, [on] the last day in the war, he ends up on a ship off the coast of South Vietnam with South Vietnamese navy people and refugees. This becomes a flotilla. American military officials have organized getting out for some ... South Vietnamese military people. And so there are several boats off the coast of Vietnam, full of refugees, overflowing. And Armitage, on his own, takes that flotilla, sails it from the coast of South Vietnam to the Philippines by himself. He's the lone American with this group of refugees, and he helps negotiate a solution in which the South Vietnamese are allowed into the harbor in Manila.

And then what follows is a few years in which Armitage really doesn't know what to do with himself. He tries a whole bunch of different things. He tries to be a businessman in Bangkok. He goes briefly to Tehran, where he and a couple of other advisers work with the American military in the last years of the shah. He's floating from one thing to another until, finally, at the end of the '70s, he catches on as an adviser to a Republican senator, Bob Dole. And then he works on the Reagan-Bush campaign and begins looking for a job in government, looking really for that first regular permanent, high-level job.

And gets one in the Defense Department.


Let's bring Paul Wolfowitz on the stage.

Sure. Wolfowitz has an academic background. He's different from many other members of the administration. He goes to college at Cornell, where he's one of a group of students associated with a professor named Alan Bloom, who is a disciple of a very famous conservative named Leo Strauss. ... When he starts graduate school, he meets a University of Chicago professor who is a specialist in nuclear theory named Albert Wohlstetter, and Wolfowitz latches on to him as his mentor and does his thesis with him. It's not so much conservative theory; he's involved in strategy of nuclear weapons. That's his main interest, his involvement. Interestingly enough, when he does his doctoral dissertation, the subject is the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

What does it mean, this particular strain of conservatism that Wolfowitz attaches himself to?

Strauss is a refugee from Germany and the Nazi regime, and he argues that there's a fundamental moral difference between dictatorships and democracies. His hero is Winston Churchill for standing up to Hitler. And in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an evil empire, Alan Bloom, Wolfowitz's teacher, cites that as a great example of being willing to make moral judgments. And the critique by the conservatives is that somehow the modern era has lost sight of moral judgments. So there's a whole school of conservative philosophy that centers around dictatorships vs. democracy or moral judgments, good vs. evil.

Wolfowitz is drawn to government.

In the summer of 1969, his adviser, Wohlstetter, asks him to come to Washington to work in support of Nixon's Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was then under challenge from Democrats in the Senate. So [in] Wolfowitz's first job as a graduate student, he worked together with one other guy who Wohlstetter had sent to Washington named Richard Perle. ... That summer, working in support of the ABM Treaty, it turns out that one of the strongest supporters of Nixon's position in the Senate is a Democratic hawk named Scoop Jackson. And soon after that, Perle goes to work for Jackson, and Jackson becomes really the center all through the '70s of neoconservative thought and opposition to arms control with the Soviet Union.

So Paul Wolfowitz is in Washington hanging out in the orbit of Henry "Scoop" Jackson with Richard Perle, and Rich Armitage is leading a flotilla. Where is Don Rumsfeld?

Rumsfeld is White House chief of staff. In those last hours in Vietnam, there's a minor flap in which the White House press people are told by Kissinger's National Security Council staff that all the Americans are out. And then they discover a couple of hours later: "Oops! We didn't have things right. There are still Americans there." And Kissinger's staff is thinking, well, maybe we won't say this, or maybe we'll fudge it or something. And Rumsfeld says, "There have been so many lies during this war, let's finally tell the truth."... He was more responsible than anybody else for limiting Kissinger's influence. I think, with one exception, he's probably the most skillful bureaucratic knife fighter that has worked in government for the last half century. That one exception would be Kissinger himself.

There's another character, Colin Powell. He's gotten out of City College of New York and its ROTC program. He joins the Army. He's a regular Army officer, and he ends up serving two tours in Vietnam, where he's injured at one point. ... By the end of the second tour, he's really very critical of people he calls the "slide-rule wizards" in the Pentagon, managers or conceptualizers back in Washington who think they can understand Vietnam. He really has [Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, Robert] McNamara in mind, but [also] all of McNamara's civilian friends, people who don't understand what it's really like out there.

So now we've got all of our guys on stage. Many things will happen in the '80s. They will all get jobs in government. Let's visit some of the events of that period and place our guys in the midst of all that. How about the Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut?

At the time, [Secretary of Defense] Caspar Weinberger's military aide is this young, highly respected Army officer, Colin Powell. So when the phone call comes in, in the middle of the night, it is Powell who has to call Weinberger and tell him. Powell has risen over the previous decade, in the late '70s and early '80s. ... The guys in uniform see Colin Powell as this really articulate young guy who can talk to the civilian leaders, tell them what the guys in uniform really need, budgets, everything else. And meanwhile, the civilian leaders come to see Powell as the guy in uniform who can talk to the old guys in uniform who have a different mentality. ... Everybody sees him as the perfect staff aide. He's the guy who can keep the paper moving, keep all sides from having too much friction. He plays a key bureaucratic role all through the '70s and early '80s.

There is at this time tremendous tension between Secretary of State [George] Shultz, a former Marine, go-get-'em kind of tough guy in a suit, and Cap Weinberger, who doesn't want anything to do with getting his military, especially in the post-Vietnam era, too involved in Lebanon or other places.

Weinberger's real interest is building up military power and hardware and the defense budget to deal with the Soviet Union. When it comes to the actual use of force, he's extremely cautious. He doesn't want the Marines in Beirut in the first place, and, after the bombing in Beirut, he sits down and he writes these rules, the Weinberger rules, for the future on when American troops should be sent overseas. Now they tend to be called the Powell rules. These are the rules that sound familiar to people, of making sure there is a clear mission. If you go in, if you do need to use force, you go in with overwhelming force, and so on. They're very cautious about sending American troops, putting troops in harm's way. By contrast, Shultz, who's been a Marine himself, becomes in the early '80s quite a staunch advocate of dealing with terrorism, dealing with Beirut. They have arguments on all kinds of issues, but one of the issues is certainly the use of force.

For a brief period, Shultz brings in as his Middle East peace negotiator his old friend from the Nixon administration, Don Rumsfeld. ... Rumsfeld gets sent to Iraq, where he has the highest-level meetings that any American official has had for many years with Saddam Hussein. At the time, Saddam Hussein and Iraq are in the middle of a really brutal, bloody war with Iran, and Rumsfeld is sent there to upgrade American relations with Iraq. Saddam Hussein and his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, have an agenda of their own. They want to make sure that the United States doesn't sell arms to Iran or give arms to Iran, and he gets an assurance from Rumsfeld and the Reagan administration that they won't sell arms to Iran, that they will carry out a policy which has already been made public to limit arms to Iran. At the time, the whole Iran-Contra operation, providing secret arms to Iran, hadn't started. Rumsfeld wasn't himself being duplicitous, but the Reagan administration will break the promise that Rumsfeld gives.

When President Ford is defeated, Rumsfeld goes off and works in private business, but he still has his political hopes. As the 1980 Republican National Convention is about to be held, Rumsfeld is hoping that maybe Reagan will take him as his vice presidential nominee. What happens is something very different. ... Reagan turns around and begins to toy with naming the last Republican president, Gerald Ford, as his vice presidential nominee as part of a whole package in which the dominant figure in foreign policy would be, lo and behold, Henry Kissinger. They flirt with this all through the beginning of the convention, and finally the whole thing falls apart. ... Ford himself says, "Look, this isn't going to work." And the Reagan administration puts itself in a position where it is scheduled to show up on the floor and tell the convention within hours who Reagan's choice for vice president is going to be.

At that point, Richard Allen, one of Reagan's advisers, pushes hard for George Bush. ... Within the course of about an hour or two, Reagan picks up the phone and calls George Bush, who is thrilled and a little surprised, and offers him the vice presidential nomination. Who gets left out of this? Bush's rival within moderate Republican circles, Don Rumsfeld. And at one point he asks his old friend, Richard Allen, "Why didn't they call me?" And Allen says, "Well, I happened to have Bush's number in my phone book, and I didn't have yours."

Inside the Reagan administration, there is this bureaucratic struggle. They hit us in Beirut, and we move out. They take our hostages on an airliner; we give them arms. We break our promises. Cheney, Powell, Wolfowitz, Armitage, they're all watching this. What are they learning?

The first lesson, in watching the combat itself, they see what happens to an administration when high-level people are in conflict. ... Their assistants start meeting once a week. And Shultz's assistant for Asia is Paul Wolfowitz, and Weinberger's assistant dealing with Asia is Rich Armitage. They have these meetings where they work out things that their bosses can't work out. The second lesson for terrorism is you've got to respond, that it requires strong action. Weak responses don't stop the problem. So when the United States pulls the troops out from Lebanon, it doesn't stop the terrorism. In fact, terrorism picks up through the mid-1980s.

George Bush gets elected. Where does everybody land?

Colin Powell, who's been Ronald Reagan's last national security adviser, goes back to the military for half a year and then is brought in as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dick Cheney, who's been in Congress all through the 1980s, becomes Bush's secretary of defense. Paul Wolfowitz is selected as the undersecretary of defense for policy. Armitage at first is supposed to become secretary of the Army. He was eager for a job in this first Bush administration. But Armitage has made a very, very powerful enemy during the 1980s in the Pentagon, and that's Ross Perot. ... So he doesn't have a full-time, regular job at the beginning of the Bush administration. He becomes President Bush's negotiator for the future of American bases in the Philippines and then to deal with aid to the former Soviet Union.

Powell and Armitage by this time are fast friends.

There is a kind of identification between the two of them. I mean, there are all these other guys who have gone to Ivy League schools or have friends in conservative think tanks. These are the guys that kind of work from day to day, get the job done, nuts and bolts.

They share a political philosophy which is more Kissinger-like than it is Scoop Jackson-like. Are they realists?

The real realists are Henry Kissinger and the people working for him. What counts in foreign policy is that each country is going to represent its own national interest. You don't want to get too idealistic in the sense of President Woodrow Wilson. Governments are not supposed to push for democratic ideals. They're supposed to represent their own interest, and what counts is a balance of power. That produces stability.

And the critique of that from the neoconservatives is "Well, so what about morality? Do we want to negotiate an agreement with the Soviet Union? The Soviet Union is itself not only not democratic; it's a repressive country. Why should we help them by negotiating agreements with them?" ...

Out of Vietnam, you get these three schools. The first is liberal Democrats: Let's set limits on American power. There's the Kissinger wing: Let's negotiate arms control with the Soviet Union that will preserve American influence, because we're worried about a loss of influence after Vietnam. The neoconservatives: Let's just build up American power and invoke democratic ideals in dealing with the Soviet Union, and argue that they're the evil empire.

Okay. So by the end of [the] Bush administration, Bush I, we've had the Gulf War. What happened with our characters?

On the surface, there's a unified American leadership fighting and winning the Gulf War. ... In fact, what you've had over the previous eight or nine months is several really important tests of strength or disputes between Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Dick Cheney, secretary of defense.

They get along fine. They lead the war, lead the Pentagon in the war together. But what's going on behind the scenes? Well, in the first place, the day that Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, I think the next day there's a meeting at the White House, and Colin Powell, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, speaks up and questions whether the United States wants to send troops to reverse the invasion of Kuwait. How strong a commitment is this?

Cheney takes him aside after the meeting and says: "Look, you're now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. You're not the national security adviser; you're not the secretary of state. Stick to military matters." Well, Powell doesn't stop there. Over the next few weeks, he goes on his own. He talks to the president about whether he's sure he wants to go in. ...

Then, after the end of the war, you have an episode in which Saddam Hussein asks permission to use his helicopters again. He gives some phony reason, and then he uses those helicopters to attack the Kurds and the Shia in southern Iraq.

And at that point, Wolfowitz, who's the number three person in the Pentagon, says: "We should respond. We should not let Saddam Hussein do this. If it requires going back in or using force again, we should do that. It's immoral to let Saddam Hussein attack the Kurds." … Well, he loses, and Colin Powell is part of the other side of the argument. ... I think the thinking at the time was Saddam Hussein wouldn't last long. But one way or another, he didn't want to see the country break up. That leaves a residue of distrust between Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz. ...

Powell proves himself a media star. He's terrific on the Pentagon podium, talking about what the United States is doing. And Cheney seems content with that. But the real star is Colin Powell. What you see on the Pentagon podium in the Gulf War is Colin Powell, physically imposing, in uniform, very confident, talking about what the United States is going to do. ... The usual picture is Powell at the podium, Cheney kind of behind him.

So in 1992, a new president comes in, and there is this policy of containment continued by the Clinton administration. "Why didn't we go to Baghdad? Why did we leave the Shiites to be gunned down by Saddam's helicopters? Why did we let those poor Kurds get strafed on the highway?" The moment is chafing [neoconservative and Weekly Standard editor] Bill Kristol, Wolfowitz, everybody. A letter is written. Tell me the story.

There really isn't much debate in the early '90s. And at one point, in like '96 or '97, Wolfowitz writes this long explanation, saying, "Look, we didn't go to Baghdad because we didn't want to end up with an occupation of Iraq." Well, in the late 1990s, things begin to change. The Clinton administration is responding, but only very fitfully and with less and less support from its old Gulf War allies, to Saddam Hussein, who is beginning to challenge all the restrictions, challenge the weapons inspections.

And in 1998, [Kristol's organization] the Project for [the] New American Century, which is really the umbrella political organization for the neoconservatives, organizes a letter which argues that the United States should move to try and overthrow Saddam Hussein. It gets a lot of support. This isn't some closet conspiracy. ... This letter is signed by a whole bunch of people who end up in the George W. Bush administration, including Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld.

That year, the governor of Texas starts to organize a presidential campaign with the help of his father, and he needs to try and put together a foreign policy team, so he asks for advice, and Brent Scowcroft says, "Well, you really should talk to this woman who served as my top aide for Soviet policy, Condoleezza Rice." And they arrange a weekend at the Bush compound at Kennebunkport, where Bush and Rice get together and talk.

They are both big sports fans, so they talk about sports, and they get along, and Bush asks her to head his foreign policy team for the campaign. And then, meanwhile, his father's old secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, says, "You know, if you're putting together a campaign, my old undersecretary of defense, my number three guy, Paul Wolfowitz, would be great." He's brought in. And Rich Armitage is brought in. And the three of them -- Rice, Wolfowitz, Armitage -- are very active in the sort of day-to-day campaign, as Bush is trying to deal with foreign policy. ... And during the campaign, the 2000 campaign, Bush's foreign policy team is really his platform. That is, whenever he is asked about his foreign policy, sooner or later he says, "Don't worry; I've got the most experienced group of advisers any presidential candidate has ever had."

During the campaign, part of Bush's message of compassionate conservatism -- that was the core of his message meant to broaden his appeal beyond conservatives to moderates -- Colin Powell was an important part of that message. Powell had spoken at the Republican National Convention; he had been given a prominent role to speak in favor of Bush; he had campaigned for Bush -- not as often as Bush's strongest political advisers would have liked, but enough to help Bush with veterans, with people in the center and so on. ... After the November election, you get three or four weeks of the intense battle over Florida. Finally, the Supreme Court rules in Bush's favor, and it is clear now that he is the president-elect. Bush wants to send out a message to the country. It's a message of national unity: The Florida dispute, the election, is over; let's all come together. What's his way of doing that?

His way of doing that is to announce his first Cabinet appointment, Colin Powell as secretary of state. This is his day. It's a historic appointment. And it's meant to be something other than narrow foreign policy. This is meant to be a message to the country, too. Powell talks about all kinds of things. He talks at great length about domestic issues. He also mentions defense issues. He would like to help make sure that the Pentagon gets what it needs.

As he talks, and the more he talks, he begins to create concern that he is not only going to be the secretary of state, [but] he is going to be the most powerful person in foreign policy within the next administration; that he will have considerable influence over the Pentagon, too. After all, this is a secretary of state who has also been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who knows military issues well. ...

There's a groundswell: We need a strong secretary of defense who will keep Colin Powell in check. No one quite says it like that, but that's clearly what they mean. We need someone to counteract the influence of Colin Powell, make sure he's not running the Pentagon as well as the State Department. And who is that guy? Well, I don't know whether Rumsfeld himself was pushing this, but his close friend George Shultz calls people in the new administration and says: "You need a strong manager or tough guy at Defense Department. How about Don Rumsfeld?" A couple of weeks after this Powell press conference, Bush has a press conference, and to everybody's surprise -- at the time, papers in Washington are saying, "Rumsfeld set for CIA director" -- lo and behold, Bush appoints Rumsfeld as his secretary of defense. ...

Wolfowitz wants to be deputy secretary of state. He doesn't get it. Meanwhile, his friend [and] rival at the same time, Rich Armitage, wanted to be deputy secretary of defense. He doesn't get it. And what happens? Powell takes Rich Armitage as his deputy secretary of state, and Wolfowitz goes back to the Defense Department as deputy secretary of defense.

And the sides are drawn. Running up to 9/11, I presume stasis exists between the realists over at State and the neocons at Defense. And Don Rumsfeld is?

Otherwise occupied. Rumsfeld, for those first eight or nine months, takes on the issue of transforming the military, overhauling the Pentagon, redoing the overall structure. And in the process, because he's blunt and he makes enemies, he gets into a lot of trouble. And, in fact, over eight or nine months, he's got people in Congress upset; he's got people within the Pentagon upset. And by late August/early September of 2001, you get speculation that he is going to be the first member of the administration to go. And then you have September 11; you have the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It's a fundamental dividing point. The Bush administration begins to try and figure out how to respond. It decides to respond first with military action in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld, as secretary of defense, is the leader responsible for American troops in Afghanistan. And he proves, once again, that he is just a great public spokesman. ... This time, the secretary of defense is the guy at the podium, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the guy who is in uniform, sort of standing behind nodding. I do ... wonder whether Cheney has reminded Rumsfeld of the dominant role that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs played during the first Gulf War and advised him to take that out-front role on his own. ... He becomes a public figure throughout the country. I mean, he's the subject of the Saturday Night Live skits, where he really toys with and dismisses the White House or Pentagon press corps. He gets these rave reviews on how articulate he is and how quick he is on his feet. He becomes a public figure in the sense that he hadn't been before.

In the summer of 2002, as the United States is beginning to prepare for war, Bush himself and several other administration officials start appearing in public with some obscure scholarly book called Supreme Command. It's by a scholar named Eliot Cohen. It's about how political leaders need to run the show during wartime; [they shouldn't] give too much power to the generals. ... I think that was meant to symbolize something; that the civilians this time were going to keep any military leader from having the kind of authority that Powell had during the first Bush administration.

What's happening in the trenches in there between the realists and the neocons?

At the top levels, and through September, through December, January, it seems as though the Bush administration doesn't quite know what it wants to do next. In fact, there's some exploration of "Well, what about military action in the Sudan?" But certainly the neoconservatives, people like Paul Wolfowitz, have been arguing, "This is not just about Afghanistan; we have to go after states who support terrorism," by which they mean, quite specifically, and say, quite specifically, Iraq. And so there's a brief flurry of public coverage of this in September and October of the possibility, and the administration goes ahead with Afghanistan. What people don't realize is that all they've done is put off a decision about what to do on Iraq. And later on, within a couple of months, the administration begins to think again about the possibility of action against Iraq. ...

These disputes go on all through the end of 2001 and well into the spring, intensifying in the summer of 2002. And by the summer of 2002, you've got two distinct groupings, and it's the same old ones that fought over Soviet policy, and the dispute in some ways has similar overtones. You've got the realists. Within the administration that means Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, outside the administration Brent Scowcroft, arguing, "Look, containment of Saddam Hussein has worked all right. There is no need for military action. We don't know what it's going to do to the larger Middle East," and the neoconservatives who are arguing again, "Look, this is the old dispute. Saddam Hussein is immoral. Saddam Hussein is a dictator." ...

The history on this is directly relevant. There have been disputes in the '70s with the same factions and the same alignment in many ways about policy towards the Soviet Union, where the neoconservatives are saying: "We can't completely trust the CIA and American intelligence. The Soviet Union is a repressive country. We don't quite know what the facts are. The CIA doesn't have all the facts." Wolfowitz himself has been part of a Team B to examine the CIA's analyses.

And again, so when it comes to Saddam Hussein in 2002, the argument is, "Look, he's a dictator, and dictators behave differently than democracies, and he's concealing intelligence." Of course one of the things they say he is concealing intelligence about is, they claim, weapons of mass destruction, that he's got weapons, even if American intelligence may not know they are there. ...

As the military operations in Afghanistan are drawing to a close, the Bush people suddenly begin to focus on "What if Al Qaeda were to get weapons of mass destruction?" And at the time it seems puzzling. No one needs any more rationale for action against Al Qaeda. ... And then, after this couple of months where no one knows what the second stage [of] the war on terror is going to be, suddenly Bush comes forward with this State of the Union speech in which he denounces Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the "axis of evil." And so what's happened, the administration has gone from how to respond to terror, how to respond to Al Qaeda, to what if Al Qaeda had weapons of mass destruction, to what if a state provided Al Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction, to axis of evil as the three states -- but really, they have in mind Iraq.

Look at the terminology. Again, it's a deliberate echo of Reagan's denunciation of the Soviet Union as the evil empire. So, in that speech, the neoconservatives had certainly won some of the debate within the administration. And as Bush moves forward in the first half of 2002, you then get the next step with the speech, which Bush gives at West Point. It's in about June of 2002. He suddenly announces that the United States is prepared to take preemptive action against a state that might pose the threat of using weapons of mass destruction. The United States essentially might go to war with a country which has not yet gone to war with it. ...

And the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who had heretofore, in the first few months of the administration, been utterly involved in transformation issues?

Rumsfeld, he's galvanized by 9/11. And then he starts taking charge of efforts on how to respond militarily. And this experience on transformation serves as the backdrop, because he's the guy who begins to argue the United States can act with fewer troops, that modernization means that the United States could do things in different ways and with fewer troops than it could years before. ...

And Powell and Armitage find themselves kind of protecting the orthodoxy in a way, the foreign policy orthodoxy, which is "Don't blow up coalitions."

Right. ... Colin Powell, of course, is a believer in the old Weinberger-Powell rules. He's a protector of the institutional interests of the United States Army that were so badly damaged in Vietnam. That is one of the things, one of the roles he's served since the '70s.

As you move across time and you find those guys in the photo op in Camp David on September 15 -- there they all are around the table -- give me the players on both sides.

You get Colin Powell, the secretary of state, who's been since the Reagan years a proponent of caution in the use of force, caution and restraint, and care.

You get Don Rumsfeld, who in the early '80s, briefly, is working with George Shultz at the State Department and is pushing for vigorous action against terrorism. He's kind of a bureaucratic opponent of the Weinberger-Powell school in the '80s.

You get Dick Cheney, who hasn't been part of these Reagan-era debates. He was in Congress at the time. But going way back, to the 1970s and the Ford years, he and Rumsfeld have been at some odds with the Kissinger school and the issue of how to deal with the Soviet Union. And ultimately, one of the issues is American military power, where the more hawkish school [says] the United States should just rebuild its military and should act as strongly as possible against dictators.

Wolfowitz, also since the early '70s, has been strongly allied with the neoconservatives, the anti-Kissinger school, invoking America's ideals, taking strong moral positions, not being overly obsessed with the balance of power, but pushing America's ideals and rebuilding, and building up America's military.

And also at the table is Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. And Rice has always tended to take a middle ground in all these disputes within the party. On the one hand, she's called herself a realist. She grew up in Washington during the first Bush administration as a disciple of Brent Scowcroft, but on the other hand is always quite careful to kind of straddle the two schools of thought.

And in the midst of it all sits this president. They once gathered around this young governor during the campaign.

The job in the campaign, of course, is to come up with a critique of the Democrats, so in some ways, all these differences within the Republican Party are bottled up while they come up with a critique of the Democrats. And the critique of the Democrats is, they've let the American military decline; the military is not ready anymore. And they argue that Bush has paid not enough attention to alliances. They emphasize the importance of democracy in Asia and claim that Clinton has undercut an ally by flying over Japan on his trip to China without stopping in Japan. They invoke a whole series of issues, which manage to capture some of the neoconservative agenda, but also invoke the importance of realism.

And it's a fight just waiting to happen.

After September 11 and all through the war with Iraq, the neoconservatives won the argument. But with the violence, with the chaos, Iraq didn't turn out the way they expected. And the result is that the neoconservatives who were really ascendant on Iraq policy, particularly in the Middle East, all through the first couple of years of the administration, are now in decline.

Is the battle over? Did the realists win?

Yep, for the time being. I'm sure there will be other battles, but generally speaking, I think the neoconservatives are not only on the defensive; they're really in decline for a good while, because Iraq, to say the least, hasn't gone down well.

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posted oct. 26, 2004

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