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who is donald rumsfeld?
Commenting here on the traits of character, temperament and leadership that define Rumsfeld, now in his second tour of duty as U.S. secretary of defense, are Dana Priest, staff writer for The Washington Post; Thomas Ricks, Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post; Gen. Thomas White (U.S. Army-Ret.), former secretary of the Army; James Mann, author of The Rise of the Vulcans; and John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Dana Priest
Staff writer for The Washington Post.

…Take me back to who Rumsfeld is.

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He was the defense secretary under Ford, just coming out of Vietnam, the youngest defense secretary. He survived a coup, if you will, in the national security arena that involved other members who were ousted at the time. He was actually Cheney's boss for a little while. He was a fighter pilot for a while, Navy, and a wrestler. I think it's very apt of his personality. He's very forceful. You can see that on the podium when he bats away the reporters' questions over and over again and does it with not only talent and humor, but repetition. And he is a very strong, dominant personality. He is very confident about breaking the china and moving ahead with his own vision of how things should be. And he doesn't let generals stand in the way, he doesn't let Congress stand in the way, he doesn't let the Army institution stand in the way; he just goes forward.

He has a small group of people around him, and they got the reputation among the civilians who had been there as career civil servants for years, and also the military, that they were very insular, that there is a cabal of people that really runs the show. And that's still a feeling that is carried on to today. …

In September 2003, you are traveling with the secretary of defense. What's that like?

When I traveled with Rumsfeld in September, the first thing that was impressive was he was right in the middle of all of us all the time. He actually sat in the front of a row of maybe 20 rows of seats that were airline passenger seats but in the middle of a cargo plane. I'm not going to tell you the latrine story. It's too bizarre.

Oh, go ahead!

So he would sit in the front row for eight hours straight, mostly reading, but also getting up and stretching. And he sat right in front of the Porta-Potty that was there, for use by anybody, everybody. So instead of any kind of comfortable place, he was right in the middle of the action, in a place where, you know, most people would choose not to be. So he's impressive physically in that way, in the sense that he can endure, at his age, endure a lot of bumping around and traveling. And he's fairly affable about taking press questions just as they come at him, and in a relaxed way. But he's very disciplined in what he says, in terms of what he gives away. ...

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thomas ricks
Pentagon correspondent, The Washington Post.

Does Rumsfeld have a tragic flaw?

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I heard from associates of Rumsfeld -- from generals, but also from civilians he's worked with for a long time -- that he perhaps had lost a step as he'd aged, and he was not assimilating information as fast as he had in the past. One friend of his said to me that he makes up his mind too early. He loves to jump on information and make the decision. He said, "He didn't do it as well as he did in the past." This was background chatter at the Pentagon, but it had never been put foursquare in front of the public until the report by former Defense Secretary [under Nixon] James Schlesinger came in on Abu Ghraib. It specifically faulted all levels of the chain of command and included the highest levels -- that is to say, Rumsfeld's office and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, their staff and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. [Richard B.] Myers -- saying they had failed in that crucial period in the summer and the fall of 2003 to respond adequately to events on the ground in Iraq. There were new things that were occurring. They didn't take it on; they didn't act with all the things that Rumsfeld has talked about in transformation were necessary -- with agility, with the ability to quickly assimilate new information. That didn't happen.

Rumsfeld has a very interesting mind. It really struck me looking at some of his internal memos that he would have been a great high school English teacher. There's a muscularity and clarity and simplicity to his prose which is really unusual, not only in the U.S. government but anywhere in American life these days. He is a good writer, and good writing, as [George] Orwell tells us, reflects good thinking. …

Is Rumsfeld, deep down, a neocon? Was he won over by them?

Rumsfeld doesn't strike me as an ideological guy. He strikes me as a very pragmatic guy. The division of labor at the Pentagon seems to be that Rumsfeld is the hands-on manager, and the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, is kind of the big thinker, the visionary. What you get is a disconnection between Rumsfeld, the skeptical, pragmatic, corporate type, and the Bush administration's vision of transforming the Middle East, which is the opposite of the pragmatic, realpolitik approach you might get that Rumsfeld would have.

Paul Wolfowitz and some of the more ideologically-minded members of the Bush administration are saying, "We need to change the entire Middle East." Now, they present this as a pragmatic approach. Yet that is a hugely ambitious project never really discussed and laid out by the Bush administration as it goes into Iraq: How long is this going to take? How much is it going to cost? Do we have a military establishment adequately sized for that job? What other resources do you plan to bring to that? Those are the type of questions you might expect a Rumsfeld to ask. There wasn't a lot of public discussion. It's only about a year later, when Rumsfeld's "long, hard slog" memo comes out and USA Today gets ahold of it, and Rumsfeld is indeed asking those questions. But it's, I think, October 2003 when those questions are being asked, when the United States has already committed on the ground in Iraq in the middle of kind of an unexpected war.

I think Rumsfeld sees himself very much as a strategic manager, a guy who looks at the military machine and questions it and prods it and moves it along. Yet he finds himself presiding over a profoundly ideological task of occupying Iraq, at least originally, with the intent of making it a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, transforming the entire region. And to have somebody like Rumsfeld assigned that task, I find it extraordinary. The man and the task don't seem to match up.

So how happy is Donald Rumsfeld to find out that he's inherited that task?

Donald Rumsfeld would never tell you he's unhappy with that. He would never say something like that in public. He'd grit his teeth and put his shoulder down. I remember somebody talking about him as a wrestler. His great strength as a wrestler was that he wouldn't give up even when he knew he was beaten. He would just keep on slogging away. Sometimes when I look at Iraq, I kind of feel that that's where we're at, a Rumsfeld wrestling match. And it does worry me, this notion of staying the course, because as Rumsfeld himself says, "When you're at the bottom of a hole, it's not necessarily the smartest thing to keep on digging."

Prewar, is Rumsfeld listening to the Iraqi National Congress as they push for war?

Rumsfeld has probably said to Wolfowitz and [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith and his policy people: "Look, we all know the intelligence community sometimes get things wrong. Make sure that we really have a good handle on this." And there are some people at the Pentagon who really think that Chalabi and his outfit have got good information, and sometimes they do. Despite Chalabi's image now, when I was in Baghdad, you got good information sometimes from the Chalabi people. It wasn't like they were totally wrong about everything. They just happened to seem wrong about weapons of mass destruction and the other things that got the United States involved in the war. Now, if you go back and read the Senate Intelligence Committee report, some of the sources that they seem to provide were some of the sources that ultimately were most misleading. But clearly this administration embraced Chalabi. There's a reason he was sitting behind the first lady at the State of the Union address. Nobody wants to talk about it now, but they thought he was the guy. They really did. And I think Wolfowitz especially seemed to.

Rumsfeld comes to this whole issue with a lot of skepticism about the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community. On top of that, remember that you've had this massive failure of U.S. intelligence to detect and help prevent the 9/11 attacks. That's the key fact for Donald Rumsfeld: "Why should I listen to the U.S. intelligence community on this when they were so wrong on that?" And in the months after 9/11, he keeps on being frustrated when he says, "Why can't we do this?," and he's told we don't have actionable intelligence. The phrase really starts to irk him. And so when somebody walks in the door and says, "Hey, boss, we've got these Iraqi exiles, and they've got a whole different account here of x, y and z," I think Rumsfeld naturally is going to be pretty inclined to listen to that, because the U.S. intelligence community has not acquitted itself well in fighting terrorism. …

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thomas white
(Gen., U.S. Army-Ret.), Secretary of the Army, 2001-2003.

Is Rumsfeld a strategic thinker?

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I would describe him more as a pragmatist. ... He has certain things he wants to get done, and he sets out to get them done. I never viewed him as an ideologue, the way I would characterize [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz.

We've mentioned before that he's a kind of [Robert] McNamara-like character. What do you think of that?

I think it's a fair comparison. [Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson] McNamara was a guy who was absolutely convinced that he was right, even when 99 percent of the world was telling him that he was wrong. ... I don't know whether you'd characterize that as intellectual arrogance. What they say about [Secretary of State under Nixon and Ford] Henry Kissinger was that he was not burdened by a great deal of self-doubt. I think that's true of Don Rumsfeld; that he thinks it through, and he arrives at a point of view, and he will execute to that point of view and get it done. Once he's made his mind up, that's it. That is both a strength and a weakness. If that's your approach, you'd better be right 99.9 percent of the time. …

What's it like to be matched against the secretary?

Well, you're not going to win. The only question is, how are you going to minimize your losses? ... The question is: "You're going to lose. They're going to kill it; they've decided to do that. Strike the best deal you can get."

There's this famous moment where you guys do a press conference.

Right. At the press conference, I'm asked, "Do you support the decision?" I say: "Of course I support it. Otherwise I wouldn't be standing here. I'm the secretary of the Army; I work for the secretary of defense," or words to that effect. "He's made a decision to do this, and the Army will support it."

The next day I got a call from him personally, which was unusual, and he was upset that someone in the public affairs universe, probably [former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs] Torie Clarke, had looked at the tape of the press conference and thought that my body language was bad. So we had a little discussion about body language. …

There are many stories about the secretary getting down inside the actual operational plans of things. Tell me about that.

Well, the secretary by nature likes to get into the details of things. And a view that he always held was that we were sloppy with manpower, that we would deploy too many people; we would deploy them before they were really needed and so on and so on and so forth. ... He decided to micromanage every one of the deployment, incremental packages by itself, and it drove everybody just about to the point of distraction. And his argument was he was trying to save us from ourselves. And our argument was, "If you'd just get out of the way, we'll get the force generated, and we'll go conduct this operation." But it caused great pain for everybody. ... In some specific cases, the sequence got all screwed up, and extraordinary measures had to be taken to fix it. It made it much more difficult to deploy the force, but we got away with it. …

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james mann
Author of The Rise of the Vulcans.

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…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. ..

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john hamre
President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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…I remember a moment where Secretary Rumsfeld says to the president, "I take 100 percent of accountability if I get 100 percent authority."

I admire him for doing that, for taking that position. And it's typical that Don Rumsfeld's a stand-up guy -- you know, "Give me the tools, and I'll take complete responsibility." But first of all, it does mean that you have to have good working relations inside Washington, across departments, because you're going to need the skill in other agencies if you're going to do that. And unfortunately, the cooperative structure between DOD and other departments broke down badly over the last several years ... frankly, [with] a lot of places, but State especially. …

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posted oct. 26, 2004

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