May 1, 2007  

Confirmation bias

An investigative journalist’s ‘exposé’ of Rumsfeld is one-sided fallacy

Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as secretary of defense (2001-2006) will forever be judged through the prism of the war in Iraq. What if the ultimate outcome, which can only be assessed many years from now, proves to be a relatively stable and internally tolerant Iraq with a reasonably representative government, at peace with its neighbors and gradually adopting the rule of law to attract direct foreign investment to upgrade its deteriorated oil sector?

History will be kinder to Rumsfeld (and President Bush) than the current batch of detractors who are either encouraged by the numerous presidential pretenders or enticed by the instant gratification of the writing and speaking marketplace when it comes to fulsome criticism of this administration. On the other hand, if Iraq falls into the abyss of a Middle East at war with itself and if the civilized world fails to halt the ability of the Islamo fascists to infect the depressed immune systems of disaffected Arab youth through their psychological manipulation, lies and cash incentives to kill and maim their own people, then Bush and Rumsfeld will bear the burden.

In his book, “Rumsfeld, His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy,” Andrew Cockburn takes advantage of this turning point in history to pile on Rumsfeld in a way that, for those of us who have known him for many years and worked directly for him, find less than amusing. Cockburn’s slash-and-burn tactics to describe an eminently honorable man may be editorially cute, but they lack truth. To paraphrase Rumsfeld himself, I have a minimum of regard for Cockburn’s entirely one-sided view of the man.

Let me make it clear: I sat down with Cockburn for an interview, as his son and mine went to school together and he is a neighbor whom I find normally well informed and well read. I must confess that I thought I might reveal some of Rumsfeld’s underlying motivations in certain areas where I dealt with him directly. Obviously I was ineffective.

In any event, Cockburn goes to such an extent to paint Rumsfeld as the antithesis of goodness and decency as to make an objective reader wonder at his underlying motives. Cockburn refuses to acknowledge any of the important business and management advances that Rumsfeld accomplished during his tenure. Not the least of these are the enormous amounts of money that Rumsfeld has harvested for the tax payer through initiatives that he pushed through the sometimes-intransigent bureaucracy of the Pentagon. Among the few that I worked on are the Global Presence and Basing Strategy, which returned home over 100,000 troops and their families; the Base Realignment and Closure program, which will save taxpayers several billion dollars each year; the National Security Personnel System, which for the first time will reward high performers and squeeze out the mediocre; his insistence that the promotion and assignment of three- and four-star officers reflect their joint experience and expand beyond their narrow service interests; and, most important, his repeated demand that the military departments climb out of their comfortable Cold War foxholes to face the new world order and the requirements of 21st-century warfare. Rumsfeld also attempted to force changes in the way the military wrote requirements for, researched and developed, and acquired weapons systems and platforms in a net-centric environment.

If you think that the defense secretary should be the champion of such initiatives, then you should thank Rumsfeld. In fact, you should insist that any defense secretary be selected on the basis of his ability to drive such transformations. And that ability to drive these imperatives only comes with a conviction that civilian “authority, direction and control” have always been and must always be the touchstones of our civil-military relations. But such civilian leadership cannot be in name only or referred to in a philosophic manner. It must be exercised every day so that the military and its civilian overseers never forget why this construct makes us special.

Cockburn fails on a number of fronts. His overwrought diatribe about NutraSweet, in a chapter that explores Rumsfeld’s business dealings with the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle, which produced artificial sweeteners, is swift to say that some medical scientists believed there was a link between these products and brain cancer. But the author fails to remind the reader that, after 25 years, NutraSweet has not resulted in any health problems. And Cockburn does not tell the reader that much of the “opposition research” against NutraSweet was funded by the sugar industry.

Cockburn does tell an entertaining story, though. For example, he depicts an ambitious young congressman from Illinois by way of Princeton and naval aviation who was always interested in shaping his destiny, who would keep his hands in national security matters to increase his own knowledge, exposure and influence. Yes, true, this was a “young man in a hurry” when I first met him in 1967; and, yes, Rumsfeld was an “old man in a hurry” when I went to work for him in 2001. Not much had changed his character, which was part insecure and part domineering and always the “iconic male of the 1950s” — someone who believed in “truth, justice and the American way” and who could not understand how American soldiers would behave the way they did in Abu Ghraib.

There are those, Cockburn included, who will forever believe that Rumsfeld’s very narrowly defined authorization for interrogations in Guantanamo, explicitly meant for one very dangerous and information-rich detainee, was entirely responsible for those despicable actions in Abu Ghraib. This is the popular “migration theory.” But, as someone who was with him almost every day through the immediate period after the Abu Ghraib disclosures, I know he was personally and professionally distraught at the outcome and insistent that his staff research every possible reason for the events. Cockburn connects only those dots which support the conspiracy theory; let the record show that other dots so connected do not support his accusations.

Last, let me comment on the Cockburn tendency to lay the entire problem of post-major combat operations in Iraq at the foot of Rumsfeld. As someone who was intimately involved in the establishment of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and who repeatedly implored my counterparts at the other federal departments and agencies for their best and brightest to staff the CPA (without much success, even with National Security Presidential Directive 24), I can tell you that Rumsfeld was the first to say that he did not believe it was the sole responsibility of the DoD to shoulder the burden of post-conflict reconstruction. The interagency’s failure to rise to the challenge, however, remains for another book to elucidate.