The Unknown Known is a sequel of sorts to Errol Morris’s Fog of War. Both deal with disgraced secretaries of defense who oversaw failed wars that proved the limitations of US military might. In a way both films were about the invasion of Iraq starting in March 20th, 2003.
The Fog of War was released on March 5th, 2003, but the lurch towards war with Iraq had been building since the Clinton administration. The film was structured as a series of lessons Robert McNamara learned over the course of an impressive career with an ignominious end. “Know thy enemy”, “know the history”... The whole endeavor seemed like a desperate plea to the Bush Administration to not repeat the glaring failures of Vietnam.
There’s no good reason to believe Donald Rumsfeld heeded these warnings in the run up to Iraq. The portrait drawn here shows a natural political climber, not of a leader.
Rumsfeld has the incredible ability to admit he’s wrong in a specific argument without conceding the larger point. All with an avuncular grin and Midwestern charm. You can only imagine him in the rooms of power. Nixon saw straight through Rumsfeld as a media whore and took appropriate steps to isolate him, an act that ironically spared him from getting netted in the multiple Watergate probes. His political life unscathed, Rumsfeld managed to worm his way into Gerald Ford’s good graces. Ford was a much less sophisticated player. “Jerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time,” Lyndon B Johnson once said. For Rumsfeld the president was an easy mark.
It takes a marvelous amount of will and careful strategy to dodge blame for the Iraq conflict. None of Bush’s inner circle have fully escaped the cloud. There are two basic strategies they follow: doubling down on belligerence or claiming they were lied to and out of the loop. Rumsfeld takes the second track and Errol Morris is unwittingly complicit.
Rumsfeld makes stunning claims: he had no input in the decision to invade Iraq and found out only through the Vice President after the fact; that he merely signed off on torture practices but had no role in writing them; that the decision to not extend the Geneva Convention “prisoner of war” distinction to fighters captured in Afghanistan came from on high. By his account no tangible policy came from his office during his tenure during the Bush Administration. That’s incredible and cowardly, but the archival footage by Morris bolsters this claim. Rumsfeld’s true constituency was the press. In the aftermath of 9/11 it seemed like his star was again on the rise, his approval rating above 80%. Press conferences were fawning, jocular affairs. Rumsfeld basked in the glow, anointed as a “media darling”. It’s clear that his on camera presence was a primary concern, conceivably more so than his responsibilities as Secretary.
Then the crash hit. Mere weeks after the invasion it was clear that the war was not going as expected. Nearly every on the ground decision led to dozens of irreparable issues. The fawning press turned into a gallery of accusers. Rumsfeld lost his base. Seeing his options as either resigning as secretary of defense or remaining as a punching bag, Rumsfeld chose to bolt.