Iraq War

Donald Rumsfeld Says Goal of Democracy in Iraq Was 'Unrealistic,' Still a Popular Bipartisan Goal

The former Bush defense secretary's said he's always been uncomfortable with the democratic rhetoric.


Department of Defense

In an interview with the Times of London, Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense during the first six years of the Bush administration, said that administration's goal of democracy in Iraq as "unrealistic" and that President Bush had been wrong to adopt that strategy. CNN pulls a quote getting a lot of attention:

"I'm not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment of their histories. 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," Rumsfeld told the Times of London last weekend.

The comments, CNN claims, mark a "rare departure" for Rumsfeld. Here's Rumsfeld describing his stance on democracy in Iraq in the run up to the war in his 2011 memoir, Knowns and Unknowns:

If we hurried to create Iraqi democracy through quick elections, before key institutions–a free press, private property rights, political parties an independent judiciary–began to develop orgnaically, we "could end up with a permanent mistake–one vote, one time–and another Iran-like theocracy," as I wrote in a May 2003 memo.

Rumsfeld wrote that he suggested "the administration soften the democracy rhetoric" and "talk more about freedom and less about democracy, lest the Iraqis and other countries in the region think we intended to impose our own political system on them, rather than their developing one better suited to their history and culture."

In fact, in his memoir, shifts the blame for the rhetoric to Bush and/or Rice. "It was hard to know exactly where the President's far-reaching language about democracy originated," Rumsfeld wrote.  "It was not a large part of his original calculus in toppling Saddam's regime."

Bush's memoirs, Decision Points, written in sections about specific decisions, place the threat of weapons of mass destruction front and center as the reason for the war. "The only logical conclusion was that [Hussein] had something to hide, something so important he was willing to go to war for it," Bush wrote while defending his decision to go to war as a last resort to deal with the Iraqi dictator's refusal to submit to demands on weapons inspections.

In Decision Points, Bush also cites the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, signed into law by President Clinton, which made regime-change and democracy in Iraq a U.S. foreign policy goal. As for Rumsfeld's preference for "freedom" over "democracy," Bush appeared to have adopted or accommodated it when ordering the invasion of Iraq "for the peace of the world and the benefit and freedom of the Iraqi people."

Of course the Iraq war did neither. There were no smoking gun weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration appeared wholly unprepared to manage Iraq after toppling its government, an eight-year-war led to a precarious strongman "democracy," and now thanks to power vacuums created in part by the American interventions of the last two decades, a significant portion of Iraq, and Syria, are under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an off-shoot turned alpha to Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for 9/11 and who, along with "associated forces," are the target in the U.S.'s open-ended "war on terror."

While President Obama has contributed with his own interventions, with assists for Hillary Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic nominee, it's Republicans who are mostly jockeying to say they're carrying the torch of the Bush interventionist legacy. Last month Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio became the centers of media controversy for their answers to questions about whether the Iraq war was a mistake in hindsight. Of course it was. But it was also a mistake then. There's been more than a decade of other foreign policy mistakes since then, mostly supported by guys like Rubio, and far more bipartisan than partisans would like them to appear. The presence of so many pro-Iraq war presidential candidates, from Hillary Clinton to most of the Republicans not named Rand Paul, illustrates that bipartisanship.

Rumsfeld tried to resign at least twice during his six year tenure as secretary of defense. His successor, Robert Gates, served into the Obama administration. Democratic regime-change, from Libya to Syria, remains a seldom questioned bipartisan establishment foreign policy goal, the occasional attention given former officials who used to be decision-makers notwithstanding.

NEXT: Obamacare is Working Even Better Than President Obama Expected

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Glad our Founders didn’t have Democracy as a goal.

  2. Stop the presses…Donald Rumsfeld, in an interview, repeats stuff he said four years ago!

  3. So even Donald Rumsfeld said “Bush’s fault.”

  4. Has this useless shitbag ever apologized for his role in the gargantuan failure which was the Bush Presidency?

    1. No. And I blame Bush.

    2. Nope, nosirree. Colossal failure all around. No apologies.

  5. I just heard about this on the radio on the way back from lunch. Dude sitting in for Limbaugh mentioned it.

    Department Of Justice Uses Grand Jury Subpoena To Identify Anonymous Commenters on a Silk Road Post at…..eason-com/

    1. 7:01 pm, dude.

      1. something something cat video something something

      2. See it. Thanks.

        1. 7:01 is our 9/11. Kinda.


    3. Does anyone even care what happened yesterday at 7:01? Does anybody even care?

      “Dude sitting in for Limbaugh mentioned it.”

      I’m assuming it was Mark Steyn. This is the kind of thing that makes Steyn go ballistic. We can expect some awesome posts on Steyn Online about this nonsense.

      1. Does anybody really know what time it is?

        Does anybody really care?

        [about time]

        1. Are you singing Chicago again?

          1. Rufus, you magnificent bastard! Went back and saw you are, in fact,

            [whispers loudly] *one of us*

            Ahem. Yes, I am singing Chicago. It’s Saturday, in the park. I think it was the Fourth of July….

    4. I have no particular opinion about Rush Limbaugh. But how did, I assume Mark Stein, present this case? As overreach or rightful prosecution of libertarian scum?

      1. I’m listening now. He mentioned it a couple more times as part of a pattern of tyranny. Not that I agree or disagree…

      2. Considering that the GOP aren’t in the White House, the only logical response to that must be that it was an overreach. If it were done by a GOP president… too close to call.

        (Not trying to malign Stein, I don’t know him. I’m just reading the playbook.)

      3. Steyn.

        Just protecting you from you know who. /wink.

      4. He was basically discussing it along side some law that supposedly makes discussing guns in gun forums illegal. He said that that the laws defenders will say that while thats “technically” true that is not what the law was designed for and the DOJ would never enforce it that way. He went on to mention this thing along with the bank withdrawal technicality they got Hastert on and says if they want to target you, they’ll target you anyway that they can.

        1. And the ease by which the feds can destroy your life is precisely what makes this so scary. The drug war and the battle for the total state is now being waged even in the reason commentariat

  6. Can anyone confirm democracy in Iraq as a policy objective was originally called ‘Serenity Now’?

    1. Wasn’t the ongoing series after the initial “Shock and Awe” called “Firefly”?

  7. I’ll gladly take these comments at a time when the Republican candidates are jockeying to take the most outlandishly stupid foreign policy positions possible. Its scary that they learned so little. And there’s not even a good viable alternative.

    We are going to have another ground war in that region in the next 8 years. If not in the next four.

    1. If not in the next two.

  8. Here. Have a shot of this Bully-No-More, and knock it off with the hyperbole, you savages.

    1. I neither agree nor disagree with you Mr Brooks.

  9. I find it hard to genuinely hate Donald Rumsfeld. The guy’s always managed to keep a hint of outlandish and happy villainy about him.

    1. He looks like a villain on Scooby-Doo.

  10. Everyone ignores the counterfactual. The situation in 2003 was untenable, we either had to remove Saddam or abandon the country to him, with the Kurds and Shia no longer protected by no-fly zones the massacres would still be going on.

    Large majorities of Iraqi Shia and Kurds would strongly agree that removing Saddam was the right thing to do. Does the country still have huge problems with corruption and savagery and a general lack of institutions? Of course. But this is the Mideast, no matter how bad things are they can always be worse, and get worse.

    We didn’t do anything in Syria and that decision gave the world ISIS, which is now raping and pillaging and torturing in a dozen countries. So let’s not pretend the noninterventionists are arguing from a strong position anymore.

    1. Oooookay. Did you never consider the very basic principle that Saddam was not a threat to us, that it was none of our business, and that if the Iraqis, Kurds, Wheys, and Syrians want freedom, they can fight against odds just as we did?

      Did you even consider the long-standing well-known fact that people given something for free don’t appreciate it nearly as much as people who earn it by their own hard work?

      1. Or perhaps consider that no low-intensity conflict has worked out for the outside force in the last 70 years (Panama, Malaysia, and Grenada excepted (and the British promised to leave Malaysia afterwards)).

      2. Out with “Never Again”, in with “Not Our Problem”.

      3. We did not know that Saddam was not a threat to us. His past cooperation with terrorists, his attempt to assassinate George H W Bush, his obstruction of WMD inspectors and various other actions suggested he was a threat to us. He was most certainly a threat to the oil patch, which is very certainly in our strong national interest.

        The biggest failure was to not stabilize Iraq quickly enough to keep the idiot peaceniks in the US from gaining ascendancy. Had the occupation been done competently (for example, not sacking all the officers in the Iraqi army), we could have stabilized Iraq within a year. It would not have been a great government, but would have been ok.

        Bush had the courage to ignore his advisers and the screeching of the anti-war crowd, and turn the situation around with the surge. After the surge, Iraq was in a desirable state. But, by then, it was too late. Americans had turned against the war, and we elected an utter fool to the Presidency. The result: we snatched defeat from the jaws of a hard won victory.

        The similarities with Vietnam are striking, and terribly sad – especially to this Vietnam Veteran. In both cases, the early few years of the war were poorly fought. In both cases, the anti-war crowd gained ascendancy, largely through the lies of the main stream media. In both cases, a Republican president turned the mess into a solid victory on the ground. In both cases, the Democrats pulled out our support, turning the victory into a defeat.

    2. “The situation in 2003 was untenable…”

      Compared to what?

      There are no particularly happy, sun shiney scenarios that come out of a totalitarian regime with a people who don’t value freedom. You could call all of them “untenable” if you like.

      The Kurds seem to have managed a not horrible society in the midst of savages. I wish we were helping them more with arms.

    3. What was untenable were the lies told about the situation in the run up to the war and the lies told about the cost in lives and treasure.

      We had Saddam on a short leash. He knew damn well that if any terrorist attack had an Iraqi Government return address that he was done.

      I’m envisioning a counterfactual in which we saved a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives lost fighting abroad for nothing.

    4. But this is the Mideast, no matter how bad things are they can always be worse, and get worse.

      I’m guessing we can’t use the same excuse to dismiss your counterfactual?

  11. Insouciant and villainous is no way to go through life, Son.

  12. The man’s entire legacy is the Bush presidency and Aspartame. Think about that for a minute.

  13. Yes, Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney handed Iraq to the Iranians and the terrorists because they were fucking stupid.

    Obama on the other hand is doing the same thing through the region, and he’s doing it entirely on purpose. I sure wish more people in the media would bother asking why.

  14. “talk more about freedom and less about democracy”

    If the Iraqis wanted freedom, democracy would have worked out fine. It’s precisely the premise that the Iraqis value freedom that turned out to be mistaken.

  15. “Bush appeared to have adopted or accommodated it when ordering the invasion of Iraq for the peace of the world and the benefit and freedom of the Iraqi people. Of course the Iraq war did neither. ”

    that’s a serious rewrite of Iraq. sure, it’s going to shit now, but that’s only because the unicorn prince abandoned it for a campaign talking point. as recently as 2010 both obama and biden were bragging about how much of a success Iraq was.

    i’m not sure how you can claim that the people of Iraq were not better off in 2010 than they were in 2000.

  16. Saddam: What We Now Know (link) by Jim Lacey* draws from the Iraq Survey Group (re WMD) and Iraqi Perspectives Project (re terrorism).

    Explanation (link) of the law and policy, fact basis for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

    1. UN Recognizes ‘Major Changes’ In Iraq (link) by VP Joe Biden on behalf of the UN Security Council.

      How Obama Abandoned Democracy in Iraq (link) by OIF official and senior advisor Emma Sky.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.