Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Nil Nisi Bonum Department


Gerald Ford's chief of staff Don Rumsfeld, right, and his deputy Dick Cheney, 1975. Photo by Harvey Georges/AP, via The New York Times.

In defense of that vile reprobate Donald Rumsfeld, now on his final journey to whichever circle of Hell it is that houses those who believe their own parochial interests outweigh the suffering of millions, it is not at all true that he spoke incomprehensible gobbledygook in the way Sarah Jones suggests in her otherwise excellent farewell note in New York:

Iraq will be Rumsfeld’s legacy, with all of the lies, all of the torture, all of the killing. While many hands bear responsibility for such loss, two belonged to Rumsfeld, who had Saddam Hussein in his sights for years before 9/11 gave him the excuse he’d wanted to attack Iraq. Rumsfeld lived out the rest of his days with his impunity. His victims weren’t so lucky.

And there are so many of them. The prospect never seemed to bother him, much as he treated war itself like an easy jaunt in the park. “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns,” he said incoherently in 2002, implying that Iraq was arming terrorists. “There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Even now, years later, Rumsfeld’s infamous quote is difficult to decipher. It offends precisely because it’s near gibberish. Rumsfeld’s justification for war — that Iraq was developing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction — rested on lies and garbled explanations to the public.

I always thought that was perfectly intelligible: dividing the universe of information that might be unattainable into three categories:

  • things we're aware of knowing 
  • things we're aware of not knowing
  • things we're not aware of not knowing

As Wikipedia points out, that's nothing but garden-variety CEO-speak—

Even the most uncertain business environments contain a lot of strategically relevant information. First, it is often possible to identify clear trends, such as market demographics, that can help define potential demand for future products or services. Second, there is usually a host of factors that are currently unknown but that are in fact knowable—that could be known if the right analysis were done. Performance attributes for current technologies, elasticities of demand for certain stable categories of products, and competitors’ capacity-expansion plans are variables that are often unknown, but not entirely unknowable. (Harvard Business Review Magazine, November-December 1997)

—used by incompetent management as a before-the-fact justification of an indefensible bad decision,

assuming that the world is entirely unpredictable can lead managers to abandon the analytical rigor of their traditional planning processes altogether and base their strategic decisions primarily on gut instinct. This “just do it” approach to strategy can cause executives to place misinformed bets on emerging products or markets that result in record write-offs.

What's really wrong with it is that it skips the fourth possibility, the unknown knowns

  • things we know without being aware that we know them

like the significance of the fact that there was no evidence of the Saddam Hussein regime arming terrorists, which was of course that it wasn't happening. They did know, but they didn't choose to be aware of it, because they wanted to do what they wanted to do. 

Which is how they conducted the entire fucking war, from their insistence on ignoring the history of conflict between Sunni and Shi'a in the region to their assumption that some Bush donor's failson with a Regent or Liberty degree was the equivalent of the exquisitely trained civil servants of the British and French empires in their heyday with their thorough knowledge of everything from linguistics to agronomy.

Wolfowitz was evil but genuinely intelligent, though obviously not as intelligent as he believed, and Cheney was evil but genuinely decisive, ready to stand behind his decisions, though not to take responsibility for them. Rumsfeld was a chucklehead with no admirable qualities at all, a terrible boss, with his snowflakes and frivolity, living with no convictions other than the certainty that he was born to be the boss, in which, as in so much, he was dead wrong.

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