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The Chaotic Genius Of Donald Rumsfeld


It is one of the irritating defects of genius that, particularly when surrounded by crushing mediocrity, the audacity of having ideas becomes a source of recurring controversy. To have the most ideas means you have the most good ideas, but also the most bad ideas. I have had the great fortune to know and meet more than a handful of figures in my life who truly qualify as men of genius, and one of them was certainly Donald Rumsfeld, who passed away yesterday at the ripe age of 88. 

Don Rumsfeld led a life of great achievement, controversy, and purpose. He was the youngest and the oldest Secretary of Defense. He was mercurial and a genius with language. He loved America, and served her to the best of his abilities. He also provides for us an illustration of the limitations of government and bureaucracy, and how everyone who bucks the system attracts the most critics, some fair, some not.

I have been disappointed that Robert Draper’s book, “To Start A War,” received less attention than it deserved. Its chapter on Rumsfeld is revealing. He dresses down generals, finds acronyms ridiculous, throws papers, flips off lights, seeks out ideas that are “short, precise, and brilliant”, and nukes idiocy from orbit. “It’s really good that you and I met, so that I can improve you,” Draper quotes Rumsfeld as saying. He comes across as the intellectual equivalent of Sergeant Dignam in The Departed: “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”

Rumsfeld should be admired as a breaker of convention and a man infuriated by slow-moving decrepit processes and agencies. He was determined in his second round as SECDEF to remake the force and demand unprecedented change in the context of war. He was disgusted by the reliance on decades-old plans of attack, on standard operating procedures unadjusted to new realities. This made him a hero to some but a villain to more. He doesn’t give an indication of giving two shits about which he was to you.

To critique Rumsfeld from a military perspective, he was a true American patriot but also the archetype of disaster in the republic in the modern era – an outstanding tactician and an overmatched strategist, a bright mind undone by the larger surrounding elements of the moment. Like McNamara, his mistakes got sucked into a field of partisan disagreement, when the real issue was the justifiable skepticism of expertise. And at the end of the day, that didn’t matter. The mistakes were still made. The intelligence still lied. The war still failed.

In today’s politics, we have two narratives to explain things: One is good vs. bad, the other is smart vs. stupid. Part of the reason those of us who hold to classical liberal values have a hard time breaking through is that we usually find neither of these narratives satisfactory in actually explaining government failure. Elite immorality and lazy bureaucratic incompetence is real. But the real insight of conservatism – which Rumsfeld demonstrated – is that even if you have the best of intentions, the noblest of characters, and the sharpest of minds, our government still fucks up most of what it tries to do.

Rumsfeld made mistakes. Serious ones. But he was also falsely attributed to mistakes that were not his own, or that were revisionist in nature. His fundamental critique was sound: Our military was not ready to win the wars they fought. For decades now, we’ve gone to war with the leadership class we have, not the one we want. His diagnosis of that, not one that he was quiet about, led to animosity from the class of elite failures who continue to persist in the vile swamp.

But when Rumsfeld broke glass, sometimes he succeeded. We would not today have even the modest missile defense system we have in place to protect ourselves from North Korea’s missiles without Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld understood Russia better than Condi Rice, who was supposedly an expert on the country, and he hated the NSC for all the right reasons. He pushed for the withdrawal from the ABM treaty and led us through it, and then pointed the way forward for development even as Kerry, Clinton, and Biden objected at every point. Rumsfeld said this about something else, but it applies here: “Those who made the decisions with imperfect knowledge will be judged in hindsight by those with considerably more information at their disposal and time for reflection.”

Bureaucracy is full of mediocrities. That’s the comfortable place to be: unobjectionable, unknowable, keeping your head down, going to the right parties, giving the right interviews, never breaking shit. Donald Rumsfeld was a man dedicated to breaking shit, a chaotic neutral unmoored from the conventional wisdoms of the moment. For this, he is to be admired, and ought to be studied both for his failures and his successes. I am honored to have known him in life, and wish him the best in the great beyond, where I am sure he is analyzing the process of Saint Peter’s welcoming and demanding an assessment on how it can be properly streamlined. Do you really need all those angels?