Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld has been a central figure in Republican Party politics since the 1970s. Best known for his controversial role in pushing the Iraq War and enabling the mistreatment of prisoners from Iraq and Afghanistan, Rumsfeld served as secretary of defense under two presidents—Gerald Ford and George W. Bush. Rumsfeld has held a number of additional posts in major corporations and government advisory bodies.
Although Rumsfeld has maintained a relatively low public profile since serving as President Bush's secretary of defense, he has remained active promoting various public policies and causes. In 2007, a year after Rumsfeld resigned from office, he founded the Rumsfeld Foundation, which focuses on "encouraging public service in the United States and promoting free political and economic systems abroad." According to a 2015 report released by the Center for American Progress, titled "Fear, Inc. 2.0," the Rumsfeld Foundation has been a funder of the "Islamophobia network" in the United States, having given over $37,000 to the Frank Gaffney-led Center for Security Policy between 2007 and 2012.
Also in 2007, Rumsfeld received a one-year appointment as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, a hawkish think tank based at Stanford University that supplied a number of defense and security advisers to the George W. Bush administration. Rumsfeld's responsibilities at Hoover included serving on a task force of experts devoted to researching the "ideology of terrorism." In a press release, Hoover's director, John Raisian, said: "I have asked Don to join the distinguished group of scholars that will pursue new insights on the direction of thinking that the United States might consider going forward." Not everyone at Stanford was pleased with the announcement. Said Bart Bernstein, a Stanford history professor: "It is a moral disgrace. He is not a person of intellectual merit; he is not an academic. As a policy-maker, his only claim to fame was, at best, flawed and morally corrupt."
In 2011, Rumsfeld reemerged, as Politico's Mike Allen put it, as a "best-selling author, amateur historian, social-media dabbler, and in-demand talking head." His 2011 memoir, Known and Unknown, spent eight weeks as a New York Times bestseller. In conjunction with the book he released a massive collection of documents from his time in government, The Rumsfeld Papers.
Among the issues Rumsfeld broached during his brief reemergence in 2011 was torture, which became the subject of a heated national debate in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. In May 2011, Rumsfeld contradicted Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who has said that torture has not resulted in useful intelligence, to argue on Sean Hannity's Fox News show, "I think that anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques—let's be blunt—waterboarding, did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn't facing the truth." Agreeing with Hannity's assertion that if "Democrats had their way" about the use of such methods, "we wouldn't have had this intelligence," Rumsfeld replied, "You're exactly right."
Rumsfeld told the online daily Metro, "Current CIA Director Leon Panetta has said that enhanced interrogation techniques contributed to the evidence that led to the location of OBL"—ignoring the fact that Senator McCain made public a letter he received from Panetta explaining that information gleaned from torture played a minimal, and certainly not decisive, role in helping find bin Laden.
Rumsfeld also discussed the Tea Party, telling Politico, "Oh, I think the tea party is a good thing. I think it's brought energy into the country, into the public and to see people saying to themselves, 'I'm not happy about what's going on. I don't like the idea that we're spending trillions of dollars and incurring the kinds of debts we're incurring, and it's time for me as a citizen.' ... By golly, that energy is a good thing for this country. ... It's going to cause people to recognize that if they want to be able to gain and earn support from the American people, they're going to have to begin addressing a problem that is crushing our country."
Rumsfeld gave a speech at a May 2011 conference hosted by the right-wing Council of National Policy during which he warned about the dangers of "hollowing out" the defense budget and the need to wage a long war against terrorism. He said: "You know we are not going to win this problem or deal with this problem of terrorism successfully with bullets. We are going to have to be willing to engage in the battle of ideas. To do that, think back, we understood World War I, World War II, they started and they ended. But the Cold War was quite different. It went on for decades and it was a competition of ideas—freedom versus communism—well, that is what we are in for. What we are doing now is much more like that than it is World War I or World War II. And we are going to have to screw up our courage and develop better skills at identifying our enemy—and our enemies are radical Islamists, let there be no doubt—and thinking about how to talk about it, what to do about it, and engaging our government, our private sector, and our allies to begin battling the ideas that are out there that are so foreign to us and so damaging to our country and to free people."
In June 2013, Rumsfeld appeared at an event hosted by the hard-right David Horowitz Freedom Center and speculated that President Barack Obama may have "actually switched sidesin the War on Terror," suggesting to a smattering of applause that the Democrat was in fact working with America's enemies. Three months later, he referred to President Obama as the "so-called commander in chief" and doubted whether a then seemingly looming U.S. strike on Syria would be effective. Nonetheless, he still supported the administration's case for the military strike, telling Fox News: "I found Secretary [of State John] Kerry's presentation persuasive and forceful."
Rumsfeld has also heaped criticism on the Obama White House for not reaching a status of forces agreement with Afghanistan that would secure the continued presence of U.S. troops in that country. "A trained ape could get a status of forces agreement. It doesn't take a genius," he proclaimed in March 2014.
In early 2015, Rumsfeld expressed support for a controversial speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Congress to challenge President Obama's nuclear negotiations with Iran. "The continued progress they're [Iran] making towards the development of nuclear weapons suggest to me that it would be advantageous for the United States to listen to Prime Minster Netanyahu," Rumseld opined in February 2015, characterizing Iran as making progress towards a nuclear weapon even as the 2013 interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 effectively froze Iran's nuclear program.
Rumsfeld was the focus of a 2013 documentary titled "The Unknown Known" in which filmmaker Errol Morris questioned Rumsfeld about his political career. After the film's release, Morris stated in an interview that Rumsfeld was a person who believed he could do whatever he wanted. "If you say the absence of evidence is an evidence of absence, it gives you license to conjure any kind of horror, threat, or menace—and act on it. It gives you license to imagine that Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons when he doesn't. It allows you to imagine that he's in league with terrorist organizations, when there's no evidence. It allows you to say whatever you feel like saying, sell it to the people, and act on it. To me, that's not about democracy. That sounds very, very, close to fascism," Morris argued.
Rumsfeld's resignation as secretary of defense came a day after the November 2006 midterm elections, in which Democrats won control of both the House and Senate. His departure was widely regarded as marking a potentially momentous shift in the direction of U.S. foreign and defense policy. One of the key architects and promoters of the war in Iraq, Rumsfeld had long been the subject of intense criticism on a number of fronts, including his misleading statements about the Iraqi regime during the lead-up to the war, his failure to adequately plan for post-invasion stabilization, and his handling of detainee abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
Rumsfeld was characterized by his unwavering insistence that the Iraq War was the correct path for the United States to follow after 9/11. His steadfast refusal to admit his mistakes in carrying out the war was equaled by President Bush's adamant loyalty to his defense secretary; upon announcing Rumsfeld's resignation, Bush gave Rumsfeld's performance high praise that many felt was at best undeserved. Previously during Rumsfeld's tenure as Pentagon chief, he twice offered Bush his resignation in relation to the Abu Ghraib scandal, but both times Bush refused to accept it. One of Rumsfeld's more well-known statements was that a U.S. pullout from Iraq would result in the country becoming "a haven for terrorists," marking "an enormous victory for the violent extremists."
Rumsfeld also stubbornly refused to acknowledge the gradual transformation of the conflict in Iraq into a bloody counterinsurgency campaign against surprisingly effective Sunni militias. In April 2003, shortly after the toppling of Baghdad, as the situation on the streets grew increasingly violent, Rumsfeld argued, "free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." He vociferously criticized observers who began using Vietnam-era images to describe the conflict. As Peter Boyle wrote in the November 2006 New Yorker: Rumsfeld "refused to dignify the chaos with a name that might summon memories of Vietnam. To many conservatives, the Iraq War, quite apart from its strategic implications, was a way of exorcising those ghosts, a chance to demonstrate the national will and military prowess that had arisen in the decades since the humiliating withdrawal from Indochina. Long after others, on the ground in Iraq and even within Rumsfeld's inner circle in Washington, discerned the ominous signs of a gathering insurgency, Rumsfeld insistently declined to call it such."
President George W. Bush's decision to replace Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, a realist-inclined former CIA director, was regarded as indication that the Bush administration was finally beginning to acknowledge the facts on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere. In particular, Gates was expected to support efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to stress negotiations in U.S. relations with other states, including Iran and Syria. Such moves had long been opposed by neoconservatives and hardliners like Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. Commenting on Rumsfeld's ouster and Gates' nomination, Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University who worked with Gates in the National Security Council during the Carter administration, said: "If the trend in the Bush second term is viewed as what a friend of mine once called 'an imperceptible 180 degree turn' from neocon ideology to political realism, then this would be a crowning achievement." He added: "Viewed from my own knowledge and perspective, I think this is one of the most significant U.S. policy shifts in the past six years."
That Rumsfeld lasted as long as he did in the Bush administration was somewhat surprising. Even before the 2004 presidential campaign got off to a start, it was widely believed that Rumsfeld would turn down an offer to return as secretary of defense in a second Bush administration. This was in part because of his age (he turned 72 in 2004), but also because he had by then already been the subject of intense criticism for his handling of the Iraq War and the detainee abuse scandal. It thus came as a minor surprise when in early December 2004—after eight of the 15 cabinet officials from the first Bush administration had already given their resignations—Rumsfeld announced that he would stay on.
A key reason for Rumsfeld's decision seems to have been pressure from the president, as well as Rumsfeld's sense of duty to Bush and a desire to complete the job in Iraq. By supporting Rumsfeld, Bush ignored considerably negative public opinion. In an effort to explain the president's decision, one unnamed administration official told the right-wing Washington Times: "These are challenging times—we are a nation at war, and it's critical we win this war. Secretary Rumsfeld, the president believes, is the right person for the job. He has proven himself to be a strong leader during these times of challenge."
During George W. Bush's first administration, Rumsfeld often seemed to be the president's über-orchestrator for everything pertaining to U.S. foreign relations. However, with the rise of an influential, independent-minded secretary of state in Rice and the controversy surrounding the military's actions in Iraq, Rumsfeld saw his influence over policy decisions gradually begin to erode. Many of the Pentagon chief's erstwhile neoconservative supporters also began taking aim at Rumsfeld for failing to be adequately supportive of their democracy agenda in the Middle East and for being ineffectual in his orchestration of the Iraq War. Shortly after the president announced that Rumsfeld would stay on for his second term, William Kristol, editor of the neoconservative mouthpiece the Weekly Standard, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that "surely Don Rumsfeld is not the defense secretary Bush should want to have for the remainder of his second term." Kristol pointed to Rumsfeld's infamous December 2004 statement in response to soldiers' complaints about being under-prepared while visiting Camp Buehring in Kuwait: "As you know, you go to war with the army you have. They're not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time," said Rumsfeld. Kristol urged readers to "contrast the magnificent performance of our soldiers with the arrogant buck-passing of Rumsfeld."
"All defense secretaries in wartime have, needless to say, made misjudgments," Kristol wrote. "Some have stubbornly persisted in their misjudgments. But have any so breezily dodged responsibility and so glibly passed the buck?"
Criticism of Rumsfeld from neoconservative quarters continued apace until his resignation in November 2006. Joshua Muravchik, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued in the November/December 2006 Foreign Policy that among the errors his fellow neoconservatives had made in recent years, one was to support "the revolution in military strategy that our neocon hero, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, has championed" and which "has left our armed forces short on troops and resources."
As Muravchik sarcastically hinted in his article, Rumsfeld has not always been at odds with neoconservatives. During the late 1990s, Rumsfeld joined a number of mainly neoconservative pundits and writers in forming the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a pressure group led by William Kristol and Robert Kagan that played an influential role in shaping the debate leading up to the war in Iraq. Also in the 1990s, Rumsfeld was an active supporter of the Center for Security Policy, the hawkish think tank headed by Frank Gaffney that berated the Clinton administration for not getting tough with Saddam and for supposedly letting rogues like North Korea off the hook. Rumsfeld was also a board member of the conservative Hoover Institution.
Rumsfeld's support for neoconservative and hardline defense policies dates back to his early years in government. After being appointed the youngest defense secretary ever by President Gerald Ford in 1975, Rumsfeld played a role—along with then-White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney and other hardliners in and out of government (including, notably, the burgeoning neoconservative movement organized around Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and the Coalition for a Democratic Majority)—in ending the politics of détente that had been pursued by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Rumsfeld and Cheney helped convince Ford, upon taking over the White House after Nixon's resignation, that it was necessary to purge the administration. As veteran journalist T.D. Allman wrote: "Having turned Ford into their instrument, Rumsfeld and Cheney staged a palace coup. They pushed Ford to fire Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, tell Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to look for another job, and remove Henry Kissinger from his post as national security adviser. Rumsfeld was named secretary of defense, and Cheney became chief of staff to the president."
Shortly after Ronald Reagan won the presidency, Rumsfeld, who was then the CEO of G.D. Searle & Company, teamed up with Midge Decter, who was married to then-Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, to create the Committee for the Free World, a group devoted to promoting freedom "in the world of ideas" and opposing the influence of those in and outside the United States "who have made themselves the enemies of the democratic order." The largely neoconservative-led committee counted among its supporters Muravchik, Penn Kemble, Michael Ledeen, Ben J. Wattenberg, Richard Allen, and Edwin Feulner.
In 1993, Rumsfeld, who was then the CEO of the General Instrument Corporation, again joined like-minded neoconservatives in creating yet another pressure group called Empower America. Led by former Education Secretary William Bennett, Empower America aimed to push a number of conservative domestic policies. Among the group's leadership were Michael Novak, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and "flat tax" proponent Steve Forbes. Empower America would later serve as the basis for the creation (by Bennett and others) in 2002 of Americans for Victory over Terrorism, which endeavors to defend "America's war on terrorism against those who would weaken the nation's resolve and erode our commitment to end the international menace of terrorism."
Rumsfeld's many business connections, although perhaps not as controversial as the dealings of other top administration officials like Cheney, have drawn press attention, including his work on an Iraq-Bechtel pipeline deal in the early 1980s. One newspaper reported: "One fact [Rumsfeld] doesn't want to be reminded about is his former glad-handing with Saddam as Reagan's special envoy to Iraq in the early 1980s. While Saddam was blitzing the Ayatollah's armies with chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War, Rumsfeld spent most of his time talking to the Ba'ath Party about the building of an oil pipeline on behalf of the construction company Bechtel. Bechtel's former vice chairman is George Shultz, Reagan's secretary of state."
In fall 2005, when fears over a potential bird-flu epidemic were ballooning, Rumsfeld's connections to biotech company Gilead came into question. As Fortune reported: "The prospect of a bird flu outbreak may be panicking people around the globe, but it's proving to be very good news for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other politically connected investors in Gilead Sciences, the California biotech company that owns the rights to Tamiflu, the influenza remedy that's now the most-sought after drug in the world.
"Rumsfeld served as Gilead (Research)'s chairman from 1997 until he joined the Bush administration in 2001, and he still holds a Gilead stake valued at between $5 million and $25 million, according to federal financial disclosures filed by Rumsfeld." According to Fortune, Rumsfeld made as least $1 million from the stock's increasing value.
Rumsfeld was also on the board of the multinational Swiss-based company ASEA Brown Boveri (ABB), a key contractor in controversial development projects like the Three Gorges Project in China and the Bakun Dam in Malaysia. According to Swiss Radio International, in 2000, while Rumsfeld was still on the ABB board, the company won a $200-million contract with North Korea to deliver equipment and services for two nuclear power plants. The reactors were part of a 1994 deal struck between the United States and North Korea in an effort to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
In 1998, Rumsfeld chaired a congressional commission (the Rumsfeld Commission on the Ballistic Missile Threat) that, among other things, argued that the Clinton administration erred when it made the 1994 deal with North Korea. Yet, while wearing his corporate hat, Rumsfeld had profited from this very deal. According to Swiss Radio International, Rumsfeld claimed that the Korean reactor deal never came up in any of the ABB board meetings he attended.
In 2000, Rumsfeld also chaired the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess National Security Space Management and Organization. The commission's report warned that the United States faced a potential Pearl Harbor in space. As space analyst Mike Moore reported: "Although the United States is without peer among 'space-faring' nations, the report notes, its commanding lead also makes the country vulnerable to 'state and non-state actors hostile to the United States and its interests.' The economy would be disastrously disrupted and the ability to fight high-tech wars terminally compromised if a significant number of these space assets were disabled or destroyed in a 'Space Pearl Harbor.' Commission members were unanimous in finding that the United States has 'an urgent interest in promoting and protecting the peaceful use of space and in developing the technologies and operational capabilities that its objectives in space require.' The latter part of that sentence provides the report's focus. To protect the U.S. economy as well as the economies of its friends and allies, the U.S. military must evolve into a ground, sea, air, and space force. It must be prepared to fight in all four mediums; it must be willing to weaponize space."
The list of individuals who worked alongside Rumsfeld on the so-called Space Commission reads like a who's-who of space weapons proponents and military-industrial complex reps. Commission members included Malcolm Wallop, a Heritage Foundation fellow and former senator who has long promoted a space-based missile defense system; David Jeremiah, a DPB member and retired admiral who has connections to several defense contractors, including Alliant Techsystemsand Litton Industries; Thomas Moorman, a retired Air Force general who is a partner in Booz Allen Hamilton; and the hapless "mayor of Baghdad," Jay Garner, whose SY Technology worked on the Patriot missile system and Israel's Arrow missile defense system.
Apart from his extensive career in government, which includes serving as a four-term Republican member of the House of Representatives from Illinois, Rumsfeld has participated on a number of other official panels and commissions. He was a member of the President's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control (1982-1986); the special presidential envoy on the Law of the Sea Treaty (1982-1983); a senior adviser to the President's Panel on Strategic Systems (1983-1984); a member of the U.S. Joint Advisory Commission on U.S.-Japan Relations (1983-1984); a special presidential envoy to the Middle East (1983-1984); a member of the National Commission on Public Service (1987-1990); a member of the National Economic Commission (1988-1989); a member of the Board of Visitors of the National Defense University (1988-1992); a member of the Commission on U.S.-Japan Relations (1989-1991); and a member of the U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission (1999-2000).