Biking with Donald Rumsfeld

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Rumsfeld’s Last Stand
By Tom Engelhardt

Last week, someone slipped New York Times reporters Michael R. Gordon and David S. Cloud the secret memo finished by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld just two days before he “resigned.” It was the last in a flurry of famed Rumsfeldian “snowflakes” that have fluttered down upon the Pentagon these past years. This one, though, was “submitted” to the White House and clearly meant for the President’s eyes. In it, the Secretary of Defense offered a veritable laundry list of possible policy adjustments in Iraq, adding up to what, according to Gordon and Cloud, is both an acknowledgement of failure and “a major course correction.”

Think of this last zany, only semi-coherent Rumsfeldian document — part of Washington’s grim ongoing silly season over Iraq — as Rumsfeld’s last stand. In it, he quite literally cycles (as in bicycles) back to the origins of the Bush administration’s shredded Iraq policy. It is, in a pathetic sense, that policy stripped bare.

Here are just three last-stand aspects of the memo that have been largely or totally overlooked in most reporting:

1. “Begin modest withdrawals of U.S. and Coalition forces (start ‘taking our hand off the bicycle seat’), so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.”

From the early, carefree, “stuff happens” period of the occupation comes the wonderfully patronizing image embedded in this mixed metaphor of a passage — though I suppose Iraqis perched on bike seats could indeed have crumpled socks. The image of the Iraqi (child) learning how to ride the bike of democracy — or whatever — with the American (parent) looming behind, hand steadying the seat, was already not just a neocolonial, but a neocon classic by the time the President used it back in May 2004. (In fact, in an even more infantilizing fashion, he spoke of taking the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike.)

Many others in the administration proudly used it as well. Rumsfeld in his rococo fashion elaborated wildly on the image in a speech to U.S. troops that same year:

“Getting Iraq straightened out was like teaching a kid to ride a bike: ‘They’re learning, and you’re running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you’re just barely touching it. You can’t know when you’re running down the street how many steps you’re going to have to take. We can’t know that, but we’re off to a good start.'”

And now, long after kids stopped riding bikes in Iraq and started ending up dead in ditches, our nearly former Defense Secretary just couldn’t help cycling back to the good old days.

2. “Conduct an accelerated draw-down of U.S. bases. We have already reduced from 110 to 55 bases. Plan to get down to 10 to 15 bases by April 2007, and to 5 bases by July 2007.”

Talk about cycling back to the beginning, Rumsfeld’s “major course correction” takes us right to the original basing plans the Pentagon had on entering Iraq. As the New York Times reported in a front-page piece on April 19, 2003 (and then no one, including reporters at the Times, paid much attention to again), the Pentagon entered Iraq with plans already on the drawing board to build four major bases well beyond urban areas. These were to be permanent in all but name and, from them, the Bush administration planned to nail down the oil heartlands of the planet (while making up for the loss — thanks to Osama bin Laden’s efforts — of our bases in Saudi Arabia).

Now, here we are, over three and a half catastrophic years later, back to those four bases (built to the tune of multibillions of American taxpayer dollars) plus one — undoubtedly the former Camp Victory, the huge American base that grew up on the edge of Baghdad International Airport (as well, of course, as the new, almost finished billion-dollar U.S. embassy with its “staff” of thousands inside Baghdad’s Green Zone).

3. “Aggressively beef up the Iraqi MOD [Ministry of Defense] and MOI [Ministry of the Interior], and other Iraqi ministries critical to the success of the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] — the Iraqi Ministries of Finance, Planning, Health, Criminal Justice, Prisons, etc. — by reaching out to U.S. military retirees and Reserve/National Guard volunteers (i.e., give up on trying to get other USG Departments to do it.)”

This mad suggestion, hardly noticed by anyone, cycles us back to the attitude with which Bush & Co. first entered Iraq. Iraqi sovereignty? Who ever heard of it? Just do what you want. Flood any ministry with a bunch of U.S. military retirees, all of whom can have their heavy hands on untold Iraqi bureaucratic bike seats. This is an idea just about as brilliant as every other one initiated by this administration in Iraq.

And why do I have a sneaking suspicion that all those “U.S. military retirees” and other “volunteers” might just not rush to offer their services to Iraq’s death-squad infiltrated Ministries of the Interior and Defense? If you biked around that corner without those training wheels — and some body armor — I suspect you’d be likely to find yourself in the Baghdad morgue in no time at all.

In this way was Rumsfeld’s last stand remarkably like his first pedal. If only, after September 11, 2001, someone had left the training wheels on when the Bush administration went pedaling off on its merry, shock-and-awe way.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt