It was four years ago today,
Field Marshal von Rumsfeld got his guns to play.
A fitting way to “celebrate” the bombastic opening of the most astonishing blunder in recent military/geopolitical history would be to read Andrew Cockburn’s book. The late US president Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon, a ruthless judge of character himself, already in March 1971 ably described the future Bush administration Pentagon warlord as “a ruthless little bastard”. Not only is this the title of one of Cockburn’s chapters, it should be the book’s epigraph.
Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy is a book of no-nonsense reportage to be read in one sitting. Much of what it presents is not new. The kicker is how it connects the dots. The picture emerges of a ruthless opportunist, fueled by a toxic ego and blind ambition, a master of very nasty rudeness who perfected the killer technique of “inflicting hours of rapid and often disconnected questions on the people under him”. What for? To win the game – whatever the game might be. Rumsfeld was a shock to the system – the ultimate operative, the ultimate fixer.
Rumsfeld the corporate honcho – at the G D Searle pharmaceutical firm – easily molded into Rumsfeld the warlord. Public-interest lawyer James Turner revealingly tells Cockburn (p 65) how Rumsfeld “is not interested in facts, not interested in truth, not interested in finding out what the fundamental realities are, but is much, much more interested in setting a goal and then, by will and force, pulling all the resources that he could possibly pull together to achieve that goal”. The goal may be to get a dodgy sweetener – aspartame – on the market, or to invade and control Iraq with a nimble strike force. In the process, the not-so-smooth operator adds value: when St Louis-based chemical behemoth Monsanto bought G D Searle, the family of founder Gideon Daniel Searle got between US$600 million and $900 million; and Rumsfeld, after a decade of faithful work, was $10 million flush.
Rumsfeld is also revealed as a karma chameleon – the Boy George of Washington politics. The Rumsfeld who was ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – when he was “rabidly pro-European” according to a senior official, and very close with the French ambassador – years later would morph, in the run-up to the war on Iraq, into a growling beast deriding France and Germany – the EU engine – as “Old Europe”.
The hands-on CEO
Cockburn opens cinematically on September 11, 2001, inside the Pentagon, only 30 yards away from a “wall of flame”, with hands-on Rumsfeld “interfering on a crime scene” (in the words of an aide), those very few minutes just enough for him to build the legend of an “I care” super-CEO. On page 3, Cockburn writes that an officer later assured him that “Rumsfeld had ‘torn his shirt into strips’ to make bandages for the wounded”. But to build the legend, he skipped a crucial meeting at the National Military Command Center, a 24/7, “all very Star Trek” (according to a former official) facility across the corridor from his Pentagon office. When he was most needed, he was – well, building his legend. He only got “situational awareness” almost one hour after the Pentagon was hit.
A pattern is established. But Cockburn is also careful to present how this non-stop path toward self-aggrandizement mixed – and then kept on mixing – with the Bush administration trait of always changing the subject. Rumsfeld, in the lead-up to September 11, had wildly dismissed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in his words, as the victim of “vast doses of al-Qaeda disinformation” and “mortal doses of gullibility”. Now that al-Qaeda had struck, Rumsfeld, still in the command center at 2:40pm on September 11, told General Richard Myers in one of his famous “snowflake” memos to find the “best info fast … judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. @ same time – not only U.B.L.” S.H. was of course Saddam Hussein and U.B.L., in Pentagon spelling, was Osama bin Laden. Cockburn goes straight to the point: “It was the first step on the road to Baghdad.”
It’s essential to follow Rumsfeld at 35 in the Nixon White House in the late 1960s as head of an anti-poverty program, with an “undistinguished man from Casper, Wyoming” in his office – Dick Cheney in his pre-Darth Vader incarnation. At the time, writes Cockburn, “Rumsfeld ruled; Cheney served”; he also quotes a former newspaperman describing Cheney’s private ideology as appearing “somewhat to the right of [Gerald] Ford, Rumsfeld, or, for that matter, Genghis Khan”. Fans of buddy-buddy movies know how this subplot would later acquire grim overtones.
Cockburn rapidly negotiates the times when Rumsfeld was “untainted by any of the scandals that had brought down Nixon and were already weakening Ford” to follow him as Ford’s White House chief of staff – and thus focus on the Big Prize. Blind ambition: the man who would be president. The man who would be king. William Seidman, who was chief of Gerald Ford’s Economic Policy Board, tells Cockburn “he figured the way to get there was to get to be Jerry Ford’s vice president, and move on from there”. But there was a problem with the Rumsfeld plot. The sitting vice president was the Croesus-like Nelson Rockefeller. And being chief of staff did not exactly mean being on the road to the presidency. Upstarts don’t cross a Rockefeller for nothing. Rockefeller made sure that Rumsfeld was smashed.
The man who would be king actually got to be king for a day – in make-believe, of course. A few months after the start of the George W Bush presidency, in 1989, he played president in a game devised by a Washington think-tank to test a program called Continuity of Government (COG). He always loved those
games. “He was fighting World War III,” writes Cockburn, adding that he always had “one primary response. He always tried to unleash the maximum amount of nuclear firepower possible.” Shock and awe may have been just the prelude for a nuclear bombing of Iran – were he still in the Pentagon.
The games evolved. The Reds were replaced by “terrorists”. Rumsfeld felt at home. His player pals were almost exclusively Republican hawks. A former Pentagon official tells Cockburn, “You could say this was a secret government-in-waiting. The [Bill] Clinton administration [had] no idea what was going on.” Rumsfeld kept making money – now at General Instrument. By the end of the 1990s he was worth “between $50 million and $200 million”. Relaxation on his own spread in Taos, New Mexico, was “to go out and chainsaw the lower branches of trees”.
That Saddam handshake
Cockburn correctly evaluates that “much of the Iraqi experience, at least from the point of view of Rumsfeld, was a rerun. Years before, he had brandished intelligence reports on a growing military threat. Doubters within the intelligence community were overridden. He had acted in alliance with a powerful neo-conservative lobby. Subsequent investigation revealed that the intelligence on which he relied was almost entirely baseless. His actions were a major factor in the political ruin of the president he served” (p 35).
Cockburn is of course referring to the infamous “Team B” work in the mid-1970s – when Rumsfeld had his first stint as Pentagon chief under Ford. “Team B” basically lied through its teeth about Soviet missile capability to endorse the wildest speculations concocted by the ultra-powerful, ultra-right-wing industrial-military complex. As Cockburn writes on page 41, “The marketing of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction a quarter-century later was merely history repeating itself as tragedy.” Cockburn should have added how, as the tragedy unfolded, the healing powers of US investigative journalism also mysteriously vanished.
Cockburn puts into the context of the 1970s battles over arms control the rise of the neo-cons as well as the alliance between the opportunistic Rumsfeld and some of these neo-cons “that was not to reach its full fruition until the dawn of the next century”. It was already Henry “Detente” Kissinger against Rumsfeld and Richard Perle, later to acquire his “Prince of Darkness” mantle.
Rumsfeld came back from the long (corporate) cold to be appointed Ronald Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East in 1983. He knew absolutely nothing about the Middle East (not that subsequently he became an expert). So the Middle East had to fit into his already pre-packaged answers. Cockburn is especially delighted to stress that in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Rumsfeld was praised as “a good listener” (p 76), also revealing, according to a former Iraqi intelligence officer, that behind that famous handshake photo that inundated the Web in early 2003, all Rumsfeld wanted to talk about with Saddam was business deals, such as an oil pipeline from Iraq to Aqaba, Jordan, in which Bechtel was tremendously interested.
When Rumsfeld went back to Baghdad in 1984, Saddam’s army had already unleashed mustard gas on Iranian troops. But, as Cockburn writes (p 77), Rumsfeld “was apparently happy to reassure his hosts that they should not take objections to what would one day be called weapons of mass destruction personally. He was certainly enthusiastic in promoting business deals between Saddam and Israel.”
How I won the war
Rumsfeld became Bush Jr’s Pentagon supremo almost by accident. He was being considered for CIA director. The Pentagon suggestion to Bush came from Cheney.
Cockburn delightfully frames it the Freudian way. Rumsfeld and Bush the Father hated each other. Bush Jr hated Dad. He needed father figures – such as Cheney. Rumsfeld, for his part, had maneuvered Nixon into accepting him as a protege. He was now maneuvering the extremely insecure George W Bush to accept him as a pillar of security – but always making it very clear that Bush was in charge.
Rumsfeld’s “emotional intelligence” was spot-on. Cockburn: “It was a relationship that would enable Rumsfeld to change the president’s mind on issues in public, to ignore decisions that he found inconvenient” (p 98). Perhaps in a flight of fancy, Cockburn states that Rumsfeld “should be remembered as one of history’s great courtiers”. Not “great” in a Richelieu way, by any means – but uniquely hubris-prone.
Cockburn carefully details the Pentagon’s Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which was conceptualized by former Rand analyst Andrew Marshall. Stripped down to the bone, RMA meant replacing the Soviets with a new threat. First there was a flirt with China. Then sprang up the most convenient of enemies – militant Islam. Cockburn succinctly describes RMA as “to wage war around the world by remote control, striking at will at enemies far away who could be located, identified, and eliminated at the touch of a button, as in a – very expensive – video game” (p 104).
Even with Rumsfeld gone there’s no evidence on which to believe the new paradigm will be altered – even by reality (NATO in Serbia in 1999 saying it had destroyed more than 100 tanks when it was only 13; the “air war” in Afghanistan; the whole debacle in Iraq). RMA is how the Pentagon will keep organizing future (un)reality.
Cockburn is part of a fine journalistic family, from his father Claud to brothers Alex (editor of the Counterpunch website) and Patrick (a London Independent correspondent and arguably the most perceptive Western reporter covering the war in Iraq on the ground). He must have paid lunch to a legion of insiders to get some of his tastier tidbits. It goes with the territory. And it works.
Thus we have a senior White House official exploding about “a megalomaniac who has to be in control at all times … the worst secretary of defense there has ever been” (p 4). A former Gerald Ford adviser tells Cockburn that Rumsfeld “actively undermined arms-control talks with the USSR. This as much as anything stopped Ford’s election” (p 52). A senior general who had daily access to Rumsfeld’s Pentagon office describes Richard “Prince of Darkness” Perle as “one of Rumsfeld’s principal military advisers” (p 105). And a former White House official describes vanity incarnate: “The man had to be acknowledged to be in control. Once people gave him that acknowledgment, he didn’t seem to care” (p 183).
September 11 “made” Rumsfeld. Were it not for that not-so-simple twist of fate, he might have been fired for incompetence. Cockburn sums it all up: “It was as if all those years of political disappointment – the failed effort to get on the 1976 ticket, the abortive presidential campaign, the trial balloons for races for governor and senator that always somehow deflated – had been wiped away and his dreams of political triumph had finally and brilliantly come true.” Any informed reader will be familiar with practically everything Cockburn details from page 119 onward: Rumsfeld as the public face of Bush’s war presidency, the total information control via docile embedded reporting, the dismissal of the looting of Baghdad (“stuff happens”), the denial of legitimizing torture in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
As a non-embedded foreign correspondent, I have been on the receiving end of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” – in the war theater of Afghanistan and then Iraq. So I have seen hubris in action: not his RMA winning the battle in Afghanistan, as Pentagon spin would have it, but, in Cockburn’s words, “whole provinces … changing hands without a shot being fired … healthy quantities of US$100 bills distributed by the CIA to encourage defections by regional warlords” (p 127). I saw the B-52 ballet in Tora Bora bombing the wrong side of the mountains – as Osama bin Laden had already crossed the border to Pakistan. I saw the kind of “unlawful combatants” being dragged down to Guantanamo – helpless Afghan or Pakistani herders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rumsfeld, of course, always denied reality – he could never admit that Osama was in Tora Bora and escaped right under his expensive satellites’ footprint.
In his analysis of pre-shock and awe, Cockburn stresses the important point of Richard Perle inviting Ahmad Chalabi to speak before the Defense Policy Advisory Board – the de facto private Rumsfeld war think-tank – just after Princeton University’s Bernard Lewis. The nonagenarian Lewis – a neo-con icon – actually came up with the original “clash of civilizations” fallacy. He always maintained that Islamic society and culture are inherently backward and impervious to modernization. Cockburn: “Lewis not only endorsed the liberation of Iraq, but also confidently asserted that neighboring Arab countries would support the use of force to bring this about” (p 150). With distinguished “mentors” like Lewis, who needs enemies?
Cockburn also stresses the absurdity of Saddam being marketed as the supreme nuclear evildoer while Rumsfeld’s team privately knew this was a ragtag regime – “Special Forces with air support, maybe just 10,000 or 15,000 troops”, enough to bring it down, according to an insider. “The faith in technology was boundless,” the insider tells Cockburn (p 153).
So, “as hammered out by Rumsfeld and [General Tommy] Franks, the Iraq invasion plans bore the heavy imprint of the legend of the Afghan war, supposedly won by elite Special Forces using unconventional tactics to achieve the same effect as whole divisions” (p 165). Rumsfeld could not have been more spectacularly wrong. Did he care? Of course not. It was just a game. Cockburn: “He showed little interest in what would happen to the country once the regime had been destroyed” (p 170). Compounded with what a former Pentagon official tells Cockburn – “When Rumsfeld got control of postwar Iraq, [Colin] Powell said, ‘Screw them, let the fuckers stew'” – the endgame was written on the (desert) wind.
Rumsfeld’s steep, accelerated downfall has been extensively documented – and Cockburn’s narrative does not add too much on “unknown unknowns”. He could have expanded the crucial point that “few in the internal American debate seemed to understand that it was the occupation itself that had ignited Iraqi resistance” – as there are still very few American analysts who dare to accept the obvious. Corporate media have now switched to an “Iraqis killing Iraqis” mantra, barbaric Arabs killing Arabs as if the occupation had nothing to do with it.
No noble mission here. This was a naked, imperial power grab that went spectacularly wrong because of a deadly mix of arrogance and incompetence – hubris redux. Donald Rumsfeld, as Cockburn mentions at the end, may land a fabulous book contract to tell “his” truth. He may pepper the lecture circuit with his pearls of newspeak. He may enrich the corporate world with his “government connections”. But he will always remain the hollow man, the stuffed man, head filled with straw who dreamed he would be king when he was only a lowly fixer.
Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy by Andrew Cockburn. Scribner, New York, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-3574-4. Price: US$25, 247 pages.