WASHINGTON — An unapologetic Donald Rumsfeld was back in the media spotlight on Tuesday, promoting a new book that suggests his only regrets about the war in Iraq involve the failure of George W. Bush’s national security team to abide by his hawkish world view.
Rumsfeld, 78, Bush’s defense secretary when the administration embarked upon its invasion of Iraq in 2003, acknowledges that intelligence suggesting Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was wrong.
But in a round of hard-hitting interviews promoting “Known and Unknown,” the feisty Bush-era Rumsfeld — the one Americans came to know, and, in some cases, loathe — re-emerged with vigour, suggesting the invasion was justified since there was little doubt Hussein was up to something sinister.
“We believed the intelligence was correct,” Rumsfeld said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with George Stephanopoulos, the former Democratic politico turned broadcaster.
“It turns out that it was not completely correct, although the inspectors did go in and determine that Saddam Hussein did, in fact, have the capability of fairly rapidly reconstituting his chemical and biological capabilities.”
And regardless of Hussein’s true intentions at the time, Rumsfeld added, Iraq is better off, despite the 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died in the conflict.
“That was terribly vicious regime, and there’s no question but that the world is better off today than if Saddam Hussein and his regime were still in power,” he said. “There are millions of people in that country who have been liberated.”
Rumsfeld, who also served as defence secretary under Gerald Ford, became the face of the Bush response to the 9-11 attacks with his aggressive, damn-the-torpedoes determination to avenge the United States, efforts often punctuated by mystifying public remarks.
Even the title of Rumsfeld’s book is a nod to one of his most famous verbal mind-benders when he was asked by a reporter whether there was any evidence of links between Saddam Hussein and terrorists on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction.
“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know,” he replied.
“We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Behind the scenes, however, the man known as Rummy says he pushed hard for attacks on Iraq, including a strike on a chemical weapons plant in early 2003, as former secretary of state Colin Powell was at the United Nations Security Council arguing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
He writes in his book, in fact, that it was a “public relations error” for the Bush administration to focus on weapons of mass destruction instead of forcefully moving forward on Iraq.
Bush’s national security team, Rumsfeld asserts, was largely deaf to his ideas, and all but ignored his numerous proposals and warnings before and during the Iraq war.
Among them were several that proved prescient, he says: concerns that Washington “could fail to manage post-Saddam Hussein Iraq successfully” and a prediction that Iraq would devolve into “ethnic strife among Sunni, Shia and Kurds.”
In the early post 9-11 period, Rumsfeld also authorized tougher interrogation methods thought to have contributed to the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal in which American soldiers tortured and humiliated their Iraqi detainees.
In a rare concession, Rumsfeld said in an interview with Diane Sawyer on “Nightline” that he should have stepped down following Abu Ghraib.
“That was such a stain on our country; to think that people in our custody were treated in that disgusting and perverted and ghastly way, unacceptable way,” he said.
“There wasn’t an easy target. And so I stepped up and told the president I thought I should resign. And I think probably he and the military and the Pentagon and the country would have been better off if I had.”
Bush finally asked for Rumsfeld’s resignation two years later, in November 2006. Rumsfeld submitted to the request the day after Democrats took control of Congress in the mid-term elections, and a few months after eight retired generals and admirals made an unprecedented public demand for his ouster.
They accused Rumsfeld of “abysmal” military planning and lack of strategic competence. Bush’s No. 2, Dick Cheney, meantime, praised Rumsfeld as “the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had.”
Rumsfeld made clear, however, that there was no love lost between him and some other Bush administration officials, in particular Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
“She’d never served in a senior administration position,” he said of Rice, Bush’s national security adviser and, later, his secretary of state.
“She’d been an academic. And, you know, a lot of academics like to have meetings. And they like to bridge differences and get people all to be happy.”
He also disputed any notion that Powell was anti-war.
“I never saw even the slightest hint of that. The idea that he was lying or duped is nonsense,” Rumsfeld told Sawyer.
In his book, Rumsfeld also takes aim at a man still looming large on the national political stage — Arizona Sen. John McCain, a longtime thorn in his side.
McCain is “a man with a hair-trigger temper and a propensity to fashion and shift his positions to appeal to the media,” he wrote.