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America’s failed Machiavelli Donald Rumsfeld's shrewd tactics were ultimately his downfall

Rumsfeld, in one of his suave suits (Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Rumsfeld, in one of his suave suits (Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

July 3, 2021   8 mins

November 4, 1975 may have been my birthday, but it was also a Tuesday; hence I went to my day job as consultant to the Immediate Office of the Secretary of Defense James Rodney Schlesinger, a three-room enclave in the Pentagon’s outermost E-ring. Absorbed in my own thoughts, I did not notice that anything was wrong until I heard someone consoling Schlesinger’s secretary and confidante. Schlesinger, it turned out, had been dismissed by President Ford; Donald Rumsfeld was in.

A newcomer to the US, I had been hired off the streets by Francis J. West, Schlesinger’s Special Assistant, a young Marine combat veteran who had already published a celebrated book about the Vietnam War. Schlesinger liked to collect brains (one, Andrew Marshall, served as Director of Net Assessment for 42 years, retiring at age 94), but with me he was habitually quarrelsome, in part over his obsession with Jews — he was a convert to Lutheranism of all things.

When Donald Rumsfeld arrived, his very elegant suits cut a sharp contrast to Schlesinger’s tweedy birdwatcher clothes . Unlike his predecessor, he had no intellectual credentials at all but he was certainly a political prodigy; he had won a seat in Congress when he was 30, became a White House Cabinet-level counsellor for Nixon at 37, and then Ambassador to Nato before he was recalled to serve as Chief of Staff for President Ford in 1974.

When he asked me, with an openly sardonic grin, what I was doing on the premises, I explained that the Secretary of Defense must present a bulky annual report to Congress, and I was writing the “national strategy” front-matter, which Congressmen and lobbyists usually skip over to devour what follows: details about the various weapons and other purchases that will rain down dollars on their districts.

“Why you?” he asked. “You are not even a US citizen!” So I explained that lots of others were also sharing the burden, and that I would not even be in the room when the final editing would be done. Then I gratuitously added that strategy was beyond the capacity of Anglo-Saxons because they are gloaters, while only brooders seriously think about threats.

His reaction was unsettling: he burst out laughing and went on laughing, stopping only to start again. Finally, he said that in Brussels at Nato they were all brooders, still resentful for no longer lording it over the Congo, Surabaya and Ceylon. As I walked out, he asked me if I wanted a job. I reminded him that as a non-citizen I could only consult. “So consult away,” he said, still laughing.

It was only later that I understood why Rumsfeld was in such an uproarious mood. He had just pulled off the bureaucratic coup of the century: with the amiable President Ford as his frontman, he had demoted Kissinger to Secretary of State, removing him from his more important job as the White House National Security Advisor. He had effectively hoisted Kissinger with his own petard; it was Kissinger himself who had shifted all the power from State to the National Security Council.

But Kissinger wasn’t his only target. At the CIA, meanwhile, Rumsfeld had removed the embarrassingly truthful William Colby and installed his associate and future President H.W Bush, sacked Schlesinger from the Pentagon and appointed his own loyal protégé, Richard Cheney, as his successor as Chief of Staff — to protect himself from further White House intrigue.

It was only later that I understood the logic behind Rumsfeld’s political masterplan: Kissinger had to go because the “Ford-Brezhnev” duopoly of power — which aimed to control Third World troublemakers and deflate the pretensions of their tiresome European allies — was viewed as a pact with the devil among the anti-Communist wing of the Republican Party, which now demanded his removal. Getting rid of Kissinger would keep them at bay. But to demote Kissinger would unleash the power of Schlesinger, who was already demanding sharp increases in defence spending and had irritated President Ford by encouraging anti-Kissinger hard-liners. So the perfect solution was to fire both, and then use the dust-up to get rid of Colby.

This collective defenestration was Italian-renaissance politics at its best, with Rumsfeld playing its Machiavellian puppet-master, though the vernacular press preferred the folksy “Halloween massacre”. It was a feat entirely beyond the imagination of Gerald Ford, an all-round decent fellow who became the uncontroversial Republican leader in 1965 because of his distaste for intrigue, and then Nixon’s obvious “squeaky clean” choice to replace the scandalous Spiro Agnew as Vice President.

It was Rumsfeld who had laid the entire plot and persuaded the mild-mannered Ford to act against character, especially in regard to Kissinger whom he greatly admired. Evidently, Rumsfeld had decided that the time had come for him to emerge from the back rooms of the White House and receive some career-enhancing publicity as Secretary of Defense. The then ample Pentagon press corps has the “SecDef” as its focus just as its White House counterpart has the President — and not his underling Chief of Staff, however powerful.

That, in turn, reflected another of Rumsfield’s priorities: he must have calculated that Ford’s election chances the following year were very poor, especially after eight Republican years, and he needed the prestige of being Secretary of Defense for his future job hunt. At the age of 45, he wanted to become a very well-paid CEO and not just sit on boards for small change.

He succeeded in that as well, becoming seriously rich during President Carter’s four years then Reagan’s eight years, initially by becoming CEO of a pharmaceutical company. During this period, he once invited me to dinner solely to complain about a passage in one of my books that he found objectionable. As he spoke, I realised that he was following the defence scene very closely. And as a prior appointee, and still quite young, he was an obvious candidate for high office when his party won the White House again with Reagan, and then again with Bush senior.

But he was still in his money-making phase, and was also flirting with Presidential ambitions of his own. In any case, had he wanted to return under Bush senior, Schlesinger’s admirers — a tenacious lot — were very well placed to block him. And so it was not until January 2001 that G.W. Bush re-appointed him Secretary of Defense.

It was, however, an unlucky return. In his years of reflection since his last Pentagon passage, he had applied his business brain to the business of the Pentagon, and he was looking forward to implementing drastic reforms, once he had staffed the department with likeminded officials. He told me that he wanted to change the very nature of the Department; he viewed it as an inefficient machine that turned every weapon purchase into an endless quest for perfection, and he wanted to change the military mind-set that turned every operation into another D-day.

In its place, he wanted intelligence-driven “manoeuvre warfare”, and focused combat efforts that replaced bulk with precision, along with efforts to set limits on bureaucratic overspending.

It was not to be — or, rather, it was starting to be. But after September 11, 2001, when the Pentagon itself was attacked, the Joint Staff started looking at different options of implementing another D-Day: there was talk of sending large forces with mountains of supplies to march up from Pakistan, some even amphibiously via Pakistan’s Baluchistan coast. Rumsfeld wanted none of it: he wanted to knock out the Taliban with small teams of green berets backed up by precise bombing directed by hand-held laser designators.

Rumsfeld pulled it off. He overruled the D-day crowd in the Joint Staff — though not without the support of Richard Meyers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and an airman who saw nothing wrong with relying primarily on air power. What followed was a triumph for Rumsfeld and his “light footprint”: the Taliban crumbled and everything went very well, except for the total failure of the CIA “operatives” who were supposed to help the Green Berets communicate with the anti-Taliban Tadjiks and Uzbeks: none knew a word of either language.

The much bigger failure for Rumsfeld was to come later, with his inability to persuade Bush and even Cheney that with the Taliban defeated and Al Qaeda camps liquidated, the next step was to leave Afghanistan to pursue his own history. Instead, what followed was the prolonged farce of “counter-insurgency warfare” (military malpractice institutionalised) with its corrupt “nation-building” twin (a very expensive and impotent form of colonialism).

Yet the great success of Rumsfeld’s own light-footprint method in invading Afghanistan was also the proximate cause of his own great failure of Iraq in 2003.

The plan was to conquer Baghdad swiftly from the north, via the Kurdish region where US troops would be welcomed. To get there, 80 shiploads of equipment for 60,000 US troops would land in Turkey’s port of Iskenderun to be trucked more than 400 miles into Iraq, while the troops would be airlifted into Incirlik base and to more forward airstrips.

When I heard about the plan, it struck me as foolish because I did not believe it possible to have Turkish parliamentary approval, given that the entrenched Kemalists and the newly empowered Islamists would both refuse. I explained that to Rumsfeld , only to be told that I was wrong and that the newly elected Islamist PM Erdoğan had just agreed everything in a meeting with his Deputy, who was in Ankara as we spoke.

When, on March 1, the Turkish parliament refused to allow US forces to drive into Iraq via its Kurdistan region, as Erdogan had promised, the bulk of their equipment was loaded on to the 80 ships in the Mediterranean. It could not possibly be ready for the planned start of the invasion on March 20; aside from the long passage around Arabia via the Suez Canal, Kuwait’s unloading facilities were remarkably undeveloped — not much infrastructure is needed to unload Rolex watches, Rolls Royces and other Kuwaiti necessities.

As a result, the bulk of the invasion force, built around the 4th Infantry division (that had twice the men of a normal division and lots of armour too) was missing when Rumsfeld decided to invade on schedule nonetheless, with just one Marine division and one infantry division as well as smaller units. Moreover, those scant forces were still strung out over the distance from Kuwait when the lead units entered Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The division and extra brigade stranded on the side of the Suez Canal would not arrive until later, while the British armoured division remained to secure Basrah and its surroundings, and that too with great difficulty because the US Marines who were supposed to secure their flank had been dispatched to Baghdad instead.

Two months earlier, on February 25, 2003, General Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, had testified in an open hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would probably be required “for postwar Iraq”. Accepting Shinseki’s estimate would not have required any change of plans, because no plan would be needed, given that there would be no invasion of Iraq because it was unimaginable that the bulk of the US Army would be converted into a Mesopotamian constabulary, ad infinitum. But instead of paying attention, Rumsfeld was scathing in his dismissal of Shinseki’s opinion.

Indeed, it was hardly surprising that his “light footprint” approach turned into an irremediable disaster when mobs across the country came out to destroy all they could. The Ba’ath militia had disappeared, the 500,000-strong Iraqi army had disintegrated, the local police were barricaded in their stations or at home and there were so few US troops in Baghdad — and in Falluja and in Ramadi and in other towns — that they could only protect themselves.

Whatever slim chances there were of quickly forming a provisional government — in spite of Sunni-Shia hostility, Kurd-Arab-Turkmen hostility, intra-Sunni tribal hostility, Barazani-Talebani intra-Kurd hostility, and the murderous rivalry of the Shi’a prelates — could not survive the complete collapse of public order.

And this time, Rumsfeld could not recommend evacuation: the United States had broken Iraq and now it owned the pieces, as Colin Powell had warned. Rumsfeld’s agony lasted till November 8 , 2006, when President Bush Jr announced his resignation, which Rumsfeld had actually proposed earlier. The delay cost Republican seats in the mid-term election the day before. American public opinion, disgusted by the war, did not turn against the generals, let alone the troops, but against Rumsfeld, whose elegant good looks merely added to his reputation as a slick manipulator.

Until his death this week, he tried to live down his arrogant rejection of the Shinseki warning — without, it must be said, much success.

Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.


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Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
2 years ago

This sort of article is why I subscribe to UnHerd. Long, thoughtful, educational articles way beyond the limited scope of the MSM.

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
2 years ago
Reply to  Howard Gleave

Yes and Luttwak has a narrative that doesn’t fit MSM game plan to discredit the neocons despite HRC, Biden, Kerry etc voting with them. He is among most experienced strategists. And his personal take on Rumsfeld adds a context to the 2003 invasion well worth recalling. What if the 4th ID had invaded through Turkey and garrisoned Baghdad?

Last edited 2 years ago by rick stubbs
Ian nclfuzzy
Ian nclfuzzy
2 years ago

For Gen Xers like me, Iraq was our Vietnam. I remember being animated as for nothing else in the lead up to the war and for 18 months or so thereafter.
Rumsfeld can rot in hell for all I care. We knew it was a tragic bloodsoaked mistake and that the honourable Shinseki was right.
W was too dumb, Cheney too venal, and Rumsfeld too smart to see the truth.

2 years ago

Then I gratuitously added that strategy was beyond the capacity of Anglo-Saxons because they are gloaters, while only brooders seriously think about threats.

Great line.
Placing strategy at the back squandered resources often enough in history that it can now be seen as the rule, not the exception for America, my country. It’s true that when lucky we ten to propagandize the strategic brilliance of a long-serving general or secretary who usually does not deserve the credit, and when not, we sweep the failure under the rug. There’s signs of strategic maturity, though, and actually learning our lessons, to be seen in the continuity of policy between the two very different administrations recently in power. Leaders know now voters will abandon traditional political loyalties if they fail to “get it right”, and are not only trusting the warnings of their subordinates more, but also verifying policy with outside experts like you, a welcome sign for many citizen soldiers and veterans.
Thank you for this article, Edward. Mr. Rumsfeld was trying to improve methods and did not succeed, as you note:

Instead, what followed was the prolonged farce of “counter-insurgency warfare” (military malpractice institutionalised) with its corrupt “nation-building” twin (a very expensive and impotent form of colonialism).

Working day to day in counterinsurgency felt to me like how SoCal often gets described: “there is no there, there.” But if given the opportunity, I’d probably go back and give it another shot. As an American, I don’t know how not to be optimistic. It’s a great national curse, and blessing.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
2 years ago

strategy was beyond the capacity of Anglo-Saxons because they are gloaters. I’m left wondering what ancestry a lot of white Americans have if not Anglo Saxon. As someone who lives in the northern part of Ireland, we see lots of Americans who arrive in Dublin to trace their ‘Irish’ roots, only to have to make the trek to Belfast after discovering the that Irish blood they thought they had, was in fact, either Ulster Scots or Ulster English.

Martin Le Jeune
Martin Le Jeune
2 years ago

Great piece. I remember reading EL’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire when I was a student and being struck by how visionary it was compared to the narrow articles written by the classical specialists. Have enjoyed his work ever since.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

Much of Rumsfeld political and personal machinations ring true but Luttwak’s take on the failure in Iraq ignores Paul Bremer’s Iraq policy of dismantling locals who could run the post-war nation. I suspect Rumsfeld deciding he had done enough was a consequence of the State Department and Bremer being involved. The changes to the military forced by Rumsfeld persit today and have improved agility. But Rumsfeld lacked strategic vision in choosing short term advantage. But history is all about these perceptions from different vantage points.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

Even at the time you only had to remember Somalia and wider directions in asymmetric urban conflict across the Levant (inc Gaza) to see how hubris in Iraq, with no plan and backed by downright lies, would get bogged down after the 1st phase and ultimately favour Iran – and the rise of militias and daesh.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B