The Undertaker’s Tally
As he leaves the Pentagon and American foreign policy in unprecedented ruin, it is the reckoning
on a long, portentous history that went typically unheeded.
By Roger Morris
“…the finest Secretary of Defense this nation has ever had.” -- Vice President Dick Cheney
“The past was not predictable when it started.” – Donald Rumsfeld
On a farewell flight to Baghdad in early December 2006, the departing Secretary of Defense reminisced about his start in politics more than forty years before. Aides leaned in to listen intently but came away with no memorable revelations. It hardly matters. As usual with this man who dominated government as no cabinet officer before him—including the power-ravenous Henry Kissinger he so despised and outdid in effect if not celebrity—authentic history and Don Rumsfeld’s version bear little resemblance.
Therewas portent in those beginnings, much of the past predictable when it started, after all. He came out of an affluent Chicago suburb with brusque confidence and usable contacts at 1950s Princeton, among them Frank Carlucci, another future Defense Secretary of mediocre mind yet the iron conceit and shrewd fealty far more effectual in government than intellect or sensibility. After college and two years of ROTC duty as a Navy pilot, Rumsfeld did politic stints as a Capitol Hill intern and Republican campaign aide, and by twenty-nine, back in Chicago in investment banking, was running for Congress. As with much to come, a darker thread lay beneath the surface from the start. In a Republican primary tantamount to election, he was outwardly the boyish, speak-no-evil under-funded underdog challenger of the old party stalwart set to inherit the open seat. Inside, he was generously financed by wealthy friends, while his operatives—including Jeb Stuart Magruder of later Watergate infamy—furtively harried and smeared the opponent with tactics never traced to Rumsfeld.
He went to Washington in December 1962 a handsome square-jawed, safe-seat tribune from the North Shore’s lakeside preserves, epitomized by the leafy estates of Winnetka and high-end Evanston, the old Thirteenth District of Illinois one of the wealthiest in the nation and smoothly in Republican grip for most of a century. In the House Rumsfeld was soon seen by some as he always saw himself—a prodigy amid his party’s duller ranks. Then as afterward he had no authentic distinction of qualification or independent achievement. But that was always masked by the same muscular aggressive style he took onto the mat as an Ivy League wrestler—“sharp elbows,” a meeker, envious colleague called it—and not least by the flaccid banality of most of the 1960s GOP, thrashing between the wasting death of Eisenhower worldliness and moderation, Richard Nixon’s haunted succession, and the fitful but enveloping right-wing seizure that in little more than a decade would deliver the Reagan Reaction.
Rumsfeld’s own rightist mentality merged with currents little gauged at the time. His New Deal-phobic corporatist cant and Cold War chauvinism came dressed more in modish vigor than telltale substance, in particular his typical, tough-minded layman’s zeal for the era’s pre-micro processing but grandly prospering military technology. Like most of his generation born in the early 1930s, the scrap-drive, victory bond children of World War II who came to govern much of the postwar and became decisive elders of the post-9/11 era, he had no doubt of the natural nobility of America’s sway or the matching invincibility of its arms, made ever sleeker and more irresistible by the demonstrable twin deities of American capitalism—technology and “modern” management. That, after all, was the unquestioned, unquestioning faith of North Shore fathers and successes like them all over the nation, the world according to postwar Princeton as well as Harvard Business School, Robert McNamara’s duly quantified Ford Motor Company, his Vietnam War Pentagon in train, and so much more.
For the early 1960s as later, that received world ended just beyond suites and suburbs. Given America’s moral and material omnipotence, its exemplary excellence so evident on the North Shore, the remainder of the planet required no particular exploration or knowledge, much less depth of historical-political understanding, a recognition of America’s own non-mythologized past or of any other—certainly not for ready decision-makers busy with the numbered bottom-line results. As money or force need be applied to Asians, Arabs, Latins, Africans, a crisp briefing by some underling who read the memos would always do. Caught up in Rumsfeld’s kinetic, soon churlish descent into the bloody chaos of his Iraq, it has been easy to neglect how richly cultural it all was from the beginning, America’s terrible half-century symmetry of vast might and presumption beside still vaster ignorance and irresponsibility. It was in 1963, during Don Rumsfeld’s first months in Congress, that the Iraqi Ba’ath—trailing a twenty-six-year-old Tikriti street thug named Saddam Hussein, and the party since 1959 recruited, funded, marshaled and meticulously directed by the CIA, replete with killing lists of hundreds of left-leaning Iraqi political figures and professionals to be murdered after the coup—seized power in Baghdad.
Back on Capitol Hill, the spirited young Republican legislator was absorbed in exhilarating new appropriations in aeronautics and weaponry. His trademark clipped fervor and biting sarcasm in questions and speeches held a hint of Pentagon E Ring canon four decades later—the superpower military as classic wrestler, lithe, quick, superbly equipped, swift to pin a dazed foe, prowess and dominance beyond doubt, garlands all around. It was only a matter, he began to learn early from helpful briefings and testimony by military-industrial executives, of making the commanders (the branch managers, after all) adapt and adopt, change their sluggish old ways, procure to prevail.
So superior was new technology and management that the opponent or arena, competitor or market, scarcely counted. In stock Washington sets, obscure hearings unheard, colloquies before empty chambers, there were the first faint drums of distant disaster in the Hindu Kush, Mesopotamia and more.
Rumsfeld’s ardor for a high-tech military was only stirring in the 1960s. It was a vague, minor dalliance beside his original and lasting preoccupation with advance. While again few seemed to notice, the brash freshman made an extraordinary rush at the lumbering House. Before the end of his first term, he captained a revolt in 1964 against GOP Leader Charles Halleck, an Eisenhower loyalist prone to bipartisanship and skepticism of both Pentagon budgets and foreign intervention. By only six votes in the Republican Caucus, Rumsfeld managed the replacement of the folksy Indianan with Michigan’s Gerald Ford. In the inner politics of the House, the likeable, agreeable, unoriginal Ford was always more right-wing than his benign post-Nixon and now posthumous presidential image would have it, and in any case, as Nixon called him, “a wink and a nod guy” whose artlessness and integrity left him no real match for the steelier and more cunning. To push Ford was one of those darting inside moves on Capitol Hill that seem at the time to win limited, parochial prizes—choice committee seats, a rung on the leadership ladder, useful allies. Taken with Rumsfeld’s burly style in 1964, for instance, was Kansas Congressman Robert Ellsworth, a wheatfield small town lawyer of decidedly modest gifts but outsized ambition and close connections to Nixon. “Just another Young Turk thing,” one of their cohorts casually called the toppling of Halleck.
It seems hard now to exaggerate the sequels. The lifting of the honest but mediocre Ford higher into line for appointment as Vice President amid the Nixon-Agnew ruin; Ford’s lackluster if relatively harmless interval in the Oval Office and later as party leader with the abject passing of the GOP to Reagan in 1980; meanwhile Ellsworth’s boosting of Rumsfeld into prominent but scandal-immune posts under Nixon; then on Ford’s presidency Rumsfeld trusted and rewarded with elevation to White House Chief of Staff and with him the rise of one of his aides from the Nixon era, an otherwise unheard of young Wyoming reactionary named Dick Cheney; in 1975-1976 the first Rumsfeld tenure at a Vietnam-disgraced but impenitent Pentagon that would shape his fateful second term after 2001; and eventually, of course, the Rumsfeld-Cheney monopoly of power with George W. Bush, their catastrophic policies after 9/11 and the resulting wars and crises—all followed from making decent diffident Gerry Ford Minority Leader that forgotten
winter of 1964.
They were Nixon men. In national launch if not ideology, Rumsfeld and Cheney rose by the half-shunned political paternity in which a cynical president abided some he distrusted, even came to deplore, yet thought to use. Come to the 1968 Nixon campaign by Ellsworth’s influence, Rumsfeld fell into an opportune role—spying on the Democratic Convention in Chicago, which exploded in the infamous “police riot” against antiwar demonstrators that tore apart the Democrats and lent the spy’s reports unexpected gravity. (Among faces in the crowd watching the mayhem was another onlooker out of a comfortable Republican suburb, a twenty-one-year-old Wellesley student from Park Ridge named Hillary Rodham.) Even with attention gained in the Democrats’ disaster, however, Rumsfeld flinted against the Nixon’s equally barbed campaign manager, Bob Haldeman, and despite their election victory he returned to Congress at the start of 1969 without the expected spoils of some ranking Administration job.
As often in these stories, bipartisan collusion rescued him. By 1968, Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, the once heralded antipoverty program with its grass roots “Community Action” and especially its Legal Services for the poor, had become after only four rocky years a potential success, and thus anathema for powerful Democrats as well as Republicans. Denied by the tobacco lobby a 1964 cigarette tax that would have funded it securely, then starved by the sinking of resources into the Vietnam maw, OEO was ultimately doomed when the nascent political, economic and legal assertiveness it nurtured among the thirty to fifty million dispossessed threatened the hold of vested-interest donors and the mingled power bases of governors and mayors, congressmen and legislators of both parties, urban and rural, across the nation. As early as 1966 they trooped in their numbers through the Old Executive Office Building—liberal and conservative but uniformly self-preserving, the single party of incumbent power—to lobby Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who warned Johnson against the damaging political defections as Vietnam escalated, and who planned to cut the program as president himself. OEO’s death was certain with Nixon, though thought to require as director a tough infighter against the agency’s vestige life support. Nixon first ignored the appointment, but then later in 1969, at the urging of ranking Senate Democrats as well as Ford and Ellsworth, named Rumsfeld, who chose as deputy his Princeton pal Carlucci, off a buccaneering start with the Foreign Service and CIA coups and assassinations in the early 1960s Congo.
The writ was plain. On Capitol Hill, they called Rumsfeld “the undertaker.”
So it was that a slight, already balding twenty-eight-year-old Republican Congressional intern soon steered to the new OEO Director a twelve-page memo setting out how to run the agency to
kill what they all deplored. Richard Bruce Cheney was less than prodigal himself at this point. Failing at Yale and returning to his native Casper to work as a lineman, he eventually went to college in Wyoming and on to graduate school and a DC internship to avoid the Vietnam draft and satisfy his ambitious fiancée Lynn as well to retrieve a white collar career.
Like so many in the neo-conservative swarm he came to head after 2001, Cheney brought to public life no intellectual distinction or curiosity, and least of all knowledge of the wider nation and world. Moving to Washington in 1968 marked the first time he came to live in a town of more than 200,000. But overlaying his glacial insularity was a reassuring phlegmatic manner, in Washington a found instinct for the quiet, diligent subordinate’s exploitation of institutional indolence and evasion to derive his own power, and not least a clenched-teeth right-wing animus that less sonorous, self-effacing Republicans judged impolitic for themselves but impressively stiffening and affirming in a backroom staff man. “Dick said what they all thought but didn’t say aloud,” a Hill aide and later Congressman recalled of often raw conversations about money, race, partisanship, and particularly Cheney’s angry, acid scorn for college antiwar protests. Having earlier rejected him as a House intern, Rumsfeld now made the young right-winger his key personal assistant at OEO, where he proved devotedly efficient. (It was another premonitory touch: three future Secretaries of Defense, Rumsfeld, Carlucci and Cheney, all in the same office toiling to abort the unwanted embryonic empowerment of the poor.)
When they became celebrities, there would be much written about the meshed styles of Rumsfeld and Cheney—Rummy relishing combat and limelight, free-wheeling, sparking ideas and decisions helter-skelter (show and such sheer brio, famously dropping to the floor for one-arm push-ups, that a bureaucrat-benumbed Washington media always found fetching, with actual substance easily overlooked), in contrast to steady backroom Dick the methodical organizer, a modest detail man seeing to practical execution. Close up, the bond was more. Across the distance between charged and calm, almost a decade’s age difference, North Shore and Casper, Princeton and Wyoming, country club Congressman and lumpen proletariat repairman, they shared what was widespread on the right if rarely admitted so openly as they each did in their distinct idioms: Abhorrence of the liberations sweeping the 1960s, not alone or even mainly the right’s pet scourges of bureaucracy, crime, drugs, social fragmentation and (suitably coded) racial integration, but the unsettling ferment of newfound freedom and honesty for individuals and families as well as neighborhoods, businesses and campuses, the defiance of cultural and institutional oppressions, especially by minorities and women, the Johnson Great Society’s apparent advance beyond the New Deal and Progressivism at the expense of settled money and power. Altogether it was a moment of hurtling change many saw as ominous weakness and laxity, public programs for the long-excluded as “socialism” and balancing regulation of long-dominant business power as “tyranny,” menacing new arrangements of race and class, the myriad threats of sheer liberty in a more equitable society and economy. Whatever their other ties, Rumsfeld and Cheney were two of the era’s visceral Reactionaries in the classic sense of the term. Musing with younger aides on one of his last days in the White House, and despite the toll taken by some of the same forces on his own broken presidency, Johnson had a telling term for the wider ilk. “The haters,” he called them. “They hate what they can’t run anymore.” The calamity Rumsfeld and Cheney later wrought in American foreign policy traced not only to profound ignorance and immense, careless pretense about the world at large, but in some part to a kindred fear and loathing at home four decades before.
OEO began the Rumsfeld myths. “He saved it,” Carlucci would blithely tell oblivious post-9/11 reporters hardly apt to check the actual fate of the agency, spinning an image of an ever-energetic Rumsfeld taking up the cause of his constituency of the needy, streamlining and fortifying despite the funeral order. It was a blasé postmortem lie. Community Action, Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, most decisively Legal Services whose leadership Rumsfeld and Cheney stood together to decapitate in 1970—one by one the beleaguered efforts were stifled or sloughed off to political sterility under some foster bureaucracy, this mission, at least, accomplished. By the time burial was complete with the agency’s quiet extinction in 1973, unmourned by the base powers of either party, the undertaker had moved on to higher office.
Two years before, Nixon had planned to use Rumsfeld in a cabinet shakeup, but when that was stymied, took him into the White House as a domestic affairs “counselor.” The interval 1971-1973 is captured on Nixon tapes in which the sixty-year-old president adopts an avuncular tone with his ever-aggressive if not sometimes megalomaniacal forty-year-old aide. Rumsfeld angles brazenly to supplant Henry Kissinger as a special envoy on Vietnam or even to replace the yet pre-scandal Spiro Agnew as vice president on the 1972 ticket. Patiently yet with audible derision and occasional incredulity, Nixon suggests seasoning in more modest positions. Thus, after the 1972 reelection, eager Rummy would be made Ambassador to NATO, spoils before handed to their mutual friend Ellsworth, who again urged Rumsfeld for the job. It all yielded more myths, more confected history by submissive uninformed media profiling post-9/11 power. There would be Rumsfeld as White House “dove” on Vietnam when his bent was exactly the opposite.
Or Nixon said to see him as the only stand-for-election tested politician among his advisors, and thus uniquely in touch with the diversity of the country, especially the young—when the reality was Rumsfeld’s impatient three terms from his lavishly unrepresentative rotten borough of Winnetka wealth, his generic contempt for the 1960s, his part at OEO in suppressing the emergence of millions of the young poor, even his undercutting backstairs at the White House of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Nixon Administration initiative for welfare reform and a guaranteed income. At the time, the actual shallowness and grasping led to withering verdicts from knowing witnesses. Even a jaded Nixon came to deplore him as “a man without idealism.” Experience with despots giving the judgment added weight, Kissinger thought Rumsfeld as an official the “most ruthless” he had ever known.
In a Washington that routinely hides its ugly inner truths of character and incompetence like surgeons closing over a malignancy they discreetly keep to themselves lest it alarm the customers, none of it mattered. Away at NATO in Brussels, frustrated by multi-national diplomacy but furthering his own sense of his political-military mastery, Rumsfeld escaped the Watergate incriminations of 1973-74 that might well have ensnared him had he still been at the White House, drawn into the cover-up by his often irrepressible partisanship and combativeness, conceivably crushed like Haldeman, John Erlichman and others. Instead, he seemed fresh and apart when Ford succeeded Nixon in August 1974. Anxious to be rid of Nixon co-conspirators like Alexander Haig but facing rule with inadequate crony aides, the earnest new president called back clean, hard-charging Don to be chief of staff. Rumsfeld brought in Cheney, who after OEO was on his way to vanishing mercifully into private business—and the rest, as the culture of governance would have it, is history.
Barely a year after moving next to the Oval Office, (and contrary to Ford’s typically innocent, prideful recollection decades later that it was all his own idea) they characteristically engineered their “Halloween Massacre,” subtly, persistently exploiting Ford’s unease (and Kissinger’s jealous rivalry) with cerebral, acerbic Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to pass to Rumsfeld the Pentagon at only forty-three, and make Cheney his successor as a wunderkind thirty-four year-old presidential Chief of Staff. Prodigies by ferocious, sly self-promotion, in the process they also maneuvered Ford to humble Kissinger, and so further enhance their own new provinces of power, by stripping him of his long-held dual role as National Security Advisor. (Super K, as an adoring supine media called him, a master schemer himself, was so stunned by the Rumsfeld-Cheney coup that he called an after-hours séance of cronies at a safe house in Chevy Chase to plot for days his petulant resignation, only to relent, overcome as usual by the majesty of his gifts, if only a foreign minister.) With such past trophies, it was never a contest for Rumsfeld and Cheney after 2001. That fall of 1975, twenty-nine year-old George W. Bush, the lineage’s least fortunate son, was in Midland, Texas, partying heartily and scrounging for some role on the rusty panhandle fringes of the oil business.
Their purge served grandiose ambition. By December 1975 having pushed aside as well Watergate-appointed vice-president Nelson Rockefeller, the longtime abomination of the Republican right, Rumsfeld was positioning from the cabinet to be Ford’s 1976 running mate and eventual successor. But then that spring Reagan came so close to wresting the nomination with primary victories in North Carolina and Texas that the President’s other advisors, many of whom detested Rumsfeld, sprang typically to appease the Reagan camp by persuading Ford to put choleric right-wing Kansas Senator Bob Dole on the ticket instead. Among them were George H.W. Bush, then-CIA Director (a job he got at Rumsfeld’s cynical recommendation, calculating that to put Bush at the then scandal-ridden agency would eliminate him as a potential rival), and Bush’s own onetime Texas campaign aide, a moneyed corporate lawyer and would-be power-broker from Houston, the obscure Commerce Department official who became Ford’s the 1976 campaign manager, James Baker III. It was an adroit back corridor move, the sort Rumsfeld himself practiced so adeptly, and it embittered him for years toward his old patron Ford as well as Bush, Baker and others—one more wisp of a seamy unseen history, more customary Republican cannibalism, wafting ironically over the last days of 2006 with the Iraq Study Group and the Ford Funeral.
Designs on the Oval Office thwarted but by no means given up, Rumsfeld’s scarcely fifteen months at the Pentagon in 1975-1976 were quietly, ominously historic. It was an interval far more significant and premonitory than commonly portrayed in the usual shallow coverage then and later, in many ways a foreshadowing and preparation of the fateful sequel after 9/11. At every turn the new SecDef pulled policy to the right— aligning Washington even more egregiously than usual with reactionary regimes in Asia and Latin America, smothering the nation’s only serious intelligence reform, beginning the demolition of détente with Russia that would climax in its extinction under Jimmy Carter, at home and abroad seeding the Middle East for future crises, and, in some ways most insidious, joining the military leadership to desert cravenly the post-Vietnam battlefield of historical understanding and institutional change.
Over his first days in office, he allied decisively with the Joint Chiefs’ longtime but until then vain efforts to stall the pending strategic arms control agreement with Moscow, his first blow in its eventual killing. He also pushed Kissinger and Ford (one of the more disgraceful acts of the Ford presidency discreetly ignored in the recent retrospectives) in assuring the Indonesian military junta of continued US support and arms in the brutal suppression about to be unleashed in December 1975 on East Timor. It was only a taste of the Rumsfeld preference for uniformed right-wing tyrants, indulged over the next year in an ever closer Defense Department liaison with military dictatorships in Latin America, particularly in Argentina and Pinochet’s Chile, most notably through their Operation Condor, joint covert actions involving several regimes, with Pentagon attaches and intelligence advisors looking on, that resulted in kidnappings and assassinations throughout the Hemisphere, including the brazen car bomb murder of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and an American colleague on Massachusetts Avenue in downtown Washington in 1976. Unfailingly urged and expanded by Rumsfeld, the collusion with Indonesian and Latin American despots underwrote more than a decade of some of the most savage repressions of the second half of the twentieth century.
Part of the customary Pentagon-State Department bureaucratic war Rumsfeld waged against Kissinger (now with added vengeance fired by the Defense Secretary’s presidential ambition) was a furtive alliance with Capitol Hill’s ubër-hard-line Democrat, Armed Service Committee Chairman and Kissinger nemesis Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Washington state’s backwoods shoreline county prosecutor become senator from Boeing. Jackson’s Russophobia, demagoguery on arms control, and zealous backing of Israel, especially on the then-charged issue of Jewish emigration from the USSR —cold war politics engorging military budgets and Puget Sound contracts along with the senator’s war chest for a 1976 presidential run, all fomented by an pretentious, pear-shaped Jackson aide named Richard Perle— put Rumsfeld deep in the milieu of the Israeli Lobby, already formidable if only a kernel of the special interest colossus it became on behalf of an alien power. The collusion introduced him to some of the still marginal, relentlessly mediocre publicists, ideologues and Washington hangers-on who would take the term neo-conservative for their career-plumping chauvinism and, less audibly, their tragically intermingled allegiance to the right wings of the U.S. and Israel.
In Rumsfeld’s early tie to that wanna-be-establishment claque were omens of the history they would make together after 2001. It was his “sharp elbows” that made for the creation of the notorious “Team B,” the collection of incipient neo-cons and Russophobes in and out of government, including Paul Wolfowitz, who were summoned to pose an analysis of Soviet capabilities and intentions as an alternative to comparatively unfrightening (and accurate) CIA assessments being attacked by Reagan and his right-wing minions in the 1976 campaign. Surrender to the election-year demagoguery traced to the White House and the elder Bush at the CIA (more Ford regime shame politely forgotten at the mournful, anyone-compared-to-George W. end of 2006), but Rumsfeld’s role was crucial, and the consequences historic. In numbers and impact it was the first neo-con and Israeli lobby wedge into the inner reaches of intelligence and decision-making, a portent of their blanketing presence in 2001, and while the absurdity and ideological corruption of their “analysis” of the Russian bogeyman (along with their expected confrontation with China, nakedly racist, essentially Israeli view of the Arab world and refusal to face the Vietnam defeat) would be plain even then—only to be exposed
as all the greater fraud by post-Soviet archives—their animus fed the fear and
resulting massive arms buildup of the Reagan 80s, and with it the military-industrial colossus whose political hold left the American war machine and its distortions in domestic priorities so largely intact in the post-cold war, ready for Rumsfeld’s return to power.
The “Team B” scandal foreshadowed as well one of the most insidious of the post-9/11 plagues, the right-wing assault on relatively non-ideological national intelligence that was to lead in the mongering of the Iraq war to the blatant substitution of alternative “intelligence” operations in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Cheney’s Vice-presidential office (full-time versions of “Team B,” as it were), as well as the coercion and corruption of conventional CIA channels. While in 1976 he worked to undercut any intelligence that challenged his right-wing bias—and again much as he would repeat after 9/11 in sanctioning unprecedented and effectively unaccountable intelligence operations and imprisonments both military and civilian—Rumsfeld (along with Cheney more tracklessly at the White House) was also the Ford Administration’s most powerful inner force fighting off meaningful intelligence reforms after shocking revelations of CIA covert operations abuses in the mid-1970s hearings chaired by Senator Frank Church and Congressman Otis Pike. The resulting half-measures and truncated accountability, sending the unmistakable signals of thwarted reform throughout Washington, set the stage for the CIA’s rampaging 1980s under Reagan campaign manager William Casey (and one of Casey’s ambitious, agreeable aides named Robert Gates), with direct consequences once again in blowback and loss of professional integrity for decades to come.
Then, not least, there was the Middle East. In mid-1976, as Palestinians allied with a Lebanese nationalist coalition to challenge the traditional privileged rule of the West’s Christian-dominated client regime in Beirut, the Secretary of Defense was decisive in secret US-Israeli instigation of a Syrian military intervention to thwart both the Palestinians and Lebanese rebels. His muscling of the covert action over Kissinger’s initial hesitation followed long-collaborative intrigue in the Levant by the Israeli Mossad with the Pentagon’s DIA as well as the CIA. It ushered in three decades of Syrian occupation in Lebanon, with relentless Mossad-US machinations, the eventual rise of Hizbullah, and altogether fateful results for the Lebanese and
for the very US and Israeli interests the 1976 Syrian invasion was recklessly plotted to serve.
At the same time, Rumsfeld avidly stepped up ongoing US arms shipments to the Shah of Iran, whose corrupt U.S.-installed oligarchic tyranny—its torture-ready SAVAK secret police intimately allied with Mossad, the CIA and DIA—would fall to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution scarcely two years later, in part under the sheer weight and waste of the Pentagon’s huge patronage. At its peak with Rumsfeld in 1976, U.S. weapons and intelligence trafficking with the rotting imperial regime occupied some eight hundred Pentagon officers. Like CIA-DIA connivance with SAVAK—which included coordinated assassinations of Iranian opposition political figures or clerics and even Khomeini’s son—wider Pentagon complicity with the hated old order made all but inevitable the widespread anti-American sentiment in Iran exploited by the Islamic regime’s propaganda. Detonating in the 1979 seizure of U.S. embassy hostages in Tehran, it was popular hostility, like so much in the Middle East, that burned out of a history of intervention and intrigue few Americans ever knew.
Over 1976 Rumsfeld also pressed the sale to the waning Shah of up to eight nuclear reactors with fuel and lasers capable of enriching uranium to weapons grade. Ford was prudently uneasy at first, but relented under unanimous pressure from his men. Cheney backed Rumsfeld from the start in urging an Iranian nuclear capability. And in this at least they were joined by their arch rival Kissinger, ever solicitous of his admirer the Shah, ever oblivious to internal Islamic politics, and now primed himself by an obscure but vocal thirty-three-year-old State Department aide named Wolfowitz. (With Israel, Lebanon, Iran and more, it is a tangled, richly ironic story to be told elsewhere, but Rumsfeld and others, including Gates at the CIA, were all in a sense policy godfathers of Hizbullah, and the mullahs’ regime in Tehran.)
Even more costly than these forays into geo-politics, however, was the toll deep inside the American military. However brief, Rumsfeld’s rule at the Pentagon in the mid-1970s was in some respects the most crucial since World War II. In seven tumultuous years from Johnson’s fall to Nixon’s, spanned by defeat and de facto mutiny in Vietnam, four secretaries trooped through Defense, each consumed by war or politics, none engaging the institution’s historic plight. Taking office six months after the fall of Saigon, Rumsfeld inherited the first truly post-Vietnam military. Fittingly, the crisis he thus faced had come full-blown over the two decades of his adult life since the 1950s. By 1975-1976, for anyone serious about the military and national defense, that crisis was extensively studied and documented as well as there for the hearing or asking from top to bottom in any Pentagon ring, any post at home or abroad as well as in Congress, the Executive, press and public—unmistakable in the searing experiences of a war whose dark-soil graves at nearby Arlington were still fresh. By any measure it was a rare, fleeting moment when the enormous U.S. war machine might have come to terms with its past and thus the future. The failure—hardly Rumsfeld’s alone but his role decisive—would haunt America and the world into the twenty-first century.
Vietnam laid bare a malignant decay of America’s armed forces begun in the wake of their first unwon war in Korea. There was “no substitute for victory,” General Douglas MacArthur had written a congressman in the letter that finally prodded President Harry Truman to fire him in 1951. The services promptly found one nonetheless in the warm bath of a careerist managerial ethic. Ruled in the world wars by a multiplying bureaucracy (and correspondingly inhospitable to the officer as individual), America’s superpower military was already by 1950 a sclerotic giant—“a glandular thing,” as then-Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett described it a decade later to John Kennedy. The brutal Korean stalemate, following on the early rout of a billet-flabby occupation army from Japan and then the frozen bloody retreat from the heedless conquest of North Korea pressed to the Chinese border, added to the curse. Vaguely yet suddenly unsure of itself in the ambiguous, demanding politics of a cold war nuclear-armed peace, a supposedly matchless force that had met its match in the murky realm of political sophistication as well as on the battlefield, the profession grappled to redefine and reassure its place. But over the 1950s, that grasping only produced a preponderance of what one critic called the “formlessly ambitious” officer, seeing the service and climbing it as any other corporate culture. To a blight Charles de Gaulle once deplored in his French Army as “solely careerism.” the post-Korea U.S. military added the fetish and pseudoscience of “management,” warriors astride desks, commanding paper flow and flourishing the numerology of budgets and ever-more expensive weapons systems (the polished, suitably camouflaged versions of which won over Rumsfeld and others like him on the Hill).
Procurement plunder and corruption, the venal revolving door between senior officers and contractors, the inveterate lack of authentic accounting and accountability at almost every level—all the old Pentagon scourges were rampant. The toll of the new ethic in lost integrity and intellect left each of them more unchecked than ever, and would be disastrous in the services at large. The good staff life rather than active command, “ticket punching,” the right job at the right time, fostered an officer corps overwhelmingly pursuing rank as an end itself, at pains to do no more than what one embittered combat colonel recalled as a “a necessary but minimal amount of field duty.” As credentials merely accumulated and efficiency reports grew inflated and meaningless, there was the inevitable atrophy of both ethics and the military art. Most of all, management itself, the faith and practice of the new creed, was the first casualty of institutional shallowness and self-protection. Winners emerged compromised and cynical, losers alienated and contemptuous of superiors, with general morale, credible command authority and old-fashioned élan and esprit de corps decimated in any case. Graduates and non-graduates alike trained their disillusion on institutions like West Point, which they privately mocked by the early 1960s as the South Hudson Institute of Technology—SHIT. To many, the Academy’s sacred “Duty, honor, country” now seemed eclipsed in practice by the mammoth organization’s immutable rule of survival: Cover your ass.
All the more vital with the need to understand the history and politics of vast new arenas of American policy—regions of potential military embroilment in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere—once-elite service graduate schools like the War Colleges became pro forma, sinking to what a study found the “usually superficial and vapid.” There would be no twentieth-century American Clausewitz, wrote Ward Just, the best of the era’s military affairs journalists surveying the wreckage of a defense establishment so driven by the corporate inanity, “because the writing of Von Krieg (On War) took time and serious thought.” Much of this bureaucratic decadence overtook other arms of government in the 1950s, not least a State Department where effects were similar and introspection and honesty afterward less open than in the armed services. As Vietnam soon proved, however, a craven ethos, intellectual vacuum and command mediocrity in a military—whose business, Korea savagely reminded everyone, is sometimes to fight wars—would be catastrophic. Within the system, there were predictable if vain attempts to hide the enveloping disgrace. When a war-college study of “professionalism” in Vietnam was done in 1970 with implications, as a pair of reviewing experts described it, “devastating to the officer corps,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff, beneficiaries of the breakdown, quickly classified and suppressed the findings. Yet none of the inner withering was a secret, or even arcane knowledge in government Before, during and after Rumsfeld’s first regime at the Pentagon, Congressional hearings, journalism and memoirs exposed the reality, while nationally noted, amply documented books, often written by veteran officers or based on their testimony, appeared under titles eloquent of the disaster—Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, Defeated: Inside America’s Military Machine, Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Military, The Death of the Army.
Vietnam nearly made the figurative death literal. Ironically, there had been a portent—and if carefully read, a warning—of the debacle ahead in Southeast Asia (and thirty years later in Iraq and Afghanistan, for that matter) in a book discussed in Washington to the point of fad as Rumsfeld began his political career in the early 1960s. General Maxwell Taylor was a handsome, much-decorated World War II airborne hero, a Missouri country boy become reputed military intellectual, albeit given to the pandemic provincialism yet gall of postwar American officialdom, whose nation’s new world power so outstripped its knowledge of the plant. Taylor unabashedly extolling the Shah’s repressive Iranian troops as among the “armies of freedom,” and instructed a West Point class on the eve of Vietnam that they were entering a world in which “the ascendancy of American arms and American military concepts is accepted as [a] matter of course.” But he also proposed to correct the errors of the 1950s strategic doctrine of “massive retaliation,”—and not incidentally rescue his beloved army from the budget predations of the Air Force—by a new orthodoxy of “limited wars” fought with a “strategy of flexible response.” Taylor defined his breakthrough in a celebrated book, Uncertain Trumpet, as “the need for a capability to react across the entire spectrum of possible challenge for coping with anything from general atomic war to infiltration and aggressions…” (In what some will note as the numbing lack of originality (as apart from packaging) in military theorizing, any similarity between Taylor’s notion and “flexibility” in the hybrid Soviet General Staff-Pentagon “Revolution in Military Affairs” Rumsfeld famously adopted in 2001 would be striking, and, of course, not coincidental.)
On whether the United States could practically or should politically as a matter of national interest cope “with anything,” the confident paratrooper Taylor, with scant knowledge of the world at large, wisely did not elaborate. His point, after all, was “capability,” meaning a bigger, better army with bigger better budgets. Properly selected “limited wars,” with newly created forces chafing to be used, would presumably take care of themselves. But even with the “flexible” and “limited,” Taylor warned, it would be necessary “to deter or win quickly,” dictating an overwhelming application of men and weaponry and swift, decisive victory everyone, including the defeated enemy, could agree on. “Otherwise.” he noted ominously in a passage the general as well as his admirers tended to overlook, “the limited war which we cannot win quickly may result in our piecemeal attrition.” Taylor’s theme, minus this gloomy caveat, enjoyed swift vogue in the early 1960s with both Republicans and Democrats generally uninformed but anxious about, and eager to engage, what were seen as ubiquitous Russians and native communists scavenging post-colonial turmoil in the Third World. Among them were right-wingers like Rumsfeld impatient with the aged caution of their own party’s Eisenhower or Halleck, and chief among the Democrats President John F. Kennedy who promptly enlisted Taylor as a special advisor on Southeast Asia and other matters. Crippling careerism still too close to be seen clearly, the military thus readied, under the misbegotten charge of policy-makers civilian and military (again omens of Iraq and Afghanistan), to fight in reassuring theory what in the reality of Vietnam would be Maxwell Taylor’s oxymoronic nightmare—a limited war of attrition.
That war, of course, had its men of courage and integrity, though more than ever as exceptions to the prevailing system, and seldom as intact survivors to highest rank in the twenty-first century. The machinery that in peacetime routinely ground out rhapsodic officer efficiency reports and remained oblivious to its corporatist decline instantly applied the same practiced reflexes to the surreal paper work of Saigon and its offshore carrier groups, fattening Vietcong body counts, bombing damage and South Vietnamese client efficacy that proved victory, falsifying the intelligence reports that discovered awkward enemy strength and with it the unwanted signs of losing another war. Massively beribboned chests of commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them junior officers in Southeast Asia, would be unintended reminders of how much the Vietnam fraud fed on even the old honor of citations. Like a debased currency, ribbons for courage or exceptional service lost value as they accumulated, with awards snidely known as “gongs,” oak leaf clusters as “rat turds,” the once-respected air medal (800,000 of the total decorations) handed out for almost any non-combat flight in the helicopter-swarming war, or even for hauling holiday frozen turkeys snugly behind the lines. Decorations were heaped so bountifully on generals along with lesser staff officers that valor in such numbers, wrote one combat veteran, was “incomprehensible.”
To Vietnam’s “grunts,” as they related again and again, the war was too often fought with their officers 2,000 feet up in the comparative safety of the “eye in the sky” command helicopters rather than with their “ass in the grass” with their troops. Casualty figures were telling. In over a decade of fighting, with over 57,000 American dead, only four generals and eight colonels fell in combat—commissioned rank a guarantee of survival as for no other modern military at war (save perhaps in Iraq and Afghanistan in figures yet to come). “The officer corps simply did not die in sufficient numbers or in the presence of their men often enough,” concluded two postwar analysts of the army’s resulting “crisis.”
With corruption of standards came inevitable loss of morale. To soldiers of honor at every level the ignorance, self-protection and widespread opportunism of so many superiors made Vietnam what one colonel called “the dark ages in the army’s history.” Through the ranks, unprecedented, ran the unchecked contagion of disintegration—refusal of orders amounting to mutiny, desertions in the tens of thousands, the drug epidemic and race riots, uncounted, unaccountable atrocities, and not least the assassination of officers and noncoms by their own men, the American military’s internecine murder which acquired its own ugly Vietnam name, “fragging.” Among the officer corps, according to a war-college appraisal, there had been “a clear loss of military ethic,” not to be explained simply by the then largely citizen-soldier, draft-dependent army. Altogether, another study concluded still more clinically and bluntly, the armed forces in Vietnam bordered on “an undisciplined, ineffective, almost anomic mass,” its commanders high and low manifesting “severe pathologies.”
Added to the war’s vast profiteering and waste, all this spurred an exodus of disillusioned military professionals (unprecedented and unmatched until the Iraq War), depriving the services of most of their most promising young leaders. It also produced by 1975-1976 an unparalleled outpouring of public and internal criticism with often shocking revelations by officers, enlisted men, and other knowledgeable observers in and out of government. Yet atop the Pentagon at the height of the now furious, now anguished outcry, what an admiral witnessing it called a “real rebellion of the heart,” Rumsfeld took no meaningful part in the airing or soul-searching, much less control or cleansing of the pestilent contract and accounting scandals, and effectively ignored, dismissed or on occasion repressed and punished critics and whistle-blowers, remaining stolidly aligned with the worst of the system’s status quo and unmoved in his own right-wing view of the war abroad and at home.
Typically—and in yet another grim foreshadowing of Iraq and its Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan with its Bagram—when Congressional questions began to be asked about the involvement of the U.S. military as well as CIA in the Saigon regime’s infamous “Tiger Cage” torture camps in South Vietnam during the early 1970s, Rumsfeld led the Ford Administration in blocking damaging disclosures until the issue eventually trailed off. It was one more plot of buried history—along with a seedy CIA front, the Office of Public Safety, implicated in advising and abetting client regimes’ secret police “renditions” and torture worldwide until its quiet disbanding by Congress in 1975—with echoes into the twenty-first century.
Officially, the crumbling of discipline and performance in Vietnam would be blamed not on the military’s long-festering venality and incompetence, but on the ready scapegoats of antiwar agitation and the larger social turbulence of the 1960s, a perfect fit with the Rumsfeld-Cheney demonology. Counterattack on critics was vicious. “Overlong in battle and emotionally unbalanced,” one Pentagon-kept military columnist smeared an officer of legendary heroism who publicly deplored the careerism. While under Ford’s calming, anodyne post-Watergate presidency America gladly celebrated its Bicentennial, the tide of self-awareness in the Pentagon was “allowed to recede,” as a later study recorded, and officers “whose careers were deeply rooted in the polices and practices [of the war] finally prevailed.” The latter included leaders of the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 Iraq debacle, most famously Colin Powell, who as a mid-grade careerist was personally involved in a whitewash of My Lai.
When a superintendent of West Point was earlier removed for his own implication in the My Lai cover-up, he had bidden farewell to a dining hall full of sympathetic cadets with the old General Joe Stillwell adage “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Of whom the “bastards” were the new Secretary of Defense in 1975 and his unreconstructed high command had no doubt. In the siege mentality of Rumsfeld’s post-Vietnam Pentagon, the besieging force was never its self-inflicted scourge, never a blindly misjudged nationalism or intrepid insurgency, corrupt untenable clients, or the persistent folly, self-delusion and ultimate self-betrayal of U.S. policy, but rather the curse of wavering civilian masters at home, craven Washington politicians and the old foreign policy establishment, especially Democrats, and in the end a public too swayed by treachery of a mythological “liberal media.” It was to be Rumsfeld’s historic legacy from 1976—to rubber stamp the Great Evasion of the military and the sullen ideological right fleeing headlong Vietnam defeat—jettisoning responsibility, much as Saigon’s American-bred profiteers cast cumbersome loot from their Mercedeses as they honked south through pitiful hordes of refugees before the final North Vietnamese offensive in the spring of 1975. Not loss by root folly, self-deception and self-perpetuating blunder, but from home front perfidy, the hoary stab in the back. Not ignorance and impotence but undue imposed restraint. (“Do we get to win this time?” Rambo asks in one of the movie’s sequels, echoing the denial and self-delusion of so many Vietnam veterans, especially careerist officers.) Not to heal its own institutional rot, much less grasp the decisive political-historical character of conflict fought against outside set-piece conventions of the European plain or Korea’s thirty-eight parallel. If that new war, beyond Clausewitz’s politik by other means, was shaped more by deluded Washington policy and the politics of some inscrutable postcolonial people than by the latest U.S. technology and the sloganeered tactics it dictated—search and destroy, carpet bombing, shock and awe—there would be, as Ward Just lamented, no American thinker in power to understand then or later.
While U.S. foreign policy—in heedless covert action, the orgy of globalism begun even before the fall of the Soviet Union, and then the reactionary mania loosed by 9/11—broadcast the seeds of new insurgencies (the prospects of what a handful of largely ignored theorists called in new/old terminology Fourth Generation Warfare), serious study of counter-insurgency, the irreducible political limits and basic futility and liability of the old military in political wars, all but vanished from Pentagon planning and even the service schools’ curricula. (The Iraq war would be years old and lost by the time the army revised, post-mortem as it were, its little-read counter-insurgency manual written two decades before and anachronistic even then.) Vietnam lesson unlearned, careerist blight and contract pillage uninterrupted, the military system’s answer to its scapegoat of backstabbing—already emerging as orthodoxy under Rumsfeld in 1976—would be the simplistic, foolproof dictum, claimed by Powell but hardly his originally, of fighting only with overwhelming forces, firepower and air cover. (As if the Army or Navy football team would only play by its own rules and referees with thirty-three men in the latest equipment to the other team’s eleven without helmets or pads and no ability to pass.) It would be applied in settings allowing the post-Vietnam Pentagon’s ever costlier, ever more “managed” high-tech bludgeon to be wielded against suitably feeble foes, without troublesome duration of engagement or the need for political understanding, shades of Taylor’s “win quickly” with everyone agreeing, certainly the losers.
Intelligence gaffes and civilian carnage aside as usual, results were encouraging in Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1990, and most notably the 1991 turkey shoot of the First Gulf War, carefully conducted to keep American casualties to the level of industrial accidents. Fastidious, blameless brevity and detachment tended, of course, to sacrifice controlling the political outcome in any geo-politically meaningful arena—as in allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power after expulsion from Kuwait, and so to butcher Shiite rebels thinking the moment ripe to overthrow him themselves, regrettably misreading Pentagon imperatives. Chilled by a ghost they stoutly denied for decades, commanders and defense secretaries would not repeat hot pursuit into North Korea or Vietnam’s limited war of attrition—not until the undertaker’s fortuitous last chance at greatness.
On Ford’s 1976 defeat by Carter, Rumsfeld went off to corporate wealth as head of the Skokie pharmaceutical company inherited by the family of his North Shore friend and early backer Dan Searle. More of the media and Congressional share in the negligence at his 2001 confirmation, the glancing, readily purveyed legend of his time at G.D. Searle would be a paean to Rumsfeld as master manager: Political prodigy slashes payroll 60%, turns decrepit loser to mega-profit-maker, earns industry plaques and multiple millions. (Given to a smug fecklessness in looking at men of government prominence like Rumsfeld gone to and from the private sector, the Washington media almost invariably adopt the press release or booster business page version of events out there in what inside the beltway calls “the real world”—not only because it is unknown territory requiring added work, but also as if matters of a mere company were surely beneath loftier affairs of state and, of course, the reporters covering them) Behind the image of corporate savior was still more relevant, warning history.
In the documented reality from litigation and relatively obscure investigations in the U.S. and abroad, Searle enjoyed its notable rise under Rumsfeld after 1977 less by some innovative executive genius than by old-fashioned reckless marketing of pharmaceuticals already on the shelf and the lobbying “markers” of its well-connected Republican as CEO—over it all the distinctive odor of corrupt practices. A case in point was Searle’s anti-diarrhea Lomotil, ever more widely and profitably sold internationally (in industry terms “dumped”), especially in Africa in the late 1970s, despite the company’s failure to warn of its dire effects on younger children. “A blindly harmful stopcock,” one medical journal called it, the remedy could be poisonous to infants only slightly above Searle’s recommended dosage, and even taken according to directions was known to mask dangerous dehydration and cause a lethal build-up of fluids internally. Having advertised Lomotil 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 also be implicated over the latter 1970s, like the more publicized Upjohn with its Depo-Provera, in widespread bribery of officials and others in poorer countries to promote the sale of oral contraceptives despite the same medications being found unsafe for American or European women.
But Searle’s magic potion, concocted well before Rumsfeld, was to be the controversial artificial sweetener aspertame, under the trade name NutraSweet. By 1977, the Food and Drug Administration had staunchly refused to approve aspertame for some sixteen years, including under the Nixon and Ford regimes, finding test data dubious or inconclusive and potential long-term dangers 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 in its applications for “willful and knowing failure to make reports…concealing material facts and making false statements.” Over the next four years the tug of war continued with federal regulators holding firm against Searle’s heavily financed campaigns. Then, with Reagan’s election in 1980, fix and favor quickly supplanted science and the public interest. Having campaigned for the new president and been named to the 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 have it all, 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 a thousand dollars a day, more questionable company-commissioned tests with more doubts by FDA scientists but now approval of aspertame nonetheless, a later plague of health problems but vast profits throughout the corporate economy from food to soft drinks with lavish multi-company contributions to Congressional committee members to stifle the outcry, eventually a $350-million class action suit alleging racketeering, fraud and multiple abuses centering on Rumsfeld, who meanwhile had become gloriously rich from aspertame and the $2.7-billion sale of Searle to Monsanto in 1985, and went duly unscathed by any of the company history in his 2001 return to the Pentagon. By the time the litigation was filed, America was already eighteen months into the occupation of Iraq.
As it was, Rumsfeld missed in his business conquests an even greater prize. He had been on a short list for Reagan’s running mate in 1980 when the candidate unexpectedly reached for his defeated primary rival and Rumsfeld nemesis George H.W. Bush. While over the next twelve years Bush went on to the vice-presidency and presidency, and Jim Baker, whom Rumsfeld equally detested, 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 that involuntary Reagan-era exile from government would be his stint in 1983-1984 as a special presidential envoy to the Middle East, sent to arrange U.S. support of Iraq in its war over the 1980s with the hated Iranians, a role little noticed at the time but which produced the later notorious photo of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam. The inner story was far more than an embarrassing handshake.
Most of the relevant records of his several months in that assignment remain classified, though it is clear that Rumsfeld, as at OEO, took on the time-honored bureaucratic passion for the raison d’etre, and thus success, of his mission—working to shower on Saddam, covertly and as unnoticed as possible in what remained open, what became known as an infamous flow of intelligence, financial credits, and sensitive materials and technology that underpinned the Iraqi chemical and bacteriological warfare programs, led to hideous gas attacks on Iraqi Shia dissidents and Kurds as well as Iranian forces, and generally shored up the war-worn Ba’athist regime that had attacked Iran in 1980 with a nod from the Carter regime and the anti-Iranian Saudis to begin with.
In this mid-1980s de facto alliance with Saddam, as in much else, Rumsfeld was never alone—joined in the policy by Reagan, Vice President Bush, Secretary of State George Shultz, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, successive National Security Advisors William Clark and Robert McFarlane, and a number of lesser, still obscure men like Wolfowitz at State, Colin Powell as Weinberger’s aide at the Pentagon, along with Jackson’s Perle now as an assistant secretary of defense and his zealot acolyte assistant Douglas Feith (who would return in pivotal work for Rumsfeld in 2001) as well as Casey and Gates at the CIA and a number of other officials. Their gambit was backed by Senators and Congressmen in both parties who were briefed on Rumsfeld’s mission and obligingly shunned oversight of the manifold, sometimes illegal collusion, their dereliction assured in part by the general animus toward Iran on a Capitol Hill then effectively controlled by the Republicans, in part by the bipartisan hold of the Israeli lobby and its Tel Aviv handlers, who quietly, cynically pushed for both U.S. help to Iraq and covert aid to Iran (exposed in the later Iran-Contra scandal), viewing the carnage of two Islamic states as a boon. As usual, it was all abetted by the customary media diffidence or indolence in national security. Historically, the moral outrage and political blunder of the mid-1980s that was Washington’s furtive arming of one tyranny in Iraq to bleed another in Iran, 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 government and Washington’s national security regime far beyond Rumsfeld.
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, Rumsfeld was uniquely focused as no other figure in Washington—or at least responsibly should have been—on the character of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the considerable storehouse of what Washington knew of the sectarian, regional and clan politics in a government the CIA itself had recruited and installed in the coup of 1963, re-installed in 1968 when the Agency’s original clients lost control, and then watched closely for its ongoing flirtation and arms supply relationship with the Russians in the interim, particularly after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 with its aftermath of Arab-Israeli 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 clan rule and the now crude, now subtle layering of Sunni and Shia in the Ba’athist bureaucracy and plutocracy—and especially during the war with Iran the distrust and savage repression of the ever-suspect and -subordinate Shia majority—were well known to outside intelligence agencies as well as scholars and journalists. The CIA, DIA and State Department intelligence bureau—and thus Rumsfeld as presidential envoy in dealing directly with Iraq as a high stakes surrogate against the Iranian mullahs—also had reason to understand much about the Baghdad regime’s cunning and determination in Saddam’s grandiose ambition, in an old rivalry with Egypt, to lead a pan-Arab nationalist renaissance in some parity with Israel’s nuclear-armed military might.
In addition to the usual extensive intelligence sharing with Mossad, CIA operatives less than two years before Rumsfeld’s Iraq mission had literally lit the way for Israeli F-16 fighter bombers in their June 1981 surprise attack on Saddam’s fledgling reactor at Osiraq, planting 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 program, from some 400 scientists and technicians with $400 million, to perhaps 7,000 with as much as $10 billion, some of which was made possible indirectly by U.S. aid Rumsfeld carried in 1983-1984. For anyone dealing seriously with these issues—substantive seriousness, as apart from intellectually careless and shallow personal advancement, again and again the term of reference in this story—there could have been little doubt that Saddam would use the considerable aid Rumsfeld was sliding under the table, and any larger gain from a better-armed war with Iran, to further the regime’s most aggressive weapons development, and to move from a U.S.-strengthened position to tyrannize all the more savagely Iraqi Shiites and Kurds. In the event, as Washington watched, he did it all—and no one could or should have known more than Rumsfeld. Long afterward, as the ugly essence of his Reagan mission dribbled out amid the ruin of the Iraq occupation, Rumsfeld would be faulted for his pandering 1984 diplomacy in Baghdad to appease the tyranny (the gassing of the Kurds had already begun).after a timorous, hypocritical Washington statement denouncing use of chemical weapons. The toll of the policy would be much more. Iraqi chemical weapons plants bombed in the 1991 Gulf War and releasing agents to which some 100,000 American troops were exposed, the pandemic of the infamous Gulf War Syndrome, would trace in large measure to the materiel and technology afforded by Rumsfeld’s knowing acts seven years before. So, too, would the brutal 1980s repression of the Iraqi Shia that made Rumsfeld’s mission then the mocking parent of irreducible Shia vengeance and suspicion deepening the American debacle, his historic failure, after 2003.
Others obviously bore responsibility at every turn. Powell as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Cheney as Secretary of Defense in 1991 were directly complicit in the Syndrome scandal. Yet none of the participants in the larger post-9/11 disaster stood in so direct a line of heedless cynicism for so long and so knowingly as Don Rumsfeld—the ignoring of Iraqi politics in a history in which those politics were and would be decisive, the constant, utter disregard of the horrendous human costs of policy in Iraq and beyond. When Reagan’s special envoy in 1983-1984 was with his usual energy and sharp elbows dickering with the Iraqis, Condoleezza Rice was an assistant professor of no scholarly distinction at Stanford, Cheney a third-term congressman from Wyoming squirming up the House leadership, L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer gone from State Department clerk and Haig protégé to ambassador to the Netherlands known for his lavish parties, and George W. Bush, still by his own account given to “heavy drinking,” absorbed in changing the name of his chronically failed Arbusto Energy.
By 1987, Rumsfeld was flexing once more 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, backing was not there. Off much more recent prominence and a wider political base as a right-wing congressman and then defense secretary in 1989-92, 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 of these two deeply disappointed, deeply ambitious figures in the presidency of a George W. Bush they no doubt saw as manifestly, maddeningly inferior (not to mention a Powell or Rice, unimaginable as secretary of state or national security advisor in either a Rumsfeld or Cheney administration). The Rumsfeld-Cheney recompense, at vast cost to the nation and world, would be their fierce seizure of power after 9/11.
Rumsfeld spent the 1990s again in business, often and lucratively in shadowy byways, becoming CEO of General Instruments, then Chairman of Gilead Sciences Pharmaceuticals, with more 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—a prize pursued while Rumsfeld chaired a Congressional commission on missile threats that found a “clear danger” from Pyongyang. In the alarming report, his otherwise fulsome resume 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 Dole’s presidential run, and 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 neo-cons, he joined Cheney and Wolfowitz on a Newt Gingirch-instigated Congressional Policy Advisory Board to shape attacks on the second Clinton Administration.
In January 1998 there was the celebrated letter to Clinton from the right-wing, Israeli lobby-dominated Project for a New American Century, signed by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle and others to be key in the Bush regime, urging the “removal” of Saddam—and then that July the “Rumsfeld Commission” report on missile threats, wildly claiming, in an unnamed debut of the “Axis of Evil” drawn more from the testimony and staff work of right-wing ideologues than any intelligence or authentic expertise, that Iran, Iraq and North Korea would each be able to “inflict major destruction” on the U.S. by 2002. Through it all, as over the first seven-and-a-half months of their rule after the seamy election of 2000, there would be no trace of the actual threat that erupted out of a September morning sky in 2001.
Though he had repaired relations with the Bushes, he took no major role and thus likely reward in the 2000 race. But when Cheney vetoed New Jersey Governor Tom Ridge for the Pentagon, and there was throbbing neo-con worry that a cosmetic Powell, bureaucrat at heart, would be captive to State Department equivocation and make it far too influential, Rumsfeld was the reply. It was a mark of the extreme poverty of Republican talent that the administration reflected so graphically—the supposed party of national security, with the White House for five terms of the last eight and Congressional dominance for much of the past thirty years, yet no evident alternative to a man who sat atop the Pentagon a full quarter century before, and apart from the patently right-wing, widely discredited missile panel, had no credential or even palpable interest in ever more complex defense issues since then. Fit, relatively youthful at 69, Rumsfeld strode again into the E Ring. There was plausible speculation that the old Halloween Massacre goal was still there, that Cheney with uncertain health could step aside in 2004, that the undertaker might yet reach the Oval Office.
Rumsfeld began his Pentagon reprise seizing on a dead Russian marshal and an octogenarian Washington bureaucrat few ever heard of.
Like Osama bin Laden, steely-haired Nikolai Ogarkov came to light during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. In 1977, at fifty, he had become a prodigal chief of the Soviet General Staff, in that superannuated, medal-mummified company a dynamic, technically inclined, forward-thinking young general. Over ensuing years he would be an impressive Moscow spokesman on arms control, defend stubbornly, abjectly the 1983 shoot down of the Korean Airlines 747, fall from power in a 1984 Kremlin struggle over weapons spending, and write a valedictory book to warn of American militarism, dying in post-Soviet obscurity in 1994. But Ogarkov’s main if esoteric distinction would be in a slight 1982 pamphlet in which he blamed the nearly conclusive early Russian defeats in World War II on the failure to adapt to the new blitzkrieg concepts in tank warfare. Recent U.S. advances in weapons technology, he argued, now dictated the same kind of sweeping changes in tactics and arms, and generally more agile, responsive armed forces, capable of avoiding the devastating traps of the new remote-targeted battlefield, and striking swiftly utilizing the latest information systems in altogether high-tech warfare. Deployed in intramural budget and ideological maneuvers in defense ministries on both sides of the cold war, the concept soon gained vogue as what was grandly christened and welcomed by Pentagon aficionados as the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” RMA.
There was a certain banality in Ogarkov’s stress on technology, even amid the laggard, stultified upper reaches of the Soviet military of the early 1980s. That a fighting force best be attuned to the battlefield of the moment, modern, adaptable, quick and informed was self-evident, on the order of the Russo-Japanese War’s bloody lesson in Tsarist cavalry charging entrenched machine guns. Yet however obvious the premise, RMA’s alerting to a new American-financed generation of electronic warfare, near nuclear effects with non-nuclear means, along with Ogarkov’s call for fresh tactics thus new weaponry thus higher spending, became a tautology serving innovators, opportunists and their assorted hybrids in any military establishment. This was particularly so at the time among the Soviets, whose rusty Europe-heavy knight of a military was being shaken as its tentative, yet too-garrisoned forces in Afghanistan were bled by the Mujahideen (albeit in 1982-1983 the Afghans, still only partially armed by their cynical CIA and Pakistani sponsors, went even more bloodied themselves). 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 habitually disposed to attribute evil genius—requiring a suitable Washington budget response—to the Red Menace.
Short, bald, with stylishly severe wire-rimmed glasses, Andrew Marshall was the Pentagon Dickensian clerk of a man who took up the bureaucratic cudgel RMA presented. 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’s record was an archetype of the parallel autogenesis, the career-making fear and folly, of the U.S.-Russian looking-glass rivalry—protégé of World War III theorist Herman Kahn, then via Kissinger mentor Fritz Kraemer working for Kissinger at the NSC, and by 1973 on to the Pentagon to sit on his own obscure nest, the Office of Net Assessment, from Rumsfeld I to II. Discreet guru to reactionaries, thus ignored but thought untouchable by Democrats, Marshall looked on as the Joint Chiefs spied on Kissinger’s arms control negotiations (the long-neglected 1970-1971 yeoman-admiral espionage scandal) and for the same reason played an ardent supporting role in Nixon’s fall. He subsequently joined Rumsfeld I’s denial of Vietnam, and then on RMA’s advent, used it (though Ogarkov was arguing for a Russian response to a still largely undeployed American escalation of weaponry and warfare) to evoke ominous new Kremlin arming and so justify the orgy of Pentagon spending during the Reagan 1980s. While that spree paid for some of the new RMA theater warfare, it was snugly within the corrupt and third world-politically obtuse old system, with armed forces tailored to a Soviet threat, and no adaptation to neo-insurgency wars ahead. As Marshall toyed with “flexibility” —and the Joint Chiefs cherry-picked his conjuring of Moscow’s might for their own budget purposes while ignoring what RMA might mean in any real change—the cold war ended to the equivocations and evasions of Clinton’s two terms and the low-rent, self-congratulatory installing of mafia regimes in Bosnia and Kosovo. Gnome-like Marshall, 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, of course, though the larger shape is plain. Summoning Marshall as soothsayer, Rumsfeld made RMA the logo of his determination to gain the dominance over the chiefs and bureaucracy he thought he had missed twenty-five years before. Under the banner of the old clash between a brave beleaguered secretary of defense and the recalcitrant brass astride the impossible “glandular” system, the all-purpose, all-seasons ideal of Pentagon “reform,” it was to be his ultimate takedown and claim to greatness, and perhaps—who knew in 2001—the presidency. Amid the inevitable claims of “streamlining” and “modernizing,” Democrats applauded and media gushed reflexively, epitomized by the New Yorker’s Peter Boyer, his and other renditions of pre-2006 Rumsfeld as celebrity CEO the embarrassing toll of leaving Clausewitz’s politik to fluent feature writers. The willing ignorance, denial, careless trust or craven acquiescence that marked the essential submissiveness of the political culture to Rumsfeld’s rule—the habitual blindness to the inner condition, wider relevance and massive budgetary corruption of the American military—were only part, certainly, of the thoughtless national abdication of judgment and responsibility in the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Without serious understanding of the politics and history in either country, the plunge into blundering, plundering occupations without understanding the simple meaning of overthrowing one deplorable regime only to replace it with another, made the nightmares of 9/11 and beyond nearly inevitable. But then that was the price—so painfully plain in the utter absence of any serious public dialogue about governance and foreign policy in the 2000 election and the first eight months of 2001—of the original ceding of virtually unlimited power to a combination of presidential incompetence (including the shocking ineptitude of his supposedly fail-safe NSA Advisor and staff), the undisguised presence of an unprecedented cabal of men deep inside national security decision-making with their own fixed agenda serving alien interests, and, of course, the long predictable Rumsfeld-Cheney dominance. None of it was seriously questioned, much less challenged, by Congress or the preponderant media. No democratic process so completely failed a test of substance as America’s after 9/11. No ensuing catastrophe was more consensual.
In the exhilarating dash to Baghdad in 2003, none of the admiring gallery seemed to notice that Rumsfeld’s “new” military was so largely the old, “reformed” in name only—much less that the vaunted lean mean machine of RMA and the again lionized Marshall, even if transformation had been authentic, had no grasp to begin with of the politics of the profoundly political act just done in overthrowing forty years of Ba’athist rule, the deeply political campaign to which so many American lives, so much of the country’s material and symbolic national treasures were now committed. Rumsfeld would make his victory tour in the Gulf that spring as if circling the mat after a stunningly swift pin. What was his toughest call, they asked—part of the garlands, after all—and how did he “feel” at such a victorious moment. Hardly the time to reflect on how much “shock and awe” depended on overwhelming force brought down on the near-defenseless, how much the very concept reeked of racism and colonial pretense, the natives “shocked and awed” like Zulus pounded and panicked by the Queen’s own latest howitzers. It was too early to be shown 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 neither commanders nor reporters yet tossed off, about the chase for medals and the absence of an enemy admitting defeat, resigned to its punishment, to the new political outcome, 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 generals. Generals relied on civilians. Civilians relied on, were in such numbers, Neo-Cons. Neo-Cons relied on their ersatz expertise, Mossad, Iraqi exiles. Exiles—holed up in palaces with U.S.-paid-for mercenary guards, ignorant and contemptuous of the Iraq that had passed them by with martyrdom and sacrifice beyond any in London or Amman, Cairo or Beirut, not to mention the talk show and think tank warriors’ Washington—relied on Americans. Rumsfeld, as always, relied on himself. The ranks trusted him and political decision-makers to supply the intelligence and guidance needed, and if not, to stand up and stand aside. When they did neither, condemning the American force to a slow wasting attrition of men and prestige, Neo-Con mediocrity and corruption, their treason of clerks, Rumsfeld’s betrayal, were complete.
Behind the debacle were his three lasting legacies:
As no other cabinet officer in history, he opened his government to the penetration of a Sixth Column of men of blatantly confused and thus splintered loyalty. “Like cancer cells,” as retired Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiakowski saw them in one of the same offices before the war. Half-educated creatures whose chief qualification was their slavish loyalty to Israeli- or Israeli Lobby-captive think tanks and other auspices, they crowded the domains of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, whose career was a model of their kind, as well as the notorious Office of Special Plans, the fount of Neo-Con fraudulent intelligence, and spread throughout the rest of national security governance. Never before had men of such transparent adherence to the policies of a foreign power been so placed in Washington. In too many respects, it was if the German American Bund or the American Communist Party had taken charge of Cordell Hull’s State Department. The toll in the potential for compromise of national security was, and would remain for decades, incalculable.
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. Not since the British hired hordes of Hessians to crush George Washington’s rebel army had a military force tracing to America been so utterly mercenary. Again, 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. In joining and often leading the rest of an intellectually degraded administration heedless of Constitutional and human rights, violating the very heart of their ostensibly conservative convictions in ready sanctioning and then de facto cover-up of abuses at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo, 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 legacies would not vanish with terms or elections but, by the very nature of contracts, personnel practices and imparted ethics, among Washington’s most permanent monuments, would remain deep in the tissue and soul of the institution he was entrusted to lead. At the end, the pathetic climax to his more than four decades in government or imploringly on its threshold, there was only his hackneyed memo— leaked, even more pathetically, as if it were vindicating. Thus he advised that the Iraqi regime, like some seedy wrestling team, “pull up its socks,” and, most poignantly, appearances all, ever the politician conducting lethal policy as politics, 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 Navy and Air Force, relatively left out of the Iraq action, promised wondrous results in Iran, as the chaos and ineffable danger were left to Gates the puffy courtier.
Weeks after his departure, history, whatever was ever known, was already being forgotten, the past too complicated and troublesome, too guilt-ridden and close to home, to deal with here in its chilling consequence. The worst of it, after all, was the most basic and damning. Don Rumsfeld and all he represented, all he did and did not do, came out of us—the undertaker’s tally, including Iraq, compiled at out leave, one way or another, at every turn. His tragedy was always ours.
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Roger Morris, who served in the State Department and on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and after resigning over the invasion of Cambodia, as an advisor in the U.S. Senate and a director of policy studies at the Carnegie Endowment, writes this history from intimate firsthand knowledge as well as extensive
research. A Senior Fellow of the Green Institute, he is an award-winning historian, investigative journalist and author of acclaimed books on Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, and the Clintons.