In the early 1960s a young congressman from Illinois was beginning to make a name for himself. The freshman, though from the GOP, endorsed civil-rights legislation, was challenging the established hierarchy in the Republican Party and led an effort to install Gerald Ford as Republican leader in the House. He quickly gained a reputation as an ambitious moderate and when he was called to serve in the Nixon administration, he began to question the Vietnam War strategy, gaining a reputation as being a little dovish. When he took the job of leading the Office for Economic Opportunity, despised by many Republicans as an effort of left-wing social engineering, he defended it from attacks emanating in Congress. In only a couple of years the hopeful Representative had a reputation as an unorthodox, perhaps even progressive Republican.
I am just wildly guessing that not that many people would have recognised the politician described here. In fact, his career is a stark reminder that there is more to American politics than just the partisanship and political divides. Moreover, whenever I am confronted with the rather silly reasoning that is often prevailing in Germany when it comes to the United States (here is a little example of how that reasoning works: U.S. bad, Iraq war very bad, therefore Bush, Rice, etc. evil), I have to explain my different take on American politics. And the politician described in the first paragraph is a case in point. It is, wait for it, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Both the youngest and oldest Secretary of Defense the U.S. has ever had. I realise of course that there are less controversial figures, but I am writing this, well, because he has published his memoirs recently. And, I confess, I've always somewhat liked him and not just for his famous gaffes.
Let's take that in reverse order, shall we? I've spent considerable time studying civil-military relations. The field of civil-military relations in roughly split into two different schools of thought. Rumsfeld would have to qualify as a strong civilian supremacist, meaning that he would define the liberties of a soldier to act politically in very narrow terms. In fact, both terms as Secretary of Defense provide evidence for his civilian supremacist view. During his first tenure, he established hitherto unknown levels of political control, challenging the military establishment head-on. In his second term, this time under George W. Bush, he was beginning to review the promotion procedure and at some point began to inject himself in the promotion process of three and four star generals. The military had always regarded promotions even at that level as its sole purview, Rumsfelds interference was again hitherto unheard of. It was him, who thus brought the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols act to bear on the promotion procedures and hence subjected the Pentagon to the full extent of the reforms intended by Congress. I once took the liberty of asking some of my students, who they thought had a stronger record in exercising civilian control over the military. Most would respond, or more precisely, suspect, Democrats. The student of civil-military relations knows better.
His memoirs, Known and Unknown, are of all memoirs I've read this year (for the record: Blair's Journey and Bush's Decision Points) by far the best written. His book is well structured, which is more of an issue than I would have thought possible. But after having read A Journey, well, let's just say, its an issue. But what is perhaps more important is that Rumsfeld has published an easily accessible book. On many levels his memoirs are also a fascinating political history of the United States from the 1960s onwards. But his book is really fascinating, when it comes to the many failures in the Iraq war. After all, Bush and Blair defended the war, arguing that theirs was the decision to go to war, but that the failures were in executing it. Rumsfeld is having none of that and is passing the blame on. His lines of defence include an attack on Paul Bremer, whom he regarded as a failure (on which he is certainly right). Bremer apparently thought of himself as a viceroy, which indicated that he totally misunderstood his role. Rumsfeld goes on to argue that the CIA, the State Department and Bremer dragged their feet when it came to transferring authority to the Iraqi leadership. His take on Iraq is interesting but not at all times fully convincing. Rumsfeld acknowledges that he has made mistakes but on second thought not that many. His critics often maintain that Rumsfeld had a habit of ignoring military advice. Being the civilian supremacist that he is, he dismisses that particular criticism, but concedes: “Indeed, I thought that a more accurate criticism would have been that I too often deferred to the views, opinions, and decisions of the generals who were in charge.” One might disagree on Rumsfelds political legacy, but he has been a political leader who has led the military and not vice versa. Not too common a trait these days. His book does qualify as a modern classic and for students of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it surely is a must read.