“He Was a Disaster”: Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich on Donald Rumsfeld’s Legacy as Architect of Iraq War

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Donald Rumsfeld, considered the chief architect of the Iraq War, has died at the age of 88. As defense secretary for both Presidents George W. Bush and Gerald Ford, Rumsfeld presided, his critics say, over systemic torture, massacres of civilians and illegal wars. We look at Rumsfeld’s legacy with retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich, whose son was killed in Iraq. Bacevich is the president of the antiwar think tank the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He says the Iraq War should be the most important item inscribed on Rumsfeld’s headstone. “He was a disaster,” Bacevich says. “He was a catastrophically bad and failed defense secretary who radically misinterpreted the necessary response to 9/11, and therefore caused almost immeasurable damage to our country, to Iraq, to the Persian Gulf, more broadly.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Donald Rumsfeld, chief architect of the Iraq War, died Wednesday at the age of 88. Rumsfeld served under four presidents and was secretary of defense under both Presidents George W. Bush and Gerald Ford. His critics say he presided over systemic torture, massacres of civilians and illegal wars.

As defense secretary, Rumsfeld was quick to advise President Bush to target Iraq after the 9/11 terror attacks, even though al-Qaeda had been sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attack.

This is Rumsfeld speaking at a press briefing in 2002 about whether Iraq gave weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: The message is that there are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know. So, when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say, “Well, that’s basically what we see as the situation,” that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Donald Rumsfeld in 2002. As the War in Iraq dragged on, he faced intense questioning from troops. In 2004, a soldier asked Rumsfeld why vehicle armor was still in short supply three years in. This was his response.

DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have.

AMY GOODMAN: Many critics, including human rights groups and a bipartisan Senate committee, have said Rumsfeld should have faced criminal charges for decisions that led to the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad, and at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

Jameel Jaffer, director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and former ACLU deputy director, tweeted, quote, “Rumsfeld gave the orders that resulted in the abuse and torture of hundreds of prisoners in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. This should be at the top of every obituary. … More than a hundred prisoners died in the course of interrogations. Investigations were haphazard at best. But the military itself concluded that some of the prisoners were tortured to death.”

For more, we’re joined by Andrew Bacevich, president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s a retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran. Bacevich is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University and author of several books. His most recent book, just out, is titled After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed. In May, he wrote a piece for The Boston Globe headlined “My son was killed in Iraq 14 years ago — who’s responsible?”

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Professor Bacevich. Why don’t you start off by talking about the legacy of Donald Rumsfeld?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the newspapers are referring to him as the most influential defense secretary since Robert McNamara back in the 1960s. I think that’s appropriate, accurate. He was like McNamara in a specific sense, I think, that he brought to office — Rumsfeld brought to office certain convictions about how the Pentagon needed to change. And from day one, he set out to implement that vision.

What Rumsfeld didn’t anticipate was 9/11 and its aftermath, specifically the Iraq War. And you’re right, I think, to describe him as the principal architect of that war. He attempted to fight it, consistent with his reform vision — that is to say, the expectation that superior American technology would bring about a quick and decisive victory. He got that wrong. He got that wrong because of his misunderstanding of war and his inability to appreciate the historical, cultural, sociological, religious elements of war. And therefore, what was supposed to be a quick and decisive victory ended up being a protracted, ugly disaster. And that’s why Iraq needs to be, you know, the most important item inscribed on his headstone. He was a disaster.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrew Bacevich, as you’ve said, he was considered the most powerful defense secretary since McNamara, but even once it became clear that the Iraq War was waged under false pretenses — in other words, there were no weapons of mass destruction — unlike McNamara, who issued an apology in the documentary Fog of War, Donald Rumsfeld, on the contrary, was the least apologetic and affirmed the fact that the U.S. should have gone into Iraq and that any premature withdrawal would be a mistake.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, you know, I can’t pretend to peer into his soul. He clearly was a stubborn man, a proud man, and, I think, you know, unwilling to confront his own failings, which became manifest. When we come to 2006, the end of 2006, when President George W. Bush decided to fire him, his failure by then had become evident to just about everybody, other than Rumsfeld or perhaps his friend Vice President Cheney.

You know, many historical figures, with the passage of time, find their reputations revised — perhaps improved, perhaps subjected to greater criticism. I don’t expect that there’s going to be any revision of Donald Rumsfeld’s reputation in the future. He was a catastrophically bad and failed defense secretary who radically misinterpreted the necessary response to 9/11, and therefore, caused almost immeasurable damage to our country, to Iraq, to the Persian Gulf, more broadly. And I don’t think there’s any way to disguise that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to that first clip that we played, which is, “You go to war with the army you have.” If you could comment on that, and also the fact that you, like so many in the United States and in Iraq, lost a loved one in Iraq, and what that means, what role Donald Rumsfeld played in that, but not just Rumsfeld — if you could talk, with this focus on Rumsfeld, about the responsibility of the man he worked for, President George W. Bush?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I tend to want to resist judgments about responsibility, that I think can be too simple, and therefore let others off the hook. So, if somebody asked me straight out, do I feel that — do I think Donald Rumsfeld was responsible for the death of my son, I would say no. Do I think George W. Bush is responsible? No, at least not specifically.

Where does responsibility lie? Well, I’ve come to believe that there is a collective responsibility, that we the people — not we the people, every one of us, but we the people — are implicated in the Iraq War. You know, we the people embraced a conception of America’s role in the world that really amounted to support for militarized global hegemony, and that in response to 9/11, we collectively concurred with the tragically misguided response of the George W. Bush administration that said we should embark upon a global war on terrorism. That was a strategic mistake, it was a moral mistake, but it’s one that the majority of the American people, shocked by the events of 9/11, signed up to.

So, I don’t think there really is an easy answer when we look to something like the Iraq War and we want to finger a particular individual for responsibility or guilt. I think that responsibility for these mistakes, huge mistakes, tends to be rather widely shared. And we need to always circle back to the realization that we are a democracy. And these people in Washington who are making decisions on our behalf, even when they are radically ill-advised decisions, to some degree, are doing so with our collective concurrence. And I would say that in particularly with regard to the Bush administration in Iraq, when you realize that in 2004 we reelected George W. Bush to a second term, and, in doing that, of course, agreed to have Donald Rumsfeld continue for a couple more years as defense secretary. So, I think that it’s important to avoid the simple judgments of pointing to a particular individual to say, “Guilt lies there.” That’s too easy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Andrew Bacevich, I mean, you’ve just said that — and that’s a crucial point — that Bush was reelected despite all the manifest failures of his administration. One of the most staggering, of course, was the invasion of Iraq, which, as you say, Rumsfeld alone is not to be held responsible, but it’s a far greater responsibility, especially since, of course, he was appointed by an administration that was reelected. And now, to turn to present wars and the legacy of that initial decision, Biden has now become the sixth consecutive president in the U.S. to bomb Iraq. So, could you talk about that and the enduring legacy of Rumsfeld’s position as defense secretary and also the continuities that you see in Biden’s Middle East policy?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think you’re right in reminding us that he’s — that Biden is the sixth consecutive president to use violence against Iraq — in other words, going all the way back to George Herbert Walker Bush, six presidents, both Republicans and Democrats. It’s not as if that one party or the other owns the forever wars, as we have chosen to call them. I think what we see in this — you know, militarily, the most recent airstrike ordered by President Biden is a trivial event, but it reminds us that the forever wars continue.

Biden’s decision, which I fully support, to withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, our longest war ever, led some observers to say, “Well, I guess the forever wars are coming to an end. We’re ringing down the curtain.” That’s not the case. This administration’s military inclinations are not terribly different from the previous five administrations that bombed Iraq. This administration shows no inclination to back away from the notion that the United States must remain militarily preeminent in the world. This administration shows no signs of backing away from the inclination to use force, which really is one of the central themes of U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, there was some reluctance to use force because of concerns that we’d start World War III. Since the end of the Cold War, starting with George Herbert Walker Bush, there’s been this promiscuous tendency to use force.

And I think when we examine the record of American wars over now the past — what? Thirty? — over 30 years, it’s hard to see that the country has benefited in any serious way. It’s relatively easy to tote up the costs that we have paid, and, of course, the costs inflicted on others, like the people of Iraq and the people of Afghanistan.

I have to say that, from my own point of view, there is an enormous need for serious reflection. The Democrats want to see us create some kind of a commission to investigate the events of January 6th, the assault on the Capitol. I fully support that. But I think there is a far greater need to evaluate the origins and the conduct of our post-9/11 wars, which, as I say, have done such enormous damage. Sadly — and this is one of the things I talk a little bit about in my book — sadly, I think that the inclination to move on and to forget is very much in evidence in our politics today.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrew, let’s talk — there’s a two-part question that I’d like to ask you about what you call the promiscuous tendency on the part of the U.S. to use force. Democratic critics in Congress have warned that these recent repeated retaliatory attacks against Iranian proxies in the Middle East should come under the War Powers Act. So, your response to that? Could you explain what the War Powers Act is and what the impact of that would be?

And then, second, earlier this week, the House voted massively in favor of repealing two separate authorizations of military force: the 1991 Gulf War AUMF and a little-known 1957 AUMF passed during the Cold War. But the broader Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the one that’s been most frequently invoked, is the one passed following 9/11. What prospect do you see for that being repealed? And what would that mean?

ANDREW BACEVICH: As far as I can tell, virtually no prospects whatsoever, which I would say is another demonstration of the — frankly, the moral cowardice of the Congress, the unwillingness of the Congress, as a body, to take responsibility, to live up to its constitutional duties, the duty to declare war. We have fallen into the habit — really dating probably from the time of the Korean War, we have fallen into the habit of deferring to the president as commander-in-chief to pretty much decide when and where the nation is going to fight. And the fact that this blanket authorization, passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, continues in force today and is used by a succession of presidents to attack whoever they want to attack, I think, is a good example of how the Congress has failed us, has failed the nation.

You asked about the War Powers Act. So, this is a piece of legislation passed right at the end of the Vietnam War, when there was serious interest within the Congress to try to reclaim a role in deciding when and where force was going to be used. But it’s been a dead letter. No president — no president — has been willing to acknowledge that the War Powers Act is a legitimate source of restraint on presidential authority. So it’s a nice piece of paper, but it’s one that gets roundly ignored. And the fact of the matter is that presidents have come to expect that they can do they want to when it comes to dropping bombs or attacking people. President Biden has now demonstrated that he, too, buys into that claim. It’s a big problem.

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