Is our boondoggle in Iraq all Donald Rumsfeld’s fault? That seems to be the view of former Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell as expressed in a private email conversation from 2015 now leaked to the public.
The exchange began when Powell brought up then-recent comments from the former secretary of defense in which Rumsfeld claimed to have opposed nation-building in Iraq. “I’m not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment of their histories,” Rumsfeld had said. “The idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq seemed to me unrealistic. I was concerned about it when I first heard those words.”
Rice and Powell weren’t happy. “First, we didn’t invade Iraq to bring democracy—but once we overthrew Saddam, we had a view of what should follow,” Rice wrote. “If Don and the Pentagon had done their job (after claiming the rights to lead post-war rebuilding—things might have turned out differently).”
“Don should just stop talking,” she continued. “He puts his foot in his mouth every time.” Powell agreed, and lobbed additional critique at Rumsfeld’s seconds, neoconservatives Doug Feith and Paul Wolfowitz.
On the one hand, the frustration Rice and Powell share is understandable. Declassified memos and speeches from the run-up to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq show Rumsfeld’s account of his views on nation-building is outright revisionism: He was planning to nation-build before American troops were anywhere near Baghdad. As veteran Watergate journalist Bob Woodward said of Rumsfeld’s remarks at the time, “it’s just a total contradiction” of the historical record.
On the other hand, Rice and Powell’s own account is lacking. They seem to believe the United States’ nation-building project in Iraq might have gone better—that we might not be mired in mess 13 years post-invasion—if only someone other than Rumsfeld (and Feith, and Wolfowitz, et al.) had been at the helm. The problem as these two cast it is not one of policy but personnel, a good idea poorly executed by the wrong man.
That’s a tempting story, and no doubt it holds special allure for former members of the Bush Administration. Still, it is at best a red herring. It may be true that Rumsfeld & co. were exceptionally poor nation-builders. That was a common narrative when things first went south after the invasion, and Rice and Powell might have been privy to scenes of incompetence of which us plebes are unaware. But even if that’s the case, they’ve still missed the mark.
The problem in Iraq was not the missteps of particular nation-builders but rather the project of nation-building itself. As Amitai Etzioni contends in the National Interest, “nation building, foreign aid, imported democratization, Marshall Plans and counterinsurgency (COIN) with a major element of nation building are not only very costly but also highly prone to failure” and “best avoided.”
In Iraq and Afghanistan, that description has proved all too true: Americans have sunk more than $12 trillion (including long-term interest payments) into these two wars, and we’ve lost nearly 8,000 U.S. troops in what is self-evidently a failed effort to replicate “our particular template of democracy” abroad. Is it any wonder fewer than three in 10 Americans are game for another round of nation-building?
Rather than blaming Rumsfeld personally, Rice and Powell would do better to look to one their earliest predecessors, the eighth Secretary of State (and sixth President) John Quincy Adams. In a speech given while in office at State, Adams mused on the question: What has America done for the good of humanity?
“Let our answer be this,” he said, “America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.” But, he quickly continued, proclaiming these principles does not mean forcibly remaking the rest of the world after our own template.
America “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings,” he said. Though ever the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” Adams added, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Could Adams see what passes as American foreign policy today, he would find it unrecognizable. Our habit now is all monster searches, all the time—with devastating results to our own national security interests. Adams would be able to see what Rice and Powell cannot: The problem with Rumsfeld nation-building in Iraq wasn’t Rumsfeld—it was nation-building.