rumsfeld's war [home]
paths to power

photos of rumsfeld, cheney,wolfowitz,powell & armitage
paths to power
Across seven administrations they have shared a belief in the importance of American military power. Today, they are President Bush's war cabinet. Here's an overview of their intertwined relationships over the decades, their conflicts, and the events that have shaped their view of America's role in the world. [This historical chart is drawn in large part from James Mann's book, Rise of the Vulcans (2004), a history of the lives, ideas and careers of Bush's war cabinet.]



Before 9/11, there was tension in the administration at many levels. Rumsfeld found the Pentagon hostile and its bureaucracy unwieldy. As for Powell at State, his appointment alone was enough to rile the neo-cons. But the 9/11 attacks threw the divisions between Bush's advisers into even sharper relief. As the war on terrorism began to play out, first in Afghanistan and then Iraq, a new national security doctrine emerged -- and a new era of foreign policy was born.


Donald Rumsfeld

Dick Cheney

Paul Wolfowitz

Colin Powell

Richard Armitage

Condoleezza Rice

Early 2001:
Settling in

Rumsfeld is appointed Secretary of Defense. Bush's conservative supporters are happy: Rumsfeld will help keep Powell in check at State. Rumsfeld has trouble with the Pentagon's cumbersome bureaucracy and finds the war plans outdated. He begins to push hard on military transformation. As in the Nixon White House days, he soon makes enemies.

· An unexpected choice >

· Trying transformation >

· What did transformation mean? >

· Mr. Unpopularity >


Wolfowitz wants the number two job at State that Armitage will get. But Wolfowitz has a long history in the Defense Department -- and a long relationship with Secretary Rumsfeld. He is ultimately installed as number two at the Pentagon.

· Wolfowitz's lost chance >

· Was he the best man for his job? >

· A promise to the INC… >

· …but Iraq is off the radar screen >

Neo-cons fear Powell will be Bush's most influential adviser. His appointment effectively prevents his friend Armitage from getting the Pentagon position he wants -- and makes Rumsfeld an attractive choice for Defense so as to counter Powell. Early on, Powell pushes for continued sanctions against Iraq. To the neo-cons' dismay, and Powell's relief, Bush's early Iraq policy looks much like Clinton's.

· Was Powell too powerful? >

Armitage is eager for the deputy undersecretary role at Defense. But Powell's enemies fear that Armitage will open up a channel at the Pentagon for his friend, and Armitage instead ends up working under Powell while Wolfowitz is put at Defense.

Rice is close to Bush and travels with him to Mexico in mid-February shortly after his inauguration. While they are away, the U.S. launches airstrikes against Iraq. Rice and Bush are startled -- they had thought the strikes would come after their diplomatic mission -- and they spend the trip unexpectedly discussing Iraq policy.

Sept. 11, 2001

Rumsfeld is in the Pentagon when the terrorists' plane hits. He runs outside to help the injured, earning the respect of the military. As in all wars, the military rallies around its leadership. And 9/11 buttresses Rumsfeld's case for change: It is clear America has entered a new era of war and the Cold War ways of fighting are outdated.

· Rumsfeld's reaction >

· Change at the Pentagon >

· A shift in power >


On 9/11, many top officials are encouraged to leave Washington for safer quarters. But Rumsfeld will have none of it. Instead, he sends away his deputy, Wolfowitz, who is not pleased to be leaving the scene of the action -- especially with another of Rumsfeld's top aides, Douglas Feith, lobbying for attention.




Sept. 15, 2001:
Meeting at Camp David

At Rumsfeld's suggestion, the president's advisers take a vote on whether Iraq should be attacked straightaway. The vote is 4-0 against -- but there is one abstention, from Rumsfeld. He is now thinking about how to leverage the past eight months the Pentagon has spent on transformation and apply its new thinking on warfare to the new war.

Cheney is by now an old hand -- he has long years of experience in both Congress and the executive branch, and he knows how the system works. His response to 9/11 is to consolidate his power and run the show behind the scenes.

Four days after Sept. 11, Wolfowitz is already arguing that the U.S. should attack Iraq -- even before Afghanistan. Accounts differ on the war cabinet's response, but Wolfowitz later says he is shut down, and planning for Iraq does not begin until November.

· Wolfowitz's argument >

At the meeting, Rumsfeld raises Iraq as an "opportunity." According to Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack, Powell rolls his eyes. Powell argues for using "soft power." Although he loses that battle, he does prevent the U.S. from going to war with Iraq immediately. The next day, Bush makes his decision -- Afghanistan is the first target.



October, 2001:
Power struggles

Rumsfeld begins to fight a turf battle with Rice, whose counter-terrorism chief, Wayne Downing, is floating war plans and hoping for more influence in the administration's decisions. Rumsfeld fears the National Security Council will start interfering with his authority. He sends a memo to Rice asking her to make sure there is only one "principal military adviser" -- himself.


Wolfowitz is not the only one trying to make a strong case against Iraq -- Feith has set up a secret group to analyze or find any connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The group reviews over 19,000 documents but turns up no evidence. However, Wolfowitz's friends at the INC are supplying plenty of information on Hussein's hopes for a WMD program.



Rice responds to Rumsfeld's concerns about Downing, though she says they seem like an overreaction. Downing will resign in less than a year, saying he lacks the resources and power he needs to do his job.

Oct. 7, 2001:
Attack on Afghanistan

The CIA has the war plan for Afghanistan. It's nimble and flexible. The Army is sidelined -- its plan would have taken too long and too many troops. But Rumsfeld manages to gets Special Operations forces into the CIA plan. And he gives a commanding performance at the podium during the war, becoming a media star.

· Afghanistan: "Lightning in a bottle" >






Late 2001:
The U.S. turns toward Iraq

In November, victory is declared in Afghanistan -- the Taliban is defeated. Rumsfeld sees the war as the first big triumph of transformation. At Bush's request, he begins to look over the war plans for Iraq. He also begins to emphasize the use of Special Operations forces in the rest of the war on terror and allegedly sets up a highly secret program to capture and kill terrorists. The Pentagon denies the program ever existed.

· Did we really win? >

· Read Rumsfeld's take on Afghanistan >


The INC finds a new weapon in its fight against Hussein: the press. Ahmed Chalabi provides newspapers and magazines with sources who claim to have seen biological weapons labs and terrorist training camps in Iraq. Wolfowitz and the neo-cons use the defectors to further their argument for attacking, and the front-page articles are hard for the administration to ignore. Wolfowitz's advisers in the Pentagon Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group are arguing there is little distinction between Iraq and Al Qaeda.




January 2002:
The war with the Army brass, part I

With the budget overstuffed despite the President's election-year promises to trim it, Rumsfeld realizes something must be cut. He turns his eye toward Crusader, an expensive artillery vehicle. The Army secretary and chief of staff object strenuously, but Rumsfeld forces the cut through and asks them to publicly support the decision. Army Secretary Thomas White appears alongside Rumsfeld at a press conference. Later, Rumsfeld lectures him for not looking supportive enough. The fight strains Rumsfeld's relations with the Army brass.

· White's side of the story >

Cheney is meeting with the CIA, pushing them for more information on Iraq and Al Qaeda. He speaks directly with analysts. The CIA's director of Iraq operations tells Cheney that a coup will never work. The only solution, he says, is to earn the trust of Hussein's enemies. The claim that covert action will not work serves as a further argument for war. Cheney's boss is starting to take the argument public: On the 29th Bush delivers his famous "Axis of Evil" speech.





February 2002:
The first war plans

Just one week after Bush warns the public of the "Axis of Evil," Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks are already talking about war plans for Iraq. Rumsfeld is convinced of the need to use far fewer soldiers than Franks, who says 300,000 will eventually be needed to stabilize the country. Rumsfeld also mentions "shock and awe" for the first time.

Cheney is worried the Iraq planning is going too slowly. He fears that with Bush now openly calling Iraq an enemy in the war on terror, Hussein will strike first. Cheney is preparing for a trip to the Middle East in which Arab leaders will press him on the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, pushing all other concerns aside.


Powell testifies before the Senate Budget Committee, saying there is no plan to attack Iraq but that the U.S. has always sought regime change in the region. Behind the scenes, Powell is locked in an argument with Rumsfeld over what to do about trucks Iraq appears to be modifying to carry heavy weapons -- a breach of sanctions.



April 2002
The war with the Army brass, part II

Rumsfeld picks a replacement for Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, an adversary since the battles over Crusader. The news is leaked to The Washington Times, making Shinseki a lame duck 14 months before his retirement. Rumsfeld feels the Army is not in line with his transformation plans. Shinseki has also privately argued that Rumsfeld will not be sending enough troops to Iraq.

· Shinseki disabled >






July and August 2002:
The stage is set

Rumsfeld orders his generals to organize a global hunt for terrorists. Meanwhile, war in Iraq is looking more and more inevitable. The two camps -- Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz versus Powell and Armitage -- are now clearly drawn. And Bush has committed to taking out Hussein with any means necessary. A new group, the Office for Special Plans, is dedicated solely to Iraq war planning.

Cheney takes the case against Iraq public, saying bluntly in a speech: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Powell is astounded. Two days later, a friend of Cheney's who was once an assistant to Rumsfeld writes an editorial in The Wall Street Journal claiming that Hussein is more dangerous than Al Qaeda.

With the president publicly arguing for pre-emption and war plans heating up at the Pentagon, things are going Wolfowitz's way. He convenes a meeting with Hussein's former nuclear chief, who warns about aluminum tubes that could be used to make WMD. The story ends up on the front page of The New York Times.

Powell dines with Bush at the White House and presses him to get international support and the U.N.'s blessing before starting a war. He also asks for a coalition to handle the post-war situation. Bush reluctantly agrees to seek U.N. support.

Armitage, once hawkish, is allied with Powell. But he will not do enough to counter the numerous neo-cons now installed at the highest levels of power in the Pentagon -- especially Wolfowitz, whose job he had wanted so badly.

Rice works on a presidential directive on Iraq that says the U.S. will use "all instruments of national power" to free the country of Hussein. But she warns the president that his own father appears to be against an invasion, and her mentor, Brent Scowcroft, takes to the op-ed pages telling Bush to hold off.

September 2002:
Overlooking the evidence

Rumsfeld rejects the standard guidance from the Pentagon, insisting that an unorthodox mix of fewer troops (as was used in Afghanistan) can get the job done in Iraq. At first, Tommy Franks disagrees, but eventually the two see eye to eye. White and Shinseki, however, are both worried that not nearly enough troops will be deployed. Rumsfeld is also deeply involved in the post-war planning -- he tell the NSC he wants 100 percent responsibility for the reconstruction.

· Chipping away at old beliefs >



Powell gets his wish as Bush addresses the U.N., asking for a resolution rather than issuing a 30-day deadline. Powell is still skeptical of the claims that the aluminum tubes are evidence of WMD, but the CIA's 90-page report on the tubes overlooks that fact. The CIA report also mentions uranium from Niger. That part of the report was later revealed to be based on forged documents.



November 2002:
Rumsfeld the micromanager

The war plan now calls for 300,000 troops to be deployed in Iraq. Rumsfeld wants to activate them gradually rather than all at once. He is also busy approving interrogation techniques for Guantanamo Bay detainees from the Afghan war, including the use of dogs to frighten prisoners. And he's won his bid for responsibility in the post-war period in Iraq: two months later the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will be created, not at State, but at Defense.

· Widescale approval >






February 2003:
Powell's speech and the war with the Army brass, part III

Shinseki testifies before Congress that several hundred thousand troops will be required to stabilize post-war Iraq -- at precisely the time Rumsfeld and the administration are trying to downplay the cost, size, and length of the operation. Rumsfeld is furious; when Shinseki retires a few months later, Rumsfeld does not attend the ceremony, angering other military leaders. Later, Army Secretary White will testify to much the same effect on troop levels. His actions will get him fired.



Powell goes to speak to the U.N. himself, employing satellite photographs and CIA files to make the case that Hussein has WMD. The speech is considered credible because Powell is the one who delivers it. The mobile biochemical weapons labs featured in the presentation also make an impact. But Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector, publicly sheds doubt on some of Powell's claims a week later.



March 2003
The war begins

Air strikes begin after Bush's 48-hour deadline for Hussein to step down passes. The war plan calls for 140,000 troops. U.S. soldiers start to make their way toward Baghdad, but pause on the outskirts, unwilling to attack the Iraqi police. The generals are also slowed down by a lack of fuel.

· Was it Rumsfeld's fault? >






April 2003:
Jeers, not cheers

Some soldiers are greeted with flowers, as the administration hoped. But others are greeted with angry cries. After the soldiers make two strategic mistakes -- allowing massive looting and publicly helping to tear down a statue of Hussein rather than letting Iraqis do it all -- Rumsfeld holds one of his famous press conferences, announcing that "freedom is untidy." There is dissent within the Pentagon, too, as Rumsfeld fires Secretary White.

Elated by the military's success, Cheney holds a small celebratory dinner at his house. Wolfowitz, among the guests, remarks that Powell has become a team player. Cheney shakes his head no. Another guest says he is stunned that no one has turned up WMD yet. But Cheney is confident the weapons are there.

After years of lobbying Wolfowitz and others, Chalabi's wish is finally granted -- he and his 700-man army are airlifted into Iraq. He is greeted not as a hero but as an imposter. Despite his promises to the U.S. government, he has no significant support inside the country.




Summer 2003:
Rumsfeld's mistakes

The U.S. makes one of its biggest strategic mistakes: It disbands the Iraqi Army, dispersing thousands of angry young men into society with weapons and military training. Rumsfeld is still deeply involved in the planning for Iraq; some blame him for the decision.


Rumsfeld puts Wolfowitz in charge of military operations in Iraq. Wolfowitz turns around and publicly disagrees with Rumsfeld, saying the U.S.'s initial planning had been inadequate. The situation on the ground seems to support his claim; generals are now concerned an insurgency is brewing.




October 2003:
The beginning of Abu Ghraib

Rumsfeld is starting to seem slower and more tired, and many of his own recruits are burning out. Meanwhile, a scandal looms: the soldiers who spend October-December in Abu Ghraib are the ones who commit the abuses later detailed in the Taguba report. But Rumsfeld keeps a bright public face on, arguing that things are still going well in Iraq.






December 2003:
Saddam shows up

Rumsfeld takes a surprising call from Baghdad -- a raid he didn't know about has turned up Hussein, hiding in a spider hole. He quickly makes sure the U.S. forces have not captured a double and then excitedly calls the president. He hopes that Hussein's capture will end the insurgency, which has worsened since the summer.






April 2004
Abu Ghraib goes public

Although Rumsfeld has been aware of the abuses at Abu Ghraib for two months, the news does not go public until April, when 60 Minutes broadcasts pictures of Iraqis being humiliated and injured. Rumsfeld will later apologize to Congress, but he will not resign.







home · introduction ·· paths to power · interviews · washington post coverage
timeline: rumsfeld's life & times · timeline: the military's struggles & evolution · join the discussion
maps · analysis · producer's chat · press reaction · tapes & transcripts · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted oct. 26, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
background photo copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation