One of the interesting phenomena in Washington politics is the collection of little men who make a living taking shots at great men. Never has that been more in display than in the recent Bob Woodward critique of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s book Known and Unknown on the blog former Washington Post defense correspondent Tom Ricks tries to run at the Foreign Policy magazine website.
While Mr. Rumsfeld’s most recent term of service as Secretary of Defense has controversial aspects and he has been challenged by other participants (see, for instance, the very well done series by RedState alumnus Ben Domenech here | here) the disagreements are largely of a Rashomon quality. Woodward’s screed, on the other hand, is little more than the screech of a wounded ego.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s office has taken up the cudgel on his behalf and there is little need to repeat the work Keith Urbahn has already done. To give a flavor on Woodward’s caterwauling we’ll look at the most interesting one in which Woodward claims a meeting didn’t happen because he, Woodward, didn’t know about it.
One of the important questions about the Iraq War has always been about when and who started the Iraq clock after 9/11. On page 425, Rumsfeld alleges that Bush on Sept 26, 2001 — just 15 days after 9/11 — called him to the Oval Office. “He asked that I take a look at the shape of our military plans on Iraq…” Rumsfeld provides no footnote for this scene.
When I interviewed Rumsfeld at his Pentagon office on Oct. 23, 2003, Rumsfeld had a different story. “I do not remember much about Iraq being discussed at all with the president or me or the NSC prior to when the president asked me to — asked me what I thought of the Iraq contingency plan — that I believe was November 21st of ’01.” He was confident of the date because six days later he went to talk with the combatant commander for the region, Gen. Tommy Franks. “And I would not have waited long from the president asking me.”
White House records and President Bush’s recent memoir, Decision Points, support the Nov. 21 date. “Two months after 9/11 I asked Don Rumsfeld to review the existing battle plans for Iraq,” Bush wrote, placing the request in November 2001 (p. 234)
The question of the date is not just a matter of whether something occurred on a Monday or a Thursday. On Sept. 26, 2001, the Bush administration was focused on Afghanistan. The first CIA team had just entered and the bombing had not yet begun. By his own account Rumsfeld was intensely trying to figure out how to begin the military aspect of Afghanistan War with bombing and inserting Special Operations teams.
At a Camp David meeting on Sept. 15 — eleven days before Rumsfeld says Bush made his first Iraq war plan inquiry — Bush rejected going after Iraq. In fact, Rumsfeld himself writes, that “at the September 15 NSC meeting at Camp David days earlier when Iraq had been raised he [Bush] had specifically kept the focus on Afghanistan.” (p. 425)
According to Rumsfeld, on Sept. 21, he and General Franks “drove over to the White House to present his initial operational concept” for Afghanistan (p. 370) and a more detailed approach was given to Bush on Sept. 30 (p. 373). It is inconsistent with everything known that in the middle of all that planning and anguish over Afghanistan, Bush would raise Iraq on Sept. 26.
However, by Nov. 21, the United States had had unexpected success in Afghanistan and controlled half the territory. Thousands of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters had fled the capital Kabul into Pakistan. If Bush were looking for another target — and he clearly was — that would be the time, not on Sept. 26.
This is little short of insane. First, we have the spectacle of Woodward petulantly complaining that Mr. Rumsfeld has no footnote for the account. This coming from a man who is an utter stranger to footnotes himself.
To answer this foolishness, www.rumsfeld.com, the incredibly rich trove of original documents from Mr. Rumsfeld’s public life, has produced not only the appointment book page but the contemporaneous notes from the meeting in Mr. Rumsfeld’s own hand.
And so it goes.
To be clear, Woodward is little more than a stenographer for the Washington establishment. His pique in this case is more in the way of trying to preserve his reputation and defend the people who collaborated with him in his various books, specifically Colin Powell and Richard Armitage. And integrity Woodward may have had disappeared by the time he alleged to have interviewed a comatose and dying Bill Casey in a guarded hospital room.
In a way it is ironic that Woodward took to Ricks’ blog rather than the Washington Post’s op-ed pages to carry out his attack on Rumsfeld. While getting paid as a defense correspondent by the Washington Post Ricks has been proven wrong in virtually every prediction he made about the course of the war. In 2004, Ricks claimed that the Iraqi insurgents were doing to us what T. E. Lawrence’s Arab Revolt did to the Turks. This claim, bizarre even at the time and much moreso when viewed from today’s perspective, proved only that Ricks had never read Seven Pillars of Wisdom and that he hadn’t the vaguest notion of military operations. In fact, if there was any observer of the Iraq War who was more grandly and consistently wrong I would like to meet him.
Regardless of what one may think of Mr. Rumsfeld, for my own part I think history will consider him the most significant Secretary of Defense since its founding, no one in public life has produced a memoir so fully documented. Woodward’s attack is a series of cheap shots which boil down to the notion that if Woodward didn’t know about it, it didn’t happen because Woodward is omniscient. He isn’t. He’s a hack and gossip monger and his criticism should be treated as such.