You can poke fun — and worse — at Donald Rumsfeld and be entirely justified. The man is a flawed character, with a questionable moral foundation and perhaps splintered intelligence. But he is far from a complete idiot.
And yet one of Rumsfeld’s more famous moments is what Errol Morris in today’s New York Times calls “an excursion into a world no less irrational, no less absurd than the worlds Lewis Carroll created in Alice in Wonderland.” Morris is referring to Rumsfeld’s February 12, 2002, pre-Iraq invasion news conference where Rumsfeld answered a question explaining that planners faced known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. It sounded like typical Rumsfeldian nonsense or doublespeak, but I have always thought it made sense.
Let me give a simple example.
Consider the weather. One might be very reasonable to say we know rain will start this afternoon, but we don’t know when that rain will start and stop, and we know that we don’t know if it will rain again a week from today. Is it a silly example? Not really.
Imagine a situation where Rummy and his pals are planning to go to war. They know they will go to war with X number of assets, they know they will arrive at points A & B without really knowing what will happen, and they can bet unknown things will evolve on the other side that they will know nothing about, the unknown unknowns.
In reality, we live with unknown unknowns constantly. It is the most familiar part of our experience. Just waking up in the morning sets a person up with a future of unknown unknowns. It is so obvious, that it sounds absurd when someone planning a war brings it up.
Overall Rumsfeld is like a guy you’d rather have as a nutty neighbor obsessed with planning the perfect bar-b-cue rather than the imperfect war. Or perhaps we would like to see Rumsfeld on par with a William Shatner. I have always thought so. Alas Rumsfeld is neither of these and there are plenty of serious reasons to judge and criticize him, but I don’t think this supposed Wonderland absurdity is one of them. On the contrary, this might be one of his most genuinely sensible moments.