Robert's Rules For Rummy

I can't help it. I like Donald Rumsfeld and I like his sharp elbows. I like the way he spars with reporters and tries to cut through all the Beltway gunk. Of course he probably should have been fired last summer for incompetence. His "plan" for postwar Iraq, if one can call it that, was beyond inadequate: his failure to secure key installations with military police, his politicizing of intelligence, his insulting of allies and his arrogant insistence on phony estimates of the cost of securing and rebuilding the country all will cloud his reputation. If he'd bothered to read a State Department report about the occupation, he could have saved scores of lives and billions of dollars. But that was then. The question about Rumsfeld now isn't whether he'll be brought low by his high-handedness. He ain't going anywhere. It's whether he is a supple enough thinker to adjust to the modern world as it is, not as he demands it should be.

Remember "Rummy's Rules"? These were the maxims (e.g., "It is easier to get into something than to get out of it") that he assembled over more than 35 years in various high-level positions. One of them is this: "Visit with your predecessors from previous administrations. Try to make original mistakes rather than repeating theirs."

Among those Rumsfeld has visited with is Robert S. McNamara, another slicked-back secretary of Defense with troops pinned down in a foreign land. McNamara won't second-guess Rumsfeld publicly, but we got to talking last week about this whole matter of lessons and rules. "The Fog of War," a new documentary about McNamara by the brilliant filmmaker Errol Morris (who did "The Thin Blue Line"), is structured as a series of lessons from McNamara. This device mars an otherwise wrenching and provocative work because most of the "lessons" are written by Morris, not McNamara, which isn't quite clear in the film. But it turns out that McNamara does have some lessons--some mistakes --from the Vietnam era that Rumsfeld should heed.

The first lesson McNamara gave me is: Empathize with your opponents. Empathy is not sympathy, he adds; it's understanding what they are doing and why. During the Vietnam War, he and LBJ spurned opportunities to talk with the "enemy," so they never learned firsthand how much the North Vietnamese hated the Chinese (which meant that the whole "domino theory" underpinning the war was faulty). In today's world, empathy would mean talking to the Iranians and the North Koreans to see if they might dismantle their nuclear programs in exchange for U.S. promises not to invade, which was the essence of the deal that spared the world a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

A second lesson is: Surface the fundamental issues for debate. This sounds bureaucratic, but McNamara explains that in the 1960s, officials who offered evidence that saving South Vietnam was not critical to overall American security interests were never given a fair hearing before the president. To his credit, Rumsfeld tried to raise some such basic issues in the memo that leaked last week, especially the critical question of whether Islamic extremists were spawning terrorists at their religious schools faster than we could kill them. (If true, this should lead to massive investment in global education over weaponry.)

But Rumsfeld has not surfaced an even more fundamental issue, namely whether his 1950s-style red-meat-on-the-grill unilateralism is simply out of touch with the way the world now works. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney believe that the United Nations is basically for wimps. Although he once felt the same, McNamara now says the key question is: "What's the cost of experimenting" with genuine (as opposed to symbolic) multilateralism? What's the downside? McNamara is a passionate advocate of burden sharing in Iraq and using a reformed U.N. Security Council to at least try to solve problems.

Which leads to his third lesson, drawn more from the missile crisis than Vietnam: Nuclear nonproliferation is Job One in the world. "Neither the United States nor the Security Council has an effective program to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons," says McNamara, who watched up close as the world came within an inch of nuclear catastrophe in 1962. "We haven't developed an alternative to pre-emptive action and regime change." Rumsfeld was early in his understanding of the threat of terrorism and "asymmetrical war"--including "suitcase nukes"--but he is late in getting it through his head that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the United Nations is the worst way to address today's global issues--except every other way.

When he was ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson was treated as an irrelevant softie by JFK and McNamara. There was, however, a young man who heard Stevenson give a speech to his senior class at Princeton in 1954, a speech about public service that changed his life. Don Rumsfeld, a hawk but not an ideologue (in contrast to Cheney), carried Stevenson's speech around in his wallet for years. Now that he is confronting the limits of power, he seems, at last, to be reflecting on some of the larger questions. There's still time for Rumsfeld to learn from his own and his predecessor's grievous mistakes, and help the president learn, too.