Donald Rumsfeld may be the most tarnished figure from the George W. Bush administration—his theories of warfare discredited, his swagger undercut, his managerial renown in tatters—so it's fair to ask if an 800-page biography is warranted. Bradley Graham, The Washington Post's former Pentagon reporter, gives the task a full-throttled go, with mixed results.
Graham is most engaging in the early chapters of By His Own Rules, which reveal his subject as remarkably unevolved. Throughout his life—as a Princeton wrestler, Navy pilot, Illinois congressman, White House aide and corporate CEO, no less than as a two-time secretary of defense—Rumsfeld has been a self-promoter, intolerant of slights or dissent, and driven more by the love of a brawl than by any goal. Richard Nixon, who knew of what he spoke on such matters, once called him as a "ruthless bastard." That was a compliment.
This is a man who refused to renew a commander's term in Iraq because he didn't sit next to Rumsfeld during a visit to his base; who fired one of his best friends from the Defense Advisory Board for being "disruptive and negative"; and who, as another of his ex–best friends told the author, could not accept "that some people in some areas were smarter than he."
Yet Graham refuses to draw conclusions. He quotes one friend of Rumsfeld's as saying that criticism "rolls right off him"—this after Graham has recounted tale after tale illustrating that the slightest criticism consumed Rumsfeld with agita. He quotes one of his most loyal aides as claiming that Rumsfeld regarded postwar Iraq as a very important phase of the operation—at the end of a chapter proving that Rumsfeld had no interest in the postwar phase, that he wanted to get in and out of Iraq as quickly, with as few troops, as possible. Fairness in biography is one thing; gratuitous evenhandedness, when the evidence tips decisively in one direction, only clogs the narrative and blunts the point.
It's unclear whether Graham is aiming for balance or simply fails to read the scales. He repeatedly touts Rumsfeld's "strategic ideas" and "methodical preparation." Yet he also reports that, on the pivotal issues, Rumsfeld was anything but strategic or methodical. He made decisions about Iraq in utter ignorance of its people, politics and history; he refused to acknowledge the growing insurgency and thus resisted even considering a counterinsurgency strategy; in discussions about Iraq with senior officers, Rumsfeld never identified the war's strategic goals.
Graham suggests that Rumsfeld turned away from Iraq to focus on his broader vision of "transforming" the military into a leaner, more agile fighting force. But he also notes that Rumsfeld did very little in this realm, canceling just one old-school weapons program. Nor does he explain where Rumsfeld got the idea for "transformation" (though other books have). Graham conducted hundreds of interviews; Rumsfeld reluctantly agreed to eight. Yet it may be that he needed to sift through his note-books more discriminately.
Kaplan is Slate's national-security columnist and author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed.