Donald Rumsfeld is remembered for a lot of things. He once gave Saddam Hussein a gift of golden spurs. His boss, Richard Nixon, called him a “ruthless little bastard” on those secret tapes. But his New York Times obit will no doubt lead with this quote from during the Iraq War: “There are known knowns … We also know there are known unknowns … But there are also unknown unknowns.” Rumsfeld even titled his new memoir Known and Unknown.
But there’s another bunch of words he should be remembered for. In 1974, after leaving the Nixon administration and before helping Gerald Ford take over, he wrote Rumsfeld’s Rules, a batch of quotations he shared with friends. Culled from the best advice he ever got, it was eventually published. It’s actually a pretty inspiring collection of sound American advice.
If only he’d re-read his own book.
One of his rules, chillingly, is, “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.”
Maybe Rumsfeld’s replacement, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, dusted off a copy before his final West Point speech last Friday.
“Any future defense secretary,” he told the Army cadets, “who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
Gates speech was a careful, but powerful indictment of the hasty, ill-founded invasions of two faraway nations that, Rumsfeld predicted, would be over in, “you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”
Now, with our economy in tatters and our nation still at war, he’s on his book tour settling scores and refusing to acknowledge any mistakes.
Rumsfeld’s arrogance blinded him to the basic findings of our nation’s hard-won wisdom; he (and Bush and Cheney) believed those unknown unknowns don’t apply to us.
Gates seemed to agree with Rumsfeld’s theory of unknown unknowns, but he filtered it through a healthy humility: “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.”
The Rumsfeld-to-Gates transition is crucial. It’s a transition from never admitting we’ve made a mistake to trying to learn from them. It’s going from Bush-Cheney America, where everything will work out if we just close our eyes and believe it, to an America where being the best requires open eyes and open minds. It’s from plowing ahead in the face of all the unknown unknowns to pondering that nugget somebody once took the trouble to write down — that it is easier to get into something than to get out of it. n
Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.