Donald Rumsfeld’s legacy is defined by the disastrous Iraq War and America’s disgraceful use of torture

Donald Rumsfeld
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld listens to questions during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on what military leaders knew about the combat death in Afghanistan of U.S. Army Ranger and former football star Pat Tillman, in Washington, August 1, 2007.

  • Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s powerful defense secretary, died at 88 on Wednesday.
  • His legacy will always be tied to the Iraq War and torture.
  • Rumsfeld helped push the false notion Iraq had WMDs – the basis for the 2003 invasion.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In the days leading up to Donald Rumsfeld’s death, the US targeted Iranian proxy fighters along the Iraq-Syria border with airstrikes in what the Pentagon said was a “defensive” response to drone attacks on American forces in the region.

The fighting between the US and Iran-backed militias is intrinsically tied to Rumsfeld’s legacy. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq and removal of its dictator created a power vacuum that Iran took advantage of, using it as an opportunity to prop up Shiite Islamist militias and political parties that vie for power in Iraq and counter America’s agenda and troops.

As former President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense from 2001 to 2006, Rumsfeld was one of the main architects of the 2003 Iraq War and a proponent of the torture methods that damaged America’s global standing. He played a central role in selling the false notion that Saddam Hussein was actively developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that posed a direct threat to the US. Later, Rumsfeld referred to his baseless assertions about WMDs in Iraq as “misstatements.”

In one of his most infamous statements about the war, Rumsfeld once dismissed looting that occurred shortly after the invasion by simply stating: “Stuff happens.”

The war was a costly disaster for Rumsfeld’s political career and in far more reverberating ways, with the conflict claiming many Iraqi and American lives while undermining US credibility worldwide.

The “global war on terror,” which the Iraq invasion was fundamentally linked to and began while Rumsfeld was Pentagon chief, has also been an exorbitantly expensive debacle. It’s claimed over 800,000 lives, displaced at least 37 million, and the US government places the price-tag around $6.4 trillion, according to the Brown University’s Costs of War project, which estimated that as many as 308,000 people directly died as a result of the war’s violence.

The 2003 Iraq invasion also helped catalyze the rise of the Islamic State or ISIS, a terrorist organization that has claimed responsibility for devastating attacks across the globe. ISIS was initially founded as “Al Qaeda in Iraq” in 2004. By 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate as it controlled a large swath of territory across Iraq and Syria. ISIS lost its territorial holdings and has seen top leaders killed, but is still viewed as a threat by the US and its Western allies.

“ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and Iran and its militant allies continue to plot terrorist attacks against US persons and interests, including to varying degrees in the United States. Despite leadership losses, terrorist groups have shown great resiliency and are taking advantage of ungoverned areas to rebuild,” the US intelligence community said in its annual threat assessment released in April. The US maintains a presence of roughly 2,500 troops in Iraq as part of the international coalition continuing to fight the remnants of ISIS.

Rumsfeld in his 2011 memoir said he had no regrets about the 2003 Iraq War because it helped take out Saddam Hussein, which he said helped stabilize the Middle East. History tells a different story.

“While the road not traveled always looks smoother, the cold reality of a Hussein regime in Baghdad most likely would mean a Middle East far more perilous than it is today,” Rumsfeld said. “Our failure to confront Iraq would have sent a message to other nations that neither America nor any other nation was willing to stand in the way of their support for terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.”

Years before the 2003 invasion, Rumsfeld served as the Reagan administration’s special Middle East envoy. At the time, he met with Hussein and offered the Iraqi leader assistance – even though the US knew that Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iran amid a devastating conflict.

Rumsfeld was also a documented proponent of enhanced interrogation techniques – or torture.

In one memo that Rumsfeld signed as defense secretary approving the use of torture on detainees, he wrote a handwritten note asking why they would only be required to stand for four hours.

A December 2008 Senate report also concluded that Abu Ghraib torture scandal was a product of the interrogation techniques approved by Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials.

Human rights groups and civil liberties groups like the ACLU filed unsuccessful lawsuits against Rumsfeld over his involvement in America’s use of torture. Such organizations pointed to this legacy as they reacted to the news of Rumsfeld’s death.

“Rumsfeld may be dead, but other senior Bush administration officials are alive and well and available for criminal investigation into torture,” Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington irector at Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet.

Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, tweeted that the “top of every obituary” should state that he “gave the orders that resulted in the abuse and torture of hundreds of prisoners in US custody in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.”

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Donald Rumsfeld has died at 88

Donald Rumsfeld
Former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

  • Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has died at age 88.
  • He served in the role under former Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush.
  • Rumsfeld’s role in pushing for the Iraq War became a major liability for Bush in later years.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who served in the role under former presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush and was widely seen as the architect of the Iraq War, has died at age 88.

The Rumsfeld family released a statement shortly after his passing.

“It is with deep sadness that we share the news of the passing of Donald Rumsfeld, an American statesman and devoted husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. At 88, he was surrounded by family in his beloved Taos, New Mexico,” they wrote.

They added: “History may member his for his extraordinary accomplishments over six decades of public service, but for those who knew him best and whose lives were forever changed as a result, we will remember his unwavering love for his wife Joyce, his family and friends, and the integrity he brought to a life dedicated to country.”

Rumsfeld, an Illinois native, Princeton University graduate, and US Navy veteran, represented a suburban Chicago congressional district in the House from 1963 to 1969.

He was later the US Ambassador to NATO from February 1973 to September 1974 and White House chief of staff under Ford from September 1974 to November 1975, before serving as Defense secretary from November 1975 to January 1977.

Bush tapped Rumsfeld for his second stint at the Pentagon in 2001, and he sought to make the military a leaner organization.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed the trajectory of the nation’s history, and Rumsfeld played a critical role in the guiding the military’s response and its initial attacks on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

US forces toppled the Taliban from their position of power in the country, and supported a new democratically-elected government.

In 2002, Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney set their sights on the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, with US-led coalition invading the country the next year under the rationale of stopping him from launching attacks with weapons of mass destruction.

No such weapons were discovered, and the Iraq War left the country susceptible to internal sectarian violence.

Where Rumsfeld was once praised for his leadership at the Pentagon, he soon became a lightning rod for opponents of the war.

After photos emerged of US soldiers abusing Iraq prisoners who werebeing held at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Rumsfeld was blamed for the incident.

He approved harsh interrogation techniques for detainees, and under his leadership, the country opened a special prison at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which drew international scorn from human rights activists.

Rumsfeld resigned from his position after the 2006 midterm elections, which saw Republicans lose their Congressional majorities after Americans began to turn against the war.

He was replaced by Robert Gates, a former director of Central Intelligence.

This post has been updated. Check back for updates.

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