Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir Known and Unknown (previewed here) has been out–and the author ubiquitous–for about a week, long enough for reviewers to render a remarkably consistent verdict: it’s a 800-page exercise in evasion, self-justification, and blame-shifting, and it fails, ultimately, to persuade. Herewith, a sampling of assessments.
Maureen Dowd says Rumsfeld is starting to make Robert McNamara look good. At least the Vietnam-era defense secretary was capable of self-criticism; the unrepentant Rumsfeld is too “blinded by ego” to be sorry for his misjudgments.
Also in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani calls the book “tedious” and “self-serving” and “filled with efforts to blame others” for the colossal screw-up that was the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post says Known and Unknown epitomizes “the essential Rumsfeld: fighting to the dead end in the face of overwhelming fact.” He goes on: “There had been some question about whether Rumsfeld would use his memoir to apologize for what went wrong in Iraq, as Robert McNamara’s memoir did for Vietnam. But after four years of reflection, Rumsfeld remains dismissive of those less brilliant than he is – which is pretty much everybody.”
Likewise, Pratap Chatterjee at the Guardian remarks Rumsfeld’s blame-shifting tendency. “There’s plenty of reason to blame [Powell, Rice, Bremer, Bush et al.] for their failures, no doubt about it. But in reality, if there is one person who was in charge of the war, it was Donald Rumsfeld – and it is he who needs to apologize for the crimes of that war.”
Gwen Ifill, reviewing for the Washington Post, calls the book “a revenge memoir.” Drily, she summarizes: “Rumsfeld, according to Rumsfeld, was prescient, clear-headed, loyal and almost always right.” On the other hand, “he is also acerbic, dismissive and reluctant to admit that he occasionally missed the policy mark.”
Slate’s Fred Kaplan thinks Rumsfeld “may be even worse at writing a memoir than he was at being secretary of defense.” He allows that we expect a certain quotient of score-settling and self-justification in a political autobiography. “It can even be tolerable if it’s joined to an engaging style or sage insights about broader matters,” he says; but: “Rumsfeld’s book has no such redeeming features. And even if it did, its distortions and lies (I use the term advisedly) are just too blatant to be countenanced.”
David Corn at Politics Daily notices a glaring omission in the book. Although Rumsfeld acknowledges that the Iraq war “has come at a high price” in U.S. blood and treasure, he doesn’t “pay even lip service” to the hundred thousand or so Iraqi civilians who died as a result of American involvement. “There are several possibilities. Perhaps they believe their calculus would be harder to defend if such extensive and tragic losses were recognized. This is a tremendous amount of blood to place on the scales. Or can it be that they have just not paid much attention to the matter of civilian casualties and are (perhaps willfully) ignoring the topic? … Any honest debate about the merits of a war would consider this angle.
For Andrew Bacevich, writing at FT.com, “[t]he known knowns turn out to be the real problem.” He explains: “When the “things we know we know” prove to be false or misleading, statesmen drive their country off a cliff. Yet being alert to truths that are not true requires a capacity for introspection, a quality manifestly absent from Rumsfeld’s make-up. He remains stubbornly, even defiantly, someone who knows what he knows.”
Bacevich goes on: “Known and Unknown is tendentious rather than instructive. The reader who wades in should expect a long, hard slog, with little likelihood of emerging on the far side appreciably enlightened. Rather than seriously contemplating the implications of the events in which he participated, Rumsfeld spends more than 800 pages dodging them.”