Donald Rumsfeld Donald Rumsfeld. Photo: US National Archives / Public Domain

The former US Defense Secretary should be remembered for his connivance in horrific wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, writes Sean Ledwith

The late Donald Rumsfeld is probably best remembered today for his infamous mangling of the English language during his time as boss of the US Defense Department from 2001-06. On the eve of the Iraq War, when asked about the absence of hard evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs, he told a press conference:

“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Vortex of war

Rumsfeld is consequently regarded in some quarters as a semi-comedic figure thanks to this and other bizarre comments. The recent announcement of his death, however, should primarily serve to remind us how the US and the UK conspired at the beginning of this century to plunge Central Asia and the Middle East into a vortex of war, chaos and terror that cost hundreds of thousands of civilian and military lives, the consequences of which are still destabilising the region to this day.

Rumsfeld’s known unknowns speech, in fact, should be remembered as indicative of the muddled thinking and malicious intent at the heart of the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, an operation now widely regarded as the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.


Rumsfeld was part of the neocon think-tank in Washington that devised the Project for a New American Century in the 1990s, a reorientation of foreign policy premised on the aggressive reassertion of US military hegemony around the world. The 9/11 attacks during the first year of the Bush administration gave those associated with Rumsfeld, such as Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Wright, the perfect pretext to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and Saddam Hussein in Iraq two years later.

A famous photo from 1983 shows Rumsfeld shaking hands with the Iraqi leader in Bagdad at a time when the US was courting him as a bulwark against the revolutionary regime in Iran. The image encapsulates the hypocrisy and duplicity of the US foreign policy elite of which Rumsfeld was part and which, not for the first time or last time, was happy to utilise a dictator and then ditch him when priorities changed.

Bogged down

Both operations were based on lies and propaganda: the Taliban had played no role in the 9/11 attacks and even offered to hand Bin Laden over to the Americans before the invasion; Saddam Hussein, of course, possessed no WMDs and had also played no role in the attacks on America.

The real objectives of the neocons were to send a message to the rising power of China about US global capabilities and to secure control of the oil fields of Iraq and the gas reserves of Central Asia.

As Defense Secretary, Rumsfeld was responsible for military planning and predicted that both campaigns would be relatively short. Regarding the latter, he confidently claimed in 2002:

“I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.”

US forces became bogged down by bloody resistance from the country’s Sunni and Shia militias and did not leave until 2011. Iraq’s economic and social infrastructure was ripped to shreds thanks to his hubristic miscalculation.

Now what?

Such was the grasping desire of the neoliberal warmongers around Rumsfeld to get their hands on Iraq’s state-run oil industry that they had given scant attention to the question of how to govern the country following the fall of Saddam.

Similarly in Afghanistan, the invasion was poorly conceived and under-equipped, failing to capture Osama Bin Laden, its nominal target, for another decade. US forces are only due to pull out of that country this September, an event that will most likely be followed by the return to power of the Taliban.

War by Terror

As part of the absurdly titled War on Terror, Rumsfeld condoned the use of torture on suspected enemy combatants at both Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Shocking images of detainees in degrading and humiliating poses in the latter especially have damaged the reputation of the US in the Islamic world for many years to come.

Rumsfeld authorised the use of what notoriously became known as “enhanced interrogation, including sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and stress positions. In a leaked memo from 2002, he recommended protracted denial of chairs for suspects: “However, I stand for 8-10 hours A day. Why is Standing limited to 4 hours?”


The spirals of violence that erupted in both Iraq and Afghanistan forced Rumsfeld to quit office in 2006. The Islamic State group emerged out of the chaos that he had helped create and ultimately took their desire for vengeance against the West onto the streets of Paris, London, Manchester and other cities.

The blowback of terrorist violence that has now killed hundreds of civilians in Europe and the US can be added to the hundreds of thousands who perished in the invasions. The destabilisation of the Middle East he facilitated is still visible in the wreckage of Syria and ongoing tensions with Iran. Long after Rumsfeld’s bizarre soundbites have faded from memory, the world will still be paying a price for his malignant influence.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters