For Jon Stewart, Donald Rumsfeld is the one who got away. After more than a decade of making politicians look foolish in the interview segments of his “The Daily Show,” Stewart revealed last week that a 2011 chat with Rumsfeld is high on his list of regrets.
The usually cocky captain of Comedy Central’s news division was flummoxed in a clip from the interview he showed. He was unable to nail down the former secretary of Defense on whether the Bush administration sold the American people a bill of goods on the invasion of Iraq. But finally, just days before his departure from the anchor chair, Stewart thinks he nailed the Teflon Don. Citing a recent interview in which Rumsfeld says he was dubious about establishing democracy in Iraq, Stewart went into full celebration mode.
The Left is in a gleeful tizzy over Rumsfeld’s interview in the Times of London, in which Rumsfeld says: “The idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq seemed to me unrealistic, I was concerned about it when I first heard those words … I’m not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment of their histories.”
Supposedly this is a gotcha moment. How can the man who helped lead the nation into the Iraqi conflict now turn around and claim that he was pessimistic about the prospects of democracy? Isn’t this revisionist history? Isn’t this at best a sad and guilt-ridden man pretending he didn’t do the awful things he did? Stewart shows competing clips from filmmaker Errol Morris’ “Fog of War,” in which a remorseful Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara gushes confessions, and “The Unknown Known,” in which a defiant Rumsfeld deflects any notion of a guilty conscience. Stewart is saying that at least McNamara owned his sins. But what if Rumsfeld really was a critic of a rush to national Iraqi democracy?
Donald Rumsfeld Has Said This for Years
On this question, Rumsfeld’s meticulous note-keeping comes to his aid. In several documents dating from early in the Iraq War, the defense secretary is quite blunt about his doubts regarding democracy building. Here, in a 2003 memo to Undersecretary Douglas Feith, he expresses a preference for building small, local government before attempting to graft American-style democracy on Iraq:
…we need to lay a foundation for self-government. The ways to get a non-theocratic system is to go slowly. People have to begin to see what is in it for them.
That suggests we should not rush to have elections. We can have votes on things like city councils with a limited mandate—to help get sewers fixed, help the garbage get picked up, help get policemen out. Otherwise the fundamentalists will very likely sweep, in a way that is disadvantageous to the people in terms of their long-term future and benefit.
Democracy involves choosing between things. If the people don’t have things to choose between and there are strong, dominant theocratic forces, the outcome may be an unhappy one.
Are there plenty of clips of Secretary Rumsfeld insisting that democracy in Iraq will work? Of course there are: he was serving the president, and that was the policy of the administration. But that doesn’t mean that in creating that policy Rumsfeld didn’t argue for a more modest democracy project. As we see above, he quite clearly did. But was there any way for Stewart to know, prior to that 2011 interview he regrets so much, that Rumsfeld was a critic of aggressive democracy-building?
Not only could Stewart have known, he should have known. Back in 2011, The Daily Caller ran a piece called “The DC Interview: Donald Rumsfeld-secret critic of the neoconservatives?” Author Jonathan Strong expressed shock that, both in his book “Known and Unknown” and in the Daily Caller interview, Rumsfeld said he was an early critic of democracy-building. That article appeared just 12 days before Stewart’s interview with Rumsfeld on “The Daily Show.”
The problem here isn’t that Rumsfeld is changing his story. The problem is that Stewart’s team didn’t bother to do a Google search before the 2011 interview. Had they done so, they would have found exactly the “gotcha” that Stewart laments he had no access to when Rumsfeld bested him at his own game.
Jeb Bush Is the Real Reason This Is News
“The Daily Show” is not alone in wrongly assuming that Rumsfeld broke major news with his recent comments. Many outlets reported the remarks as some kind of major shift in our understanding of Rumsfeld’s position on the war in Iraq. So why is this a big story now, when it was barely a blip when The Daily Caller reported on it in 2011? The narrow answer is Jeb Bush. The broader answer is the remorse-a-thon that many GOP presidential hopefuls have been engaged in over the past few weeks.
None of the Iraq War architects were particularly important in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. But this year Jeb Bush has chosen to surround himself with many important figures from his brother’s war effort. Names like Wolfowitz, Negroponte, Chertoff, and Heyden are back in the public eye, having been tapped by Jeb for his election team. Rumsfeld’s doubts about democracy aren’t being used to attack George W. Bush—they are being used to attack Jeb Bush. After all, the apparent defection of such a critical member of the wartime administration places serious doubts on the judgement of the advisers candidate Bush has brought on board.
Meanwhile, for the more isolationist candidates in the GOP field such as U.S. senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who are quite clear on their opinions that the Iraq War was a mistake, this Rumsfeld “revelation” is gold. It’s an opportunity to tighten the screws on Jeb and Sen. Marco Rubio, who are both less willing to throw the Iraq War under the bus. Who knows—Rumsfeld’s “I told you so” tour could land him in the favor of a potential new Republican administration. After all, Rumsfeld has served in some capacity in every Republican administration since Richard Nixon’s, with the sole exception of Bush senior.
Good Riddance to Jon Stewart
As is almost always the case for Stewart and “The Daily Show,” the truth, and actually understanding how complex events occur, are low on the list of priorities, if they make the list at all. This is the insidious nature of his particular brand of info-tainment. If people think he’s funny, that’s great. But if people think he is giving them anything even remotely close to actual news, they are making a terrible mistake.
At the very end of this latest hit segment on Rumsfeld, Stewart breathlessly encourages interviewers in the future not to give up, even in the face of figures like Rumsfeld who don’t crumble under the harsh questions of comedy-show hosts. He says, “There’s always the hope that one day they’ll think, just for a second, and that second will be long enough to shove those motherfuckers into an ice flow.”
That pretty much sums up Stewart’s contribution, if any exists, to the genre of the television news interview. There are many political handlers who are very happy to see the end of Stewart’s minefield interviews. But we should all be happy about it. It was never serious, it was never news, and we will all be much better off without it.