Opinion

The Great Debate

Rumsfeld’s biggest unknown

USA-AFGHAN/TILLMANBy Joshua Spivak
The opinions expressed are his own.

The knives are out in Donald Rumsfeld’s new memoir, Known and Unknown. In defense of his long public service career and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the man who was both the youngest and oldest Defense Secretary clearly believes that a good offense is the best strategy.

While the book is receiving press for the intra-cabinet fights and for Rumsfeld cherry-picking his facts, it ends up being a useful and needed work: In eviscerating fellow members of President George W. Bush’s national security team, Rumsfeld raises questions about how the most critical parts of the executive branch operate.

With the relentlessly negative portrayals of political and military figures and constant complaints about the press and the legislature, it is not obvious that Rumsfeld is looking to make a larger point other than defending his tenure and slashing at adversaries. And slash he does — among the many, many bold-faced names who receive unwelcome shout-outs are long-time Rumsfeld foe George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, Al Gore (he even takes an early whack at Gore’s father), Jerry Bremer, Eric Shinseki, and, in a golden oldies moment, Nixon’s counsel John Ehrlichman. His assessment of Ehrlichman may be the best line in the book, noting,“Certainty without power can be interesting, and even amusing. Certainty with power can be dangerous.”

What gives some of these criticisms weight is Rumsfeld’s highlighting of flawed presidential operations. He starts with citing mismanagement with the one president who he greatly respects and admires, Gerald Ford. Rumsfeld keeps coming back to the mismanagement theme. At the end of his tenure in the Bush Administration, he notes: “After five years back in government, wrestling with natural and man-made disasters as well as two wars, it became clear to me that our government institutions were proving inadequate to the challenges of the twenty-first century and the information age.”

The critiques multiply with a series of attacks on the Army leadership, the intelligence community, on Colin Powell and the State Department. Unfortunately, the question of what are the proper roles of the State and Defense departments in a modern war and its aftermath are not answered by Rumsfeld in this book. His complaints, though, don’t seem that much different from the usual battles that many Defense and State Departments wage in other administrations.

Michael Lewis’ Big Short an unsettling experience

Henry Paulson didn’t see it coming. Nor did Timothy Geithner foresee the meltdown of the financial markets. According to Standard & Poor’s President Deven Sharma, testifying before Congress in the fall of 2008: “Virtually no one – be they homeowners, financial institutions, ratings agencies, regulators, or investors – anticipated what is occurring.”

Why? Perhaps “it took a certain kind of person to see the ugly facts and react to them – to discern, in the profile of the beautiful young lady, the face of an old witch,” says Michael Lewis, author of numerous best-sellers including 1980s Wall Street memoir  Liar’s Poker and now The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (W.W. Norton, $27.95).

Lewis’ new volume is an entertaining and very edifying look at several such insightful people — the tiny handful of investors “for whom the trade became an obsession.” These were unusual, “almost by definition odd” folks, soon to make big money on the cataclysm: There is Steve Eisman, the former Oppenheimer analyst who regularly demonstrated a prodigious “talent for offending people,” notably in a tendency to trash subprime originators as early as 1997.

  •