“He Was a Disaster”: Andrew Bacevich on Rumsfeld’s Legacy as Architect of Iraq War
By Amy Goodman* – Democracy Now!
Guests: Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich,
president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
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.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final
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
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
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
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
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
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. July 01,
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