Jul 1, 2021

The death of Donald Rumsfeld.

The death of Donald Rumsfeld.

Plus, a question about Julian Assange.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

We are reflecting on the impact of Donald Rumsfeld. Plus, a question about Julian Assange.

Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C, and receiving the "Defender of the Constitution Award.", Photo: Gage Skidmore: Flickr


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Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court upheld voting restrictions in Arizona on Thursday, signaling that challenges to new state laws would face an uphill battle in the country’s highest court. (The New York Times, subscription). Separately, the court ruled that a California law requiring nonprofits to disclose donors is unconstitutional. (Fox News)
  2. Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg surrendered to authorities on Thursday after prosecutors secured grand jury indictments against him and the former president’s company for charges related to unpaid taxes. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  3. Current and former aides to Vice President Kamala Harris criticized her for a dysfunctional operation and an office with low morale, diminished trust and poor communication. (Politico)
  4. Bill Cosby, who has spent the last three years in prison was released from prison after a Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out his sexual assault conviction. (Associated Press)
  5. Margins have tightened in a new count of the New York City mayoral race, with frontrunner Eric Adams’ lead shrinking after days of confusion. (The New York Times, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

Donald Rumsfeld. Yesterday, the former defense secretary and Congressman died in his home in Taos, New Mexico. He was 88 years old.

Rumsfeld served under Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George W. Bush during two of the most consequential times in American history: the Cold War of the 1970s and again in the wake of September 11, during the beginning of the War on Terrorism and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the only defense chief to ever serve two non-consecutive terms (1975 to 1977 and 2001 to 2006), and also the youngest (at 46) during his first term and the second-oldest (at 74) during his second term. Before his terms as defense secretary, he was a Navy fighter pilot and then a three-term Congressman from Illinois.

In political circles, Rumsfeld is considered one of the most significant figures of the last 40 years. His role in advocating for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars shaped early 21st-century politics in America and the Middle East, with wide-ranging consequences still being felt today. He was commonly regarded as the most powerful defense secretary since Robert McNamara, who held the position during the Vietnam War.

Despite how costly and divisive both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were, Rumsfeld often stuck by the decision to engage in those wars publicly. Even later in life, both in his memoir and in public comments, he seldom expressed regret or doubt about the decisions he made.

Rumsfeld’s career was so consequential, and his impact is still so strongly felt today, that we’ve decided — for the first time ever — to focus on reflections on someone’s life as the main story in Tangle. Below, we’ll look at some reactions from the right and left.

What the right is saying.

The right framed Rumsfeld as a patriotic and devoted public servant whose legacy was more than just the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In Politico, former George W. Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer said it would be a “disservice” to define him only as the secretary of defense during the worst days of the Iraq War.

“A moderate Republican congressman from Illinois, he championed civil rights legislation and a civil style of politics against the extremes of his party,” Latimer wrote. “He stood up to LBJ over the lies about the Vietnam War. As an official in the Nixon administration, he tried to make the war on poverty work as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which had been established as part of LBJ’s Great Society… President Gerald Ford receives credit, deservedly so, for righting the ship of state after Watergate.

“But it was the man he turned to as his chief of staff, his old friend from Congress Don Rumsfeld, whom he counted on to hold the nuts and bolts of that ship together,” Latimer said. “Later, as the youngest secretary of defense under Ford, he supported a Reaganite-style military buildup against the Soviets that hastened the end of the Cold War. And it was Don Rumsfeld whom George W. Bush called back to the Pentagon decades later, where he reformed and modernized the defense department while managing two wars and responding to the worst attack on our homeland in our history. He was the administration’s most powerful surrogate when things were going well; its heat shield and shock absorber when things went bad. And he never complained.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “few men have had more consequential careers in public and private life than Donald Rumsfeld.”

“Rumsfeld was most controversial during his second stint as Defense secretary in managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the board said. “He pressed the military to refine its invasion plans that in both cases achieved their goals quickly and with few casualties. But he underestimated the strength and nature of the insurgency in Iraq, and he failed to change strategy. President George W. Bush didn’t help by failing to settle disputes between State and Defense… Rumsfeld didn’t suffer naifs, or journalists, gladly. But we always enjoyed the give and take and learned a great deal listening to him. He was a patriot willing to challenge recalcitrant bureaucracies, which we need more of today.”

The National Review editors said Rumsfeld’s career will be “characterized by his tremendous drive, energy, work ethic, unswerving patriotism, and cold-eyed understanding of how Washington and the world work.

“His legacy is inextricably tied to the long-running debates over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2006,” they wrote. “Here, unfortunately, he was too late to acknowledge the seriousness of the insurgency in Iraq, and the deep divisions between his Pentagon and Colin Powell’s State Department contributed to a damaging dysfunction at the heart of the Bush administration. The Iraq war didn’t turn around until Rumsfeld stepped down and the administration embraced a new strategy that defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq and brought relative stability to the country (if only temporarily).

“History will have much to say about Donald Rumsfeld. The most important thing to say on this day, though, is that the country has lost a fierce, utterly dedicated public servant. R.I.P.”

What the left is saying.

The left has been harshly critical of Rumsfeld’s legacy, saying it was defined by his penchant for pushing war and the destruction he caused to thousands of citizens.

“The only thing tragic about the death of Donald Rumsfeld is that it didn’t occur in an Iraqi prison,” Spencer Ackerman wrote in The Daily Beast. “Yet that was foreordained, considering how throughout his life inside the precincts of American national security, Rumsfeld escaped the consequences of decisions he made that ensured a violent, frightening end for hundreds of thousands of people.

“An actuarial table of the deaths for which Donald Rumsfeld is responsible is difficult to assemble,” he wrote. “In part, that’s a consequence of his policy, as defense secretary from 2001 to 2006, not to compile or release body counts, a PR strategy learned after disclosing the tolls eroded support for the Vietnam War. As a final obliteration, we cannot know, let alone name, all the dead. But in 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project put together something that serves as the basis for an estimate. According to Neda C. Crawford, Brown’s political-science department chair, the Afghanistan war to that point claimed about 147,000 lives, to include 38,480 civilians; 58,596 Afghan soldiers and police (about as many American troops as died in Vietnam); and 2,401 U.S. service members.”

In The Atlantic, George Packer said Rumsfeld “deserves to be remembered” as the “worst secretary of defense in American history.”

“Being newly dead shouldn’t spare him this distinction,” Packer wrote. “Rumsfeld was the chief advocate of every disaster in the years after September 11. Wherever the United States government contemplated a wrong turn, Rumsfeld was there first with his hard smile—squinting, mocking the cautious, shoving his country deeper into a hole. His fatal judgment was equaled only by his absolute self-assurance. He lacked the courage to doubt himself. He lacked the wisdom to change his mind. Rumsfeld started being wrong within hours of the [September 11] attacks and never stopped…

“He argued that the attacks proved the need for the missile-defense shield that he’d long advocated,” Packer wrote. “He thought that the American war in Afghanistan meant the end of the Taliban. He thought that the new Afghan government didn’t need the U.S. to stick around for security and support. He thought that the United States should stiff the United Nations, brush off allies, and go it alone. He insisted that al-Qaeda couldn’t operate without a strongman like Saddam. He thought that all the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was wrong, except the dire reports that he’d ordered up himself. He reserved his greatest confidence for intelligence obtained through torture. He thought that the State Department and the CIA were full of timorous, ignorant bureaucrats. He thought that America could win wars with computerized weaponry and awesome displays of force.”

In The Guardian, Julian Borger said history is “unlikely to forgive” the Rumsfeld warmongering.

“Donald Rumsfeld’s name will forever be associated with the biggest military fiasco in US history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, alongside the widespread use of torture that has dogged America’s reputation ever since,” Borger said. “It is not just the poor decisions he made as defence secretary for which Rumsfeld will be remembered, but also his efforts to cover up inconvenient facts that did not align with his version of reality.

Documents surfaced after the invasion that showed that Rumsfeld was quite aware of the gaping holes in the intelligence about Iraqi WMD, but he consistently presented the claims to the public as if they were cast-iron certainties,” he wrote. “His reluctance to heed warnings that did not fit in with his world view alienated the generals and the military rank and file. His insistence there was no serious threat in Iraq contributed to the fact that the US military was driving around in lightly armoured Humvees a year after the invasion.”

My take.

I was shocked to see the lack of criticism from the “Trump-right” on Rumsfeld. In all the places where I can usually find reliable Trump-Republican opinion represented these days — Townhall, Breitbart, Spectator, The American Conservative, Fox News, The Daily Signal, The Federalist, Epoch Times, OAN, Newsmax, Newsweek, and others — I didn’t find anyone speaking out about Rumsfeld’s legacy.

Which is odd. Truly.

If anyone embodied the kind of career politician, establishment Republicanism that helped usher in the Trump backlash, it was Rumsfeld. As many of the writers above pointed out, he was regularly leading the charge for American insurgencies abroad, and the two major wars with his name on them — in Iraq and Afghanistan — were key gripes among American conservatives that helped energize Trump’s anti-establishment fervor in 2016 and 2020.

There are, to be fair, commonalities between the Trump-Republicanism today and the Rumsfeld Republicanism of old: Rumsfeld was brash in pressers, not unlike Trump. He was outspoken about a desire to crush waste at the Pentagon and — before 9/11 — elevated that issue as a primary force behind his return to service. And he valued patriotism — American exceptionalism, especially — in an unforgiving way that often manifested as an inability to reflect honestly when he got things wrong.

Perhaps the new-right, the one that turned against the Republican establishment after many saw their sons and daughters serve in Rumsfeld’s wars for little gain, are simply uninterested in hammering a guy on “team red” just hours after his death. I get that impulse, and I’ve always thought it was bad form to speak ill of the dead. I have no intention of laying harsh criticisms at the feet of a man whom I criticized plenty when he was alive. Suffice it to say I don’t object to much of the criticism above. But I was still surprised not to see his death expose the fractures between the dying breed of establishment Republicans and the rising populist right, which so often juxtaposes itself against so many of the things Rumsfeld represented.

I think it’s also worth giving the left’s harsh take on Rumsfeld a critical eye. The pieces above are dripping with so much of the self-assuredness Rumsfeld himself was criticized for, one might think he had a light switch for war that he simply turned on and off.

But that’s not the case.

Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney are often blamed for spearheading the lie that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, but that faulty intelligence was repeated by the Clintons, Joe Biden, a laundry list of Democrats still serving in Congress and plenty of foreign intelligence agencies, too. He’s pegged above as some pioneer of regime change and torture, but plenty of Democrats loudly supported removing Saddam Hussein and many — to this day — continue to vote for and support American policy founded in regime change while turning a blind eye to torture. While Republicans in Congress (and a Republican president) pushed through the authorizations for war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they got an assist from plenty of Democrats along the way. More recently, President Barack Obama used military force to push out Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and would have executed a regime change in Syria if he had the right opportunity.

Only recently, for the first time, are we seeing more collective outspoken anti-interventionist voices in Congress, and they’re coming from the right and left.

Hindsight is 20/20, and I can easily sit here and look back on Rumsfeld’s career critically. It’s tough to find much of anything in his “defining moments” that I view favorably. But as the country reflects on his legacy, no matter how you remember him, he’s above all else a reminder that our elections, our presidents and the people they choose to serve with them carry a great deal of importance — not just for us, but for the world.

Your questions, answered.

Q: We hear a lot about Julian Assange being wanted for leaking US secrets. I can grasp why the US is mad about it, and I can also grasp why Assange did it. My question is, was the leak just embarrassing? Or were people really hurt because of the information that was leaked?

— Mike, Willingboro, NJ

Tangle: It’s hard to talk about Julian Assange without talking about Edward Snowden, who I wrote about in December (advocating for his pardon). But even Snowden has criticized WikiLeaks (the organization Assange runs) for sloppily releasing leaked documents that exposed people’s personal information. In that regard, I think it’d be a mistake to minimize the criticisms of Assange as a reaction to being “embarrassed.” I think there are very legitimate criticisms of how WikiLeaks does business.

Whether WikiLeaks physically caused anyone’s harm is a more difficult question to answer. Technically speaking, I think the answer is no. But that doesn’t tell the full story. According to U.S. military officials (if you’re keen to believe them), the most at-risk people were civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who were feeding information to U.S. forces. In other words: civilian allies who had to go into hiding because the leaks exposed them as sources. Officials have long maintained that, in the immediate aftermath of WikiLeaks’ major drop in 2010, they had to scramble to protect people on the ground who were immediately at-risk.

Scott Anderson, a former State Department Lawyer, told NPR that WikiLeaks has also exposed human rights activists who were quietly in touch with U.S. diplomats in countries where advocating for human rights issues is particularly dangerous. This, too, is a tough-to-quantify but serious kind of exposure and risk.

As a reporter, and someone who is insatiably curious about the inner-workings of government, I’ve always appreciated WikiLeaks’ work. Even if you’re going to peg someone as a “traitor,” I’d suggest the blame falls more with the leakers (the people feeding WikiLeaks intel) than WikiLeaks for publishing it. But they’ve also made some huge mistakes and some sordid friends, so I wouldn’t put my trust in them (or tie my name to their reputation), either.

A story that matters.

The Pew Research Center just released its validated voters’ report, which is considered one of the most accurate measures of the electorate (more so than exit polls). It’s the first in-depth look at the 2020 results, with some interesting conclusions: the data suggests Biden won the election largely with shifts among suburban voters, white men and independents, while white women and Hispanics swung toward Trump. Biden also won 92 percent of Black voters, denying Trump any gains among that bloc. One-in-four 2020 voters did not vote in 2016, signaling a major bump in re-engaged voters. 66 percent of all eligible citizens turned out to vote. (Pew)


  • 43%. The percentage of Americans who view the war in Afghanistan as a mistake.
  • 54%. The percentage of Americans who do not view the war in Afghanistan as a mistake.
  • 50%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States made a mistake sending troops to Iraq, according to a 2019 poll.
  • 45%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States did not make a mistake sending troops to Iraq, according to a 2019 poll.
  • 23%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States made a mistake sending troops to Iraq, according to a 2003 poll.
  • 75%. The percentage of Americans who said the United States did not make a mistake sending troops to Iraq, according to a 2003 poll.


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Have a nice day.

Abhimanyu Mishra, a 12-year-old Indian-American living in New Jersey, just became the youngest chess Grandmaster in history. Mishra, considered a chess prodigy, eclipsed Sergey Karjakin’s record which has stood for 19 years (Karjakin became a grandmaster in 2002 at the age of 12 years and seven months). Mishra took 12 years, four months and 25 days to obtain the highest title in chess, which requires extremely high levels of performance at chess tournaments as well as a 2500 Elo rating from the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE). Mishra has been on the global chess map since he was seven, when he became the youngest Expert in the United States Chess Federation. (CNN)

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