Donald Rumsfield

Guest columnist Will Cooper discusses former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's (right) famous contradictions. 

Two-time Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously articulated a three-tiered framework of human knowledge. First, there are "known knowns," he explained. These are the things "we know we know." Second, there are "known unknowns," the things we know that “we do not know." And third, there are "unknown unknowns," the things "we don't know [what] we don't know."

He was right. This is an insightful framework for categorizing human knowledge — which is often imperfect and incomplete.

Yet Rumsfeld's most famous endeavor — the Iraq War — was a profound violation of the principle that people should recognize the limits of their own knowledge. While advocating for war against Iraq, Rumsfeld was far too confident that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He thought it was a known known — a certainty — when it was really a known unknown. While we knew that Saddam Hussein had sought weapons of mass destruction, we didn't know, at the time of the invasion, whether or not he actually had them. 

We now know he didn't.

Compounding this error in judgment, Rumsfeld was far too confident in thinking the war in Iraq would be successful. He was convinced that after defeating Saddam's army, the U.S. could turn Iraq into a stable democracy.

We now know we couldn't. 

Despite Rumsfeld's overconfident assertion that "I don't do quagmires," Iraq is — still — not the vibrant democracy he and others in the Bush administration predicted it would become.

But Rumsfeld's contradictions don't stop there. On the one hand, Rumsfeld was brilliant, dedicated and farsighted. His work transitioning the military away from a Cold War posture and toward addressing modern asymmetrical threats involving terrorism and new technologies was necessary and important. 

On the other hand, Rumsfeld was far too rigid in his own views to build the wide coalitions of allies — domestic and foreign — he needed to accomplish many of his objectives. And his gratuitous antagonism toward the U.S. press corps was an unforced error in a democratic society where perceptions often matter more than reality.

Rumsfeld's great strengths were thus often marginalized by his profound weaknesses.

Rumsfeld died last week at the age of 88. By the end of his life, he was a known known in American politics — his career in government began in 1962 when he was elected to Congress (at age 30) and ended in 2006 when he left the Pentagon. Yet he will be defined by one lasting open question: How could someone so attuned to the limits of human knowledge be so overconfident in his pre-war assessments of Iraq? 

This question — a known unknown — is unlikely to ever be answered definitively. "Freedom," Rumsfeld once said, "is untidy." So, too, will be his legacy.

William Cooper is an attorney who has written for The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and USA Today, among others.

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(12) comments

Seymour Trout

Despite the insistence of dumb as dirt liberals that there were no WMDs in Iraq, Iraq was loaded with them.

The Washington Post reported in 2004, one year after the invasion of Iraq, that an artillery shell loaded with a gallon of sarin nerve agent was rigged as an IED in Iraq and detonated, injuring two GIs:

"Deadly Nerve Agent Sarin Is Found in Roadside Bomb," by William Branigan and Joby Warrick, May 18, 2004.

So, our military ran into a WMD almost immediately during the invasion. One WMD is not no WMDs, as the Left falsely claims.

The military was also attacked by a mustard gas shell rigged as an IED:

"Sarin, Mustard Gas Discovered Separately in Iraq," Fox News, 2004

So, that's two WMD shells, which is also not no WMDs.

A couple years later, in 2006, the military reported that it had found 500 WMD shells to date, both mustard and sarin.

"Munitions Found in Iraq Meet WMD Criteria, Official Says"

By Samantha L. Quigley

American Forces Press Service

So, three years after the invasion, 15 years ago, it was widely published that we had found 500 WMD. Five hundred WMDs are not no WMD. It's enough to take out New York City.

Of course, the Iraqis will never come within artillery range of Manhattan, but it only takes the gallon of sarin or mustard gas in one of those shells to launch a regional terror attack in the US by spreading it around in public places like airports, subways, train and bus stations, shopping malls. The military found these WMDs in onesies and two sides all over Iraq, with one cache of one hundred.

But wait, there's more.

C.J. Chivers reports in "The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons, published in the New York Times in 2014, that 5000 WMD were found by our troops.

5000 WMDs are not no WMDs. And it wasn't over, yet.

The New York Times further reported that the CIA had recovered 400 Borak rockets, dedicated to delivering WMD. Of that, 150 carried warheads loaded with sarin nerve agent. You can read the article yourself: "C.I.A. Is Said to Have Bought and Destroyed Iraqi Chemical Weapons" by C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt in 2015.

And those are only the WMDs we found. Saddam had WMDs stashed all over Iraq. He liked to bury stuff, so there are probably thousands more WMD hidden under the dirt.

Iraq certainly seems loaded with WMDs for a country that liberals claim had no WMDs. When news of Iraqi WMDs is published for years everywhere, including the New York Times, the Holy Bible of the Left, one wonders what it would take for dimwitted liberals to learn that there are WMDs in Iraq. Do liberals have a death grip on ignorance? Or, maybe they just don't give a damn about the truth.

Here’s a scary question for liberals: If you bought the politically correct narrative that Iraq had no WMD, you may be shocked to learn that it did from the articles cited above. So, the scary question for you is what other politically correct things which you believe are absolutely true are actually completely false?

Nuke Em

From the NYTimes article you cited: "These weapons were not part of an active arsenal. They were remnants from Iraq's arms program in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war."

Seymour Trout

They were viable WMD. We know that because most of them were discovered after our troops who handled them exhibited symptoms of chemical weapon contact. WMD do not go stale with time. The US just disposed of WMD from the 1920s which were still viable. The US military found that if you simply dump a pile of sarin nerve agent on the ground, it will form a crust and remain deadly for decades. Your claim that these WMD were harmless is false.

Seymour Trout

Rumsfeld’s antagonism toward the media sprung from the media’s antagonism. The media was trying to jam the Iraq war into the Vietnam template unsuccessfully. When the US military invaded Iraq, it sliced through the Iraqi military like a hot knife through butter. Halfway to Baghdad, it paused in a sandstorm to regroup, resupply, and reconfigure itself for the final drive. The press falsely reported that the military had bogged down in a quagmire and was losing the war. The media was shocked when the US military sprang toward Baghdad and conquered it. Liberals were shocked and outright angry at the US success. The media’s antagonism was so obvious that Saturday Night Live lampooned the press in a famous skit:

Nuke Em

So your proof of media antagonism is an SNL skit? Did you watch the skit? It is lampooning the press who is asking questions that quite obviously would be detrimental to military operations; if anything, it highlights the absurdity of even having a press conference when no real, actionable information can be shared. The skit has nothing to do with the support for the war or lack thereof. What has come to light in the years since the Iraq invasion is that old Rummy and his chummies had a lot of skin in the game, had very lucrative reasons to lie to the public. And they abused the power given to them by the people to expand their own personal empire.

Seymour Trout

I cited the media misreporting the war to fit the Vietnam template. You can read Apple’s article in the New York Times that declared the pause in the sandstorm was a quagmire. If you watch the press conferences of the time with Rumsfeld, you can see how hostile and clueless the media was. The SNL skit lampooned a crazily hostile press that was apparent to all.

Nuke Em

By "media's antagonism", do you mean their asking questions of elected officials regarding their actions? Do you mean them asking whether these elected officials would ever have a sense of accountability and/or remorse? Rummy never had a shred of accountability or remorse for the disaster that was the Iraq War. Here are some stats that should blow your mind. If they don't blow your mind, it speaks to the brainwashing indifference we Americans suffer from when it comes to innocent lives lost in the name of shameless imperialism.

Seymour Trout

What you omit with these casualty figures is that most of them were inflicted by the insurgents. At the height of the insurgencies, the insurgents were purposely killing 600 civilians for every civilian inadvertently killed by US forces. For example, the insurgents were fond of driving truck bombs into markets or rigging mentally handicapped people with suicide vests to kill civilians. They were randomly setting bombs off in the street to the point that Iraqis stopped replacing their broken windows. This was all part of an insurgent strategy to make Iraq ungovernable.

A Ranger told me of an incident where US forces killed a civilian. They were chasing an insurgent in the streets, when he went into a building and climbed the stairs to the roof. Iraqis sleep on their roofs because it’s cooler up there. The insurgent grabbed a baby and held it to his chest as a shield, while opening fire on the pursuing Rangers. The Rangers returned fire, killing both insurgent and baby.

You are falsely implying that US forces killed all those people when the enemy did it to win.

Nuke Em

No one is saying that there weren't bad actors by sovereign Iraqis. And nowhere did I imply that the US forces directly killed these tens of thousands of people in their sovereign nation. Would those tens of thousands have died without the US-led invasion? Not likely. The fact of the matter is the imperialist forces went in under false pretenses (not unlike the American war in VN) to create the instability in the responsible for the ensuing civil war. Rummy directly benefitted monetarily. As did Cheney. Facts, my friend.

The point I'm trying to make is that accountability was not a legacy Rummy cared about. He was rich, and made even more money from the blood spilled by Americans and Iraqis. He didn't give two cow patties for those lives lost. Fun fact: he owned and lived part-time on the plantation of a 19th century slave breaker; Rummy refused to change the name from Mount Misery. That speaks a lot about the man and his morals. But if you want to continue to uphold a world view in which nuance is not a partner, in which our beloved country and its elected officials are beyond reproach, in which the country and its leaders are so fragile that they cannot withstand scrutiny, that's obviously your choice.

In the end, asking for more transparency/accountability of our elected leaders (on both sides of the political spectrum) and, incidentally, the folks who purport to report factual news does not seem debatable. Yet here we are.

Seymour Trout

“Would those tens of thousands have died without the US-led invasion? Not likely.”

So, far, they found 300 mass graves in Iraq from Saddam’s program of genocide against his own people. Saddam was depopulating parts of Iraq by sweeping up entire villages and executing them in trenches dug by bulldozers. The Iraqis were so traumatized that when invading US forces arrived, they begged them to dig up their family and friends. They were convinced that they could hear their voices coming from the ground, that they were trapped there somewhere, begging to be freed.

So, would tens of thousands of Iraqis been killed had we not invaded Iraq? Obviously, yes. Mass murder is what Saddam Hussein did. He ruled by terror. You should know this.

Nuke Em

From the NYTimes article you cited: "These weapons were not part of an active arsenal. They were remnants from Iraq's arms program in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war."

Seymour Trout

You apparently think that weapons made in the 1980s don’t work twenty years later. They do. And most of these WMD were found sprinkled among the conventional arms caches that carpeted Iraq. If they were not intended to be used, why are they stored with weapons clearly meant to be used?

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