Here’s a classic Rumsfeldism: “We do have a saying in America: if you’re in a hole, stop digging … erm, I’m not sure I should have said that.” In Part 2 of his historical excavation of the life and world of Donald Rumsfeld (not to speak of the worlds of both President Bushes, the neocons, the U.S. military, the GOP, and an indolent media), Roger Morris, already deep in that hole, just keeps digging away. In doing so, he offers us the rest of Rumsfeld’s long march to power, his lasting legacies, and the costly lessons of this comeback kid. So much that went unheeded in the years in which Rumsfeld once again scaled the heights of power is now, thanks to Morris, compactly on the record.
“The absence of evidence is not necessarily the evidence of absence” is another infamous Rumsfeldism. How true. And in Rumsfeld’s absence, the evidence of how he changed our world for the worse will be with us to consider for years to come. So, if you missed it, check out “Sharp Elbows,” the first part of “The Undertaker’s Tally,” and then settle in for the sequel, the one you thought you knew until you read “The Power and the Glory.” Read it and remember, the bell tolls for thee. Tom
The Power and the Glory
The Undertaker’s Tally (Part 2)
By Roger Morris
In 1976, when Jimmy Carter took the Presidency from Gerald Ford, outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went off to seek corporate wealth as head of G.D. Searle, a Skokie pharmaceutical company. His period running the business, inherited by the family of his North Shore friend and early backer Dan Searle, would become part of Rumsfeld’s legend of success as a master manager, negligently accepted as fact by the media and Congressional representatives at his 2001 confirmation hearings.
The legend went this way: Political prodigy slashes payroll 60%, turns decrepit loser into mega-profit-maker, earns industry kudos and multiple millions. In looking at men of prominence like Rumsfeld who revolve in and out of the private sector, the Washington media almost invariably adopts the press-release or booster business-page version of events from what inside-the-Beltway types call “the real world.” In Rumsfeld’s case, behind the image of corporate savior lay a far more relevant and ominous history.
In the documented version of reality, derived from litigation and relatively obscure investigations in the U.S. and abroad, Searle turned out to enjoy its notable rise less thanks to Rumsfeldian innovative managerial genius than to old-fashioned reckless marketing of pharmaceuticals already on the shelf and the calling in of lobbying “markers” via its well-connected Republican CEO. And over it all wafted the distinctive odor of corrupt practices. A case in point was Searle’s anti-diarrhea medicine Lomotil, sold ever more widely and profitably internationally (in industry terms “dumped”) — especially in Africa in the late 1970s — despite the company’s failure to warn of its potentially dire effects on younger children.
“A blindly harmful stopcock,” one medical journal called the remedy, which could be poisonous to infants only slightly above Searle’s recommended dosage. Even taken according to directions, Lomotil was known to mask dangerous dehydration and cause a lethal build-up of fluids internally. Having advertised the medicine as “ideal for every situation,” Searle did not undertake a cautionary labeling change until the end of 1981, nearly five years into Rumsfeld’s tenure, and then only when threatened with damaging publicity by children’s advocacy groups. Part of the vast outrage of multinational “pharmas” exploiting the Third World, the company under Rumsfeld would, like the more publicized Upjohn with its Depo-Provera, be implicated in widespread bribery of officials (and others) in poorer countries to promote the sale of oral contraceptives which had been found unsafe for American or European women.
But Searle’s magic potion, concocted well before Rumsfeld’s arrival, was to be the controversial artificial sweetener aspartame, marketed under the trade name NutraSweet. By 1977, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had staunchly refused to approve aspartame for some 16 years, finding test data dubious or inconclusive and fearing that potential long-term dangers might prove prohibitive. As Rumsfeld took over in Skokie, the FDA was taking the rare step of recommending to Justice Department prosecutors that a grand jury investigate the company’s applications for FDA approval for “willful and knowing failure to make reports concealing material facts and making false statements” in connection with the statutory application process required by law and FDA standards.
Over the next four years, federal regulators held firm against Searle’s heavily financed campaigns. Only with Reagan’s election in 1980 did fix and favor supplant science and the public interest. Having campaigned for the new president and been named to his transition team, Rumsfeld told his Searle sales force, according to later testimony, that “he would call in all his markers and that no matter what, he would see to it that aspartame would be approved”
The sequel would be a classic of the genre: Searle’s reapplication to the FDA the day Reagan was inaugurated; the prompt appointment of an agreeable FDA commissioner who would later go to work for Searle’s public relations firm for $1,000 a day; further questionable, company-commissioned tests with more doubts by FDA scientists but approval of aspartame nonetheless; a later plague of health problems but by then vast profits throughout the corporate food economy followed by lavish, multi-company contributions to Congressional committee members to stifle any outcry; eventually, a $350 million class-action suit alleging racketeering, fraud, and multiple abuses centering on Rumsfeld, who meanwhile had become gloriously rich from aspartame and the $2.7-billion sale of Searle to Monsanto in 1985.
In his return to the Pentagon in 2001, he would go duly unscathed by any of the company’s history. By the time litigation would be filed, the United States was already 18 months into the occupation of Iraq.
As it was, despite his business conquests, Rumsfeld missed an even greater prize. He had been on a short list to become Ronald Reagan’s running mate in the 1980 presidential campaign when the candidate unexpectedly reached for his defeated primary rival (and Rumsfeld nemesis) George H.W. Bush. While, over the next 12 years, Bush went on to the vice-presidency and presidency, and Jim Baker — equally detested by Rumsfeld — went along with his patron to White House staff and cabinet power, Rumsfeld would build his Searle fortune and bide his time.
The one exception to his involuntary Reagan-era exile from government would be a stint in 1983-1984 as special presidential envoy to the Middle East. He would be sent to arrange U.S. support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its war with the hated Iranians of Ayatollah Khomeini, a role little noticed at the time which nonetheless produced the notorious photo of Rumsfeld shaking hands with the Iraqi dictator. The deeper story was far more embarrassing than any simple handshake.
Most of the relevant records on Rumsfeld’s several-month assignment are still classified, though it is clear that, as at the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO), he took on his mission with a passion. He worked to shower on Saddam (in a manner as unnoticed as possible) an infamous flow of intelligence, financial credits, and sensitive materials and technology that would come to underpin Iraqi chemical and bacteriological warfare programs, leading to hideous gas attacks on Shia dissidents and Kurds as well as the Iranian forces. In general, Rumsfeld put his shoulder to the wheel to shore up the war-worn Ba’athist regime that had attacked Iran in 1980.
In this mid-1980s de facto alliance with Saddam, as in much else, Rumsfeld was never alone. He was joined in this pro-Iraqi tilt in the Middle East by President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Secretary of State George Shultz, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, National Security Advisors William Clark and Robert McFarlane, and a number of still obscure men like Paul Wolfowitz at State, Colin Powell, then Weinberger’s aide at the Pentagon, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, not to speak of his zealot acolyte assistant Douglas Feith (who would return in a pivotal post under Rumsfeld in 2001) as well as Bill Casey and Robert Gates at the CIA, among other officials.
Their gambit was, in turn, backed by Senators and Congressmen in both parties who were briefed on Rumsfeld’s mission and obligingly shunned oversight of the manifold aspects of the sometimes illegal collusion with the Iraqis. Their dereliction was assured, in part, by the general animus toward Iran on a Capitol Hill then effectively controlled by the Republicans, and increasingly under the bipartisan influence of the growing Israeli lobby and its Tel Aviv handlers. The lobby quietly, cynically pushed both for Reagan administration aid to Iraq and for covert arms-dealing with Iran (later exposed in the Iran-Contra scandal), viewing the ongoing no-winners carnage of two Islamic states as a boon. All this went on largely unreported, given the customary media diffidence or indolence on national security issues.
Historically, the moral outrage and far-reaching political folly of Washington’s furtive arming of one tyranny to bleed another, with untold casualties on each side (including the murderous suppression of would-be democrats in both countries), would belong at the doorstep of Reagan’s reactionary regime and the Washington foreign-policy establishment as a whole. Rumsfeld’s role was instrumental and in some respects crucial, but only part of the larger disgrace.
At the same time, in the intelligence briefings he received as the first ranking U.S. official to go to Iraq since the Baghdad Pact of the 1950s, he would have been uniquely aware, as no other senior figure in Washington, of the brutal character of Saddam Hussein’s regime and, in particular, the sectarian, regional, tribal, and clan politics that lay behind it. The Ba’athists were a government, after all, that the CIA itself had helped to recruit and install in the coup of 1963, reinstalled in 1968 when the Agency’s original clients lost control, and then watched closely while Baghdad had a flirtation (involving an arms-supply relationship) with the feared Russians (whose influence the bloody 1963 coup was supposed to counter). This was particularly true in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 with its peace agreements from which Iraq emerged as a principal remaining challenge to Israel.
By 1983-1984, the volatile, complex currents of Iraq’s political culture, Saddam’s essentially family and clan rule, and the now crude, now subtle layering of Sunni and Shia in the Ba’athist bureaucracy and plutocracy, as well as the wartime distrust and savage repression of a suspect, subordinate Shia majority, were well known to outside intelligence agencies as well as scholars and journalists. The CIA, DIA and State Department Bureaus of Near Eastern Affairs and Intelligence and Research — and certainly Rumsfeld as presidential envoy — also had reason to understand much about Saddam’s grandiose ambition, in Iraq’s old rivalry with Egypt, to lead a pan-Arab nationalist renaissance to some kind of future parity with Israel’s nuclear-armed military might.
In addition to the usual extensive intelligence-sharing with Israel’s Mossad, less than two years before Rumsfeld’s Iraq mission CIA operatives had literally lit the way for Israeli F-16 fighter bombers in their June 1981 surprise attack on Saddam’s fledgling nuclear reactor at Osiraq. They planted guidance transmitters along the low-level flight path under Jordanian and Iraqi radar to the point of painting the target with lasers. The Agency and Mossad then watched as the Iraqis dauntlessly, defiantly began to rebuild and expand their nuclear program. From some 400 scientists and technicians with $400 million in funding, that program would grow to perhaps 7,000 scientists and technicians with as much as $10 billion at their command, some of which was indirectly made possible by the bounty Rumsfeld carried to Baghdad in the mid-1980s
For anyone dealing seriously with these issues, there could have been little doubt that Saddam would use the considerable aid and trade Rumsfeld was sliding his way under the table to mount a better-armed, more bloody war on Iran, to further the regime’s most ambitious dreams of weapons development, and to tyrannize all the more savagely potentially rebellious Iraqi Shiites and Kurds. As Washington watched, he did all of that — and no one could have been less surprised than Rumsfeld himself. Long afterward, as some of the ugly essence of his mission to Baghdad dribbled out amid the ruins of Bush’s Iraqi occupation, Rumsfeld would be faulted for pandering to, and appeasing, Saddam (whose gassing of the Kurds had already begun) — in the wake of a single, timorous, hypocritical statement issued in Washington in March 1984 criticizing his use of chemical weapons. The actual toll of the policy to which he was integral would prove so much higher as time passed.
Iraqi chemical weapons plants bombed in the 1991 Gulf War released agents to which some 100,000 American troops were exposed. The infamous Gulf War Syndrome might even be traced in some measure to the U.S. credits, materiel, and technology Rumsfeld knowingly conveyed seven years before. So, too, of course, could Saddam’s brutal 1980s repression of the Shia, underlying the sectarian animus and resolve for vengeance and dominance by the U.S.-installed Shia regime after 2003 that shaped Rumsfeld’s, and America’s, historic failure in Iraq.
Others colluded at every turn in the long scandal of policy toward Iraq. Colin Powell, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense during the First Gulf War, would, for instance, be directly complicit in the Syndrome outrage. Yet none of the participants in the larger post-9/11 disaster was more directly responsible than Rumsfeld.
While Reagan’s special envoy was, with his usual energy and sharp elbows, dickering with the Iraqis in the mid-1980s, Condoleezza Rice was an assistant professor of no scholarly distinction at Stanford; Cheney a third-term congressman from Wyoming squirming up the House leadership ladder; future viceroy of Baghdad L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer moving from State Department clerk and Alexander Haig protégé to lavish-party giving ambassador to the Netherlands; and George W. Bush, still by his own account given to “heavy drinking,” absorbed in changing the name of his chronically failed Arbusto Energy oil company to Bush Exploration.
By 1987, Rumsfeld was flexing his muscles once more, preparing for the ultimate goal, assembling money and party support for a presidential run against George H. W. Bush in 1988. But after a dozen years out of office, and against the entrenched power of an heir apparent, he would soon enough discover that backing just was not there. Off more recent prominence and with a wider political base, Cheney would try to mount his own presidential campaign in the early 1990s, only to meet the same bitter rejection.
Historians will only guess at the rancor building in these two deeply ambitious, deeply disappointed figures at the president they had, George W. Bush, whom they no doubt saw as manifestly, maddeningly inferior. The Rumsfeld-Cheney recompense, at vast cost to the nation and world, would be their fierce seizure of power after September 11, 2001.
Rumsfeld spent the 1990s again in business, becoming CEO of General Instruments, then Chairman of Gilead Sciences Pharmaceuticals, with another history reminiscent of Searle. In 1990, he joined the board of ABB, a Swedish-Swiss conglomerate that had gobbled up companies in the latter 1980s, including Westinghouse energy operations, and would move aggressively to win a $200-million contract for “the design and key components” for light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea. Rumsfeld pursued this prize even while chairing a Congressional commission on missile threats that found a “clear danger” for the future from Pyongyang. In the alarming report, his otherwise fulsome résumé failed to mention that he was an ABB director.
In 1996, he took leave from Gilead to become chief foreign policy advisor, along with Wolfowitz, in Robert Dole’s failed presidential run. He would end as the campaign’s eighteen-hour-a-day manager. By 1997, amid the full-scale takeover of the Washington GOP by the long-churning cabal of neoconservatives, he joined Cheney and Wolfowitz on a Newt Gingrich-instigated Congressional Policy Advisory Board to shape attacks on the second Clinton Administration.
In January 1998, he signed the celebrated letter so publicly sent to Clinton from the right-wing, Israeli lobby-dominated Project for a New American Century. Alongside Wolfowitz, Perle, and others soon to be key players in the younger Bush’s regime, he vigorously urged the “removal” of Saddam. In July 1998, there followed the “Rumsfeld Commission” report on missile threats, wildly claiming, in an unnamed debut of the “axis of evil” drawn from the testimony and staff work of right-wing ideologues, that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea would each be able to “inflict major destruction” on the U.S. by 2002. Through it all, including the first seven-and-a-half months of their rule after the seamy election of 2000, there would be no trace of the actual danger that erupted out of a September morning sky in 2001.
Though he had repaired surface relations with the Bushes, Rumsfeld took no major role in the 2000 race. In any case, the elder Bush had erased him from his son’s list of possible running mates, while ultimately waving through Cheney, whose reactionary animus had been relatively well masked at the Pentagon in 1989-92. When, post-election, Cheney vetoed Governor Tom Ridge for the Pentagon, and there were throbbing neocon fears that a cosmetic Powell, bureaucrat at heart, would be far too equivocal at the State Department, Rumsfeld would be Cheney’s, and so Bush’s, antidote.
His appointment was a mark of the extreme poverty of Republican talent the administration reflected so graphically. The supposed party of national security, having held the White House for five of the last eight terms and dominated Congress for much of the previous 30 years, had no serious alternative to a man who had perched atop the Pentagon a full quarter-century before. Apart from the patently right-wing, widely discredited missile panel he had chaired, Rumsfeld had shown no palpable interest or competence in the ever more complex defense issues accumulating since then, much less the rapidly changing politics of the post-Cold War world. Nonetheless, fit, relatively youthful at 69, he strode again into the E-Ring. There was speculation that the old Halloween Massacre goal was still there, that Cheney, with his uncertain health, might step aside in 2004, that the undertaker might yet reach the Oval Office.
Rumsfeld began his Pentagon reprise by seizing on a dead Russian marshal and an octogenarian Washington bureaucrat few had ever heard of.
Like Osama bin Laden, steely-haired Nikolai Ogarkov first came to light during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. In 1977, at 50, he had become a prodigal chief of the Soviet General Staff. In that superannuated, medal-mummified company, he proved a dynamic, technically inclined, forward-thinking young general. Over the ensuing years, he would be an impressive Moscow spokesman on arms control, and defend stubbornly, even abjectly, the 1983 shooting down of a civilian Korean Airlines 747 that had veered into Soviet air space.
Ogarkov would fall from power in a 1984 Kremlin struggle over weapons spending, write a valedictory book warning of American militarism, and die in post-Soviet obscurity in 1994. But his main, if esoteric, historical distinction would lie in a slight 1982 pamphlet in which he blamed the early, nearly lethal Russian defeats in World War II on a failure to adapt to the new German blitzkrieg concepts in tank warfare. Recent U.S. advances in weapons technology, he argued, could leave the Russians similarly vulnerable if they didn’t adapt quickly enough.
Sweeping changes in tactics and arms as well as more agile, responsive armed forces were needed to face the American challenge, the Marshal advised. Otherwise, Soviet forces would fall into a series of devastating traps on a future remote-targeted battlefield in which the enemy would utilize the latest computerized surveillance and information systems in a new form of high-tech warfare. His vision soon gained vogue as much in Washington as amid the stultified upper reaches of the Soviet military of the early 1980s. It was grandly christened — and welcomed by Pentagon aficionados — as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” or, in that acronym-laden world, RMA.
There was a certain banality to Ogarkov’s stress on technology. That a fighting force should be best attuned to the battlefield and adversary of the moment — modern, adaptable, quick, and informed — should have been self-evident, on the order of the bloody lesson 80 years before of the Tsarist cavalry charging entrenched machine guns in the Russo-Japanese War. Yet however obvious the premise, the RMA concept — transported to the Pentagon and put in the context of an onrushing generation of electronic warfare, of near-nuclear effects with non-nuclear means, along with Ogarkov’s call for fresh tactics (and thus new weaponry and higher spending) — was taken up by innovators, opportunists, and their assorted hybrids on both sides of the Cold War.
This was particularly so among the Soviets, whose rusty Europe-heavy military was already being shaken and bled in Afghanistan by the Mujahideen — in 1982-1983, despite ample Saudi money, still only partially armed by their cynical CIA, Pakistani, and Chinese handlers. At any rate, Ogarkov’s truism was also grist for the Pentagon’s back-ring band of civilian military “theorists,” career bureaucrats ever in search of a mission and occupationally disposed to attribute evil genius — requiring a suitable Washington budgetary response — to the Red Menace.
Short, bald, and with stylishly severe wire-rimmed glasses, Andrew Marshall was a Dickensian clerk of a man who took up the bureaucratic cudgel RMA represented and brought it down inside the Pentagon. An economist by training, he had begun at RAND as an analyst in the late 1940s, when Rumsfeld was still in New Trier High School. Marshall was archetypical in the career-making fear and folly of the U.S.-Russian mirror-image rivalry. He had been a protégé of think-the-unthinkable, World War III theorist Herman Kahn, and then, via Henry Kissinger’s mentor Fritz Kraemer, had gone to work for Kissinger at the National Security Council (NSC) in the first Nixon term. In 1973, he moved on to the Pentagon where he presided over his own obscure nest, the Office of Net Assessment, from Rumsfeld I to II, while gradually gaining the reputation of resident genius of new war methods.
Discreet guru to reactionaries, ignored but thought untouchable by Democrats when in power, Marshall looked on as the Joint Chiefs not only spied on Kissinger’s arms control negotiations with the Russians, but also played an ardent supporting role in Nixon’s fall. He subsequently signed on to Rumsfeld I’s denial of defeat in Vietnam and then, on RMA’s advent, used the concept to evoke ominous fears of a new Kremlin military prowess, justifying the orgy of Pentagon spending that took place during the Reagan era. (Ironically, of course, Ogarkov in 1982 was arguing for a Russian response to a still largely prospective American escalation of weaponry and warfare.) While the U.S. armaments spree of the 1980s paid for some new RMA developments, most of the expenditures fit snugly within the corrupt, obtuse old Cold War system, with America’s armed forces tailored to a lumbering Soviet threat in Europe, and no serious anticipation of the neo-insurgency wars that actually lay ahead.
As Marshall toyed with “flexibility” — and the Joint Chiefs cherry-picked his conjuring of Moscow’s might for their own budgetary purposes, while ignoring the real import, and limits, of RMA — the Cold War ended in the equivocations and evasions of Bill Clinton’s two terms in office and the low-rent, self-congratulatory installing of mafia regimes in Bosnia and Kosovo. The gnome-like Marshall, well past retirement but a lionized witness before the missile-threat commission, hung on for Rumsfeld’s return.
The resulting history is far too close for much documented detail, though its silhouette is plain enough. Summoning Marshall as soothsayer, Rumsfeld made RMA the logo of his determination to gain managerial dominance over the Joint Chiefs and the Pentagon bureaucracy, exactly the opportunity he thought he had missed 25 years earlier. Under the old banner of a clash between a brave, beleaguered secretary of defense and the recalcitrant brass astride an impossible, “glandular” system, he held up the all-purpose, all-seasons ideal of Pentagon “reform.” That “reform” movement was to be his ultimate takedown, his claim to greatness, and perhaps — who knew in 2001 — one last shot at the presidency.
Amid the inevitable claims of “streamlining” and “modernizing,” Democrats applauded and reporters gushed reflexively about Rumsfeld as a celebrity CEO and national quipster. The willing ignorance, denial, careless trust, or craven acquiescence that marked the essential submissiveness of the political and media culture to Rumsfeld’s rule were only part of a larger, thoughtless national abdication of judgment and responsibility in the wars he would propel in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
In blindly striking out after 9/11 — a reflexive, grandly opportunistic, richly self-satisfying political act in America — without seriously understanding the politics or history of either country, he plunged the Pentagon into blundering, plundering occupations that made the nightmares of 2007 and beyond nearly inevitable.
That was the price — in the utter absence of serious dialogue in the 2000 election or the first eight months of 2001 — of the original uncontested surrender of foreign-policy power and initiative to such evident presidential incompetence (including the shocking ineptitude of NSC Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her staff) and the long predictable Rumsfeld-Cheney dominance. All of it was plain in Washington soon after George W. Bush’s arrival in the Oval Office; none of it was then questioned, much less challenged, by Congress, the remnant foreign policy establishment, or the mainstream media. No democratic process so completely failed a test of substance as America’s after 9/11. No ensuing catastrophe was more consensual.
History will unravel only slowly Rumsfeld’s relationship to the neocons, who dominated the middle and upper reaches of his Pentagon, a relationship more complex than contemporary hagiographies or demonologies have had it. Historically, he was their ally, patron, legitimizing figurehead, but never really of them, never a fellow ideologue, dogmatist, or slavish adherent to much of what they pursued. In enlisting Wolfowitz, Perle and their train, he would use them, much as he used Marshall, as he had used so many before, as a means to what was so largely a personal, megalomaniacal end. But that use, too, was characteristically heedless of substance and cost.
He opened government as never before to men who habitually, automatically assumed that U.S. and Israeli interests were identical, with no objectivity about American policy in a Middle East they scarcely understood to begin with. Their ignorance and presumption were matched only by their zeal to cluster in decisive quarters of the new Bush regime where decisions of grand strategy, of war and peace, were now shaped and predetermined.
“Like cancer cells,” as eyewitness, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, would describe them in action in Rumsfeld’s Defense Department. Half-educated and fanatically loyal to the rote Israeli lobby view of the Middle East and the larger neocon craze for American post-Cold War global hegemony, they crowded the domains of the number three official at the Pentagon, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, whose career was a model of their kind and whose notorious Office of Special Plans was created as a fount for the fraudulent intelligence spurring the invasion of Iraq.
Historians will debate, too, the obvious blurred allegiance of what some call these American “Likudniks” with their utter conformity to the belligerent ultra-Zionist mentality of the Israeli right. Never before — not even in the post-World War II heyday of the powerful China Lobby with its formidable grip on Capitol Hill but not within the upper reaches of the Executive itself — had so many of such uncritical adherence to the policies of a foreign power been so well placed in Washington.
As often in American politics and government, however, no conspiracies were necessary, though a Pentagon-Israeli lobby spy scandal has yet to be played out. Unrelieved substantive shallowness, a perversely narrow sociology of knowledge, long-jockeyed-for power and career advancement, a grandiose parochial vision of a Pax Americana world nursed in a hundred forgotten think-tank papers and incestuous conferences — all that as well imposed a stifling, disastrous orthodoxy on the administration.
Not least, they operated without the need to support their prejudices or delusions in authentic high-level debate, flourishing in their members-only domains of the Pentagon, the NSC Staff, and the State Department, enjoying exclusive channels of communication to the White House controlled by Cheney, and unchallenged under a President of uniquely closed mind.
As for Rumsfeld’s relations with his generals, the subject of veiled accusations of his heedlessness to dissent or running roughshod over warnings of serious problems, we actually know very little. The calamity in Iraq has brought more public criticism by senior officers than any other war in American history, including Vietnam, but almost all of it hurled from the relatively safe seats of two-and three-star retirement — and forlornly after the fact.
This much is clear: No major Pentagon leaks, the time-honored Washington weapon of dissenting commanders, marked the run-up to the invasion. There have been no public resignations in protest of his policies. And the negligence, incompetence, and inertia of commanders in recognizing and coping with the insurgency, in dealing with scandals of prisoner abuse, inadequate equipment and more, have been all too obvious. There is no evidence that any ranking American officer on duty pressed an intellectual or moral challenge to the unfolding debacle — even after it was too glaring to be ignored. As in so much else in his long record, Rumsfeld enjoyed, by Washington’s inimitable mix of careerism and cowardice, submission and opportunism, a large supporting cast in his folly.
In the exhilarating dash to Baghdad in 2003, none of the admiring gallery seemed to notice that Rumsfeld’s “new” military was largely the old one, “reformed” in name only; nor did many note that the vaunted lean, mean machine of RMA and the again-lionized Marshall had no grasp of how profoundly political was the act of overthrowing 40 years of Ba’athist rule; how deeply political was the campaign to which so many American lives, so much of the country’s material and symbolic national treasures, would be committed.
Rumsfeld would take his victory tour in the Gulf that spring as if circling the mat after a stunningly swift pin. What was his toughest call, trailing reporters asked –part of the traditional garlands of victory tossed his way — and how did he “feel” at such a victorious moment?
It was hardly the time for the media, the seemingly omnipotent military, or the rest of government and the political culture to reflect on how much “shock and awe” depended on overwhelming force brought down on the near-defenseless, on how much the concept reeked of racism and colonial pretense — of natives on the scene and in the vicinity “shocked and awed” like Zulus pounded and panicked by the Queen’s own latest howitzers.
It was far too early for other questions — about a force cosseted at the end of vulnerable supply lines, nicely photogenic in night goggles but without enough body armor; about acronyms like IED that had yet to enter the vocabularies of either commanders or reporters; about the familiar chase for medals and the absence of an enemy admitting defeat and ready to surrender (a missing essential of “victory” that would have much worried Maxwell Taylor).
Unreformed, uninformed commanders, uninstructed beyond brief battles, led their charges into Iraq relying on their generals. The generals relied on civilians. The civilians relied on (or were seduced or bullied by) the neocons. The neocons relied on their own ersatz expertise, Mossad insiders, and Iraqi exiles long out of touch with their homeland. The exiles — holed up in Baghdad palaces with U.S.-paid-for mercenary guards, ignorant and contemptuous of the Iraq that had passed them by, and where they were now powerless, even with the might of the Pentagon behind them — relied on the Americans.
Rumsfeld, as always, relied on himself. The ranks trusted him — and political decision-makers — to know and manage post-Saddam politics in Iraq to secure the victory as well as to provide the political setting that fulfilled the military triumph. When they failed miserably, condemning the American force to a corrupt, untenable occupation and slow-wasting attrition of men and prestige, the debacle was complete.
Beyond Iraq were his other lasting legacies.
As no other cabinet officer in history, he turned over crucial, self-sustaining functions of his department to privateers and private armies. He surrendered vital supply and commissariat services for the American military to profit-plundering contractors for whom U.S. forces were neither fellow warriors, nor even share-holders, but captive “customers” to be treated with the offhandedness afforded by guaranteed contracts. He ceded security and combat functions essential to the national mission to a corps of thousands of hired guns whose qualifications, standards of conduct and ultimate loyalty — all integral to the safety and success of American forces — were beyond effective governmental control or measure. (Exposed in a Congressional hearing February 7, the scandal of the infamous Blackwell Security Corporation, shirking amid vast profit the arming and protection of its own ranks, would be only a glimpse of the larger disgrace.)
Not since the British hired hordes of Hessians to crush George Washington’s revolutionary army had a military force tracing to America been so utterly mercenary. The potential direct and indirect levy on policy and the armed forces would not be known for years.
As no other cabinet officer in history, he squandered the integrity of his department and the unique, indispensable code of honor of its services. He joined, and often led, the rest of an intellectually degraded administration, heedless of Constitutional and human rights, in violating the very heart of their ostensibly conservative convictions. With the ready sanctioning, and then de facto cover-up of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the less noticed but equally gruesome prisons at Bagram Air Base and elsewhere in Afghanistan, he changed, for untold millions, the symbol of America and its once-proud military from freedom and the rule of law to the unforgettable prisoner’s hood and shackles. Rumsfeld’s impact would not vanish with terms of office or elections. By the very nature of contracts, personnel practices, and imparted ethics — some of Washington’s most permanent monuments — his legacies would remain deep in the tissue and soul of the institution he was entrusted to lead. At the end, a pathetic climax to his more than four decades either in government or imploringly on its threshold, there was only his hackneyed memo on Iraq policy — leaked, even more pathetically, in an apparent attempt somehow to vindicate him after all.
Thus, he growled that the Iraqi regime, like some seedy wrestling team, should “pull up its socks”; and, most poignantly, ever the politician conducting lethal policy as politics, he advised that Washington “announce that whatever new approach the US decides on, the US is doing so on a trial basis. This will give us the ability to re-adjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not ‘lose.'”
As he left office for the last time, it would be only the loss that mattered. As a pathologically unfit president struggled to recoup his historic blunder, as the neocons and Israeli lobby pressed on a gullible media and restive but still captive Congress the myth of an Iranian nuclear threat, as the Navy and Air Force, lesser actors in the Iraq action, promised wondrous results in Persia, the chaos and ineffable danger were left to Robert Gates, the puffy courtier.
Weeks after Rumsfeld’s departure, history — the little ever really known or understood — was already being waved off, forgotten. The past was too complicated and troublesome, too guilt-ridden and close to home, too filled with chilling consequences.
The worst of it was the most basic and damning. Donald Rumsfeld and all he represented, all he did and did not do, came out of us. The undertaker’s tally, including Iraq, was compiled at our leave, one way or another, at every turn. His tragedy was always ours.
Roger Morris, who served in the State Department and on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, resigned in protest at the invasion of Cambodia. He then worked as a legislative advisor in the U.S. Senate and a director of policy studies at the Carnegie Endowment, and writes this Rumsfeldian history from intimate firsthand knowledge as well as extensive research. A Visiting Honors professor at the University of Washington and Research Fellow of the Green Institute (his work appears on its website), he is an award-winning historian and investigative journalist, including a National Book Award Silver Medal winner, and the author of books on Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, and the Clintons. More recently, he co-authored with Sally Denton The Money and the Power, a history of Las Vegas as the paradigm of national corruption. His latest work, Shadows of the Eagle, a history of U.S. covert interventions and policy in the Middle East and South Asia over the past half-century, will be published in 2007 by Knopf.
Copyright 2007 Roger Morris