To all those struggling to please their boss—to decipher what exactly needs to be “FIXED ASAP” or why exactly the TPS reports need cover sheets at all—allow me to introduce you to Douglas Feith.
Feith is best known as the top policy adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during George W. Bush’s administration, and a divisive architect of the Iraq War and war on terrorism. But he is also the man who, according to documents released this past week by the National Security Archive, once received a message from Rumsfeld very simply entitled “Lists,” which read, in full, “We ought to think through what are the bad things that could happen, and what are the good things that could happen that we need to be ready for in both respects. Please give me a list of each.”
He is the man who at one point got a note from the defense secretary with the subject line “Oil” and the text: “We ought to have on our radar screen the subject of oil—Venezuela, the Caucauses [sic], Indonesia—anywhere we think it may exist and how it fits into our strategies.”
And he is the man who—as my colleague Alexis Madrigal pointed out in 2011, when Rumsfeld himself released a trove of materials from his time at the Pentagon—was once bombarded with what may qualify as the most intimidating Monday-morning ask of all time. Under the subject “Issues w/Various Countries,” Rumsfeld wrote, “We need more coercive diplomacy with respect to Syria and Libya, and we need it fast. If they mess up Iraq, it will delay bringing our troops home. We also need to solve the Pakistan problem. And Korea doesn’t seem to be going well. Are you coming up with proposals for me to send around?” (For some perspective, The Atlantic has described the dysfunctional, terrorist-harboring, nuclear-armed Pakistani government as “the ally from hell” and North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program as an “intractable problem” with virtually “no solution”; given the opportunity, this magazine would have responded to the defense secretary with a 9,000-word essay.)
Rumsfeld and his aides famously referred to these mini-memos as “snowflakes,” but they seem more like itty-bitty earthquakes designed to send recipients scrambling for cover under their desks. How do you possibly respond to these prompts? Do you drop everything and spend your waking hours trying to solve the Pakistan problem? Do you write back “Thanks for flagging this!” and then archive the message into oblivion?