Never anything other than a far‑right Republican snake

Carrying the can

The liberal establishment wants us to believe that the ‘war on terror’ was all Donald Rumsfeld’s fault. Daniel Lazare begs to disagree

Donald Rumsfeld’s death last week at the age of 88 has sparked an outpouring of contempt for a former secretary of defence famous for prattling on about “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”, and breezily dismissing chaos unleashed by US militarism with the words, “Stuff happens” and “Freedom’s untidy”.

It is entirely deserved, given Rumsfeld’s role as a top architect of America’s post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ - in reality a rampage of violence that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and would have consumed a half-dozen countries more if it had not come unstuck in Afghanistan and Iraq. But putting the blame on a single person is a way of getting others off the hook - not just individuals, but an entire culture based on war and imperialism.

Not that Rumsfeld was anything other than a far-right snake. As a young Republican congressman from Illinois, he attended economics seminars at the University of Chicago, fell under the spell of free-market advocate Milton Friedman and adopted the concept of an all-volunteer army composed of fast-moving military specialists. This - in contrast to US troops bogged down in Vietnam - would move in quickly, level everything in sight, and then get out before the smoke had cleared. In 1971, Nixon called him “a ruthless little bastard” - he meant it as a compliment! - and two years later appointed him US ambassador to Nato. In his first stint as secretary of defence, beginning in 1975, he joined the Strangelovian ‘Team B’, the famous, ultra-hawkish coterie convinced that the US should intensify its nuclear build-up in the face of a growing Soviet threat, and helped undermine the ‘SALT II’ nuclear-arms talks that Henry Kissinger was attempting to see through to completion.

As Ronald Reagan’s special Middle East envoy, Rumsfeld visited Baghdad in 1983 and sat down with Saddam Hussein - the same Iraqi dictator whose presence he would later find so intolerable - for a friendly 90-minute chat about how to rein in neighbouring Syria and Iran. He joined a neocon Washington think tank known as the Project for a New American Century and signed on for a second stint as defence secretary under George W Bush in 2001.

This, of course, is when he entered the war-crimes pantheon as a member of ‘the Vulcans’ - the behind-the-scenes Bush administration team that seized control of US foreign policy after 9/11 and steered it in an increasingly bellicose direction. Within hours of the attack on the World Trade Center, Rumsfeld was barking orders that an aide summed up in a series of cryptic notes:

Best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit SH [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]. Need to move swiftly - Near term target needs - go massive - sweep it all up. Things related and not.

Formerly a US asset, Saddam was now a prime target, and, as the last four words indicated, ‘the Vulcans’ would be none too scrupulous about gathering up evidence implicating him in the massacre in lower Manhattan. At a National Security Council meeting the same day, Rumsfeld asked, “Why shouldn’t we go against Iraq, not just al-Qaeda?”, while his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, chimed in that Iraq was a “brittle, oppressive regime that might break easily - it was doable”.1

Since America’s post-Vietnam military was eminently good at smashing stuff up, the gears were set in motion for a pre-emptive assault that would overwhelm Iraqi defences, as it decapitated the government. But Democrats insisted that the administration make a show of going after Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. So Rumsfeld first sent in a skeletal navy ‘sea, air and land’ team, Green Berets, CIA agents and others in October 2001 to hook up with local militias and topple the Taliban government before going after the real enemy in Baghdad.


The Middle East is still reeling from the consequences, which is why the opprobrium now being heaped on Rumsfeld is so richly deserved. But in a political culture that is so duplicitous it cannot begin to think straight, the goal, as ever, is to conceal more than to reveal. The guiltier poor ‘Rummy’ gets, the more other top players are let off the hook.

Take a well-known US journalist named George Packer, who published a brutal obituary in a venerable old magazine known as The Atlantic and described Rumsfeld as “the worst secretary of defence in American history”:

Wherever the United States government contemplated a wrong term, Rumsfeld was there first with his hard smile - squinting, mocking the cautious, shoving his country deeper into a hole. His fatal judgment was equalled only by his absolute self-assurance. He lacked the courage to doubt himself. He lacked the wisdom to change his mind.2

Quite true - except that Packer never had a problem with Rumsfeld back in 2002-03, when he was cheering the Iraqi invasion on in The New York Times and dismissing anti-war protestors for advancing such “unnuanced slogans” as ‘No sanctions, no bombing’ and ‘No blood for oil’. When it comes to “keep[ing] this mass murderer [ie, Saddam] and his weapons in check,” Packer declared, “they have nothing to say at all”. He went on: “This is not a constructive, liberal, anti-war movement”, meaning, evidently, that the only movement that would be “constructive” would be one that accepted a US invasion as a starting point and then perhaps tried to soften it around the edges.3

“Often in the wrong, never in doubt” was the equally one-sided judgment of Richard N Haass, president of the semi-official Council on Foreign Relations.4 And Rumsfeld’s capacity for denying the truth was indeed astonishing. But as a top aide to secretary of state Colin Powell, Haass played a prominent role as well in promoting the invasion, as it entered its final countdown. Toppling Saddam was all about “liberation,” he told a TV audience less than two weeks before the advent of “shock and awe”:

I’m hoping that if Iraq turns out well - and I would predict that over time it may well might - and that that ought to be something that works against the growth of terrorism. Also, if we’re able to build on whatever it is we can accomplish in Iraq, and promote political and economic and educational reforms throughout the region, I also think that will also go a long ways towards dampening down terrorism.5

Al Qa’eda would be so impressed by the Anglo-American ability to transform Iraq into a model US client state, according to Haass, that it would simply fold up its tents and go home.

Finally, there is The Guardian, whose US columnist, Richard Wolffe, also weighed in with an article on the occasion of Rumsfeld’s death. “[A]longside his old friend Dick Cheney,” he wrote, he “dragged the United States and its allies - especially the UK - into an entirely avoidable quagmire that left tens and probably hundreds of thousands dead and maimed.”6

But The Guardian was singing a very different tune back in early 2003, when London and Washington were both rushing to war with little dragging required. “It devalues debate to belittle Tony Blair as ‘president Bush’s poodle’,” it sniffed in an editorial. “… It is similarly unilluminating when detractors dismiss the Bush presidency as ‘stupid’.” If “we find ourselves supporting the current commitment to a possible use of force,” it went on, that is “because we believe that, if Saddam does not yield, military action may eventually be the least awful necessity for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the world”.7

War is hell, but it is something that imperial powers have to do from time to time for the sake of humanity.

For every Packer or Haass, there were countless others who applauded the war of aggression as well and then denied doing any such thing, once their careers were at stake. For instance, there is:

… all of us here really know, and it’s a thing we have to face, that the only way, the only way we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein is [to] … start it alone - start it alone - and it’s going to require guys like you in uniform to be back on foot in the desert taking this son of a ..., taking Saddam down.

Referring to big shots in the state department and White House, he said:

I respectfully suggest they have a responsibility, slightly above your pay grade, to decide whether or not to take the nation to war. That’s a real tough decision. That’s why they get paid the big bucks. That’s why they get the limos and you don’t.

It was up to VIPs in limos to decide whether Afghan and Iraqi society should be destroyed and then up to working class grunts to go in and do the dirty work. But then Biden pirouetted when US forces failed to turn up a single WMD: “I never believed they had weapons of mass destruction,” he insisted in 2004.10

New heights

That is what’s so great about a political culture in which last year is ancient history: politicians get to rewrite the past in whatever way they wish. It is particularly convenient for the Democrats, since they would like Americans to believe that peddling disinformation is something that only Russia, China and Iran do - along with their favourite punching bag, Donald Trump. But they are just as good at it (if not better).

In reality, Afghanistan and Iraq were thoroughly bipartisan affairs that flowed inexorably from events of the 1980s and 90s: ie, the 1980 Carter doctrine declaring suzerainty over the Persian Gulf; the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq; the 1991 Gulf War. aimed at rolling back Iraqi power, when Saddam got too uppity, etc. The US imperial appetite deepened at every stage, until al Qa’eda’s assault on the World Trade Center - a classic case of CIA blowback - finally gave it an excuse for an even greater paroxysm of imperial violence.

The process has continued ever since. Barack Obama - hip, cool and attractive - backed military intervention in 2011 that reduced Libya to anarchy, favoured an even more destructive proxy war on Syria, supported a Saudi-UAE bombing campaign that spread death and destruction in Yemen, and also backed a coup d’état in the Ukraine, spearheaded by neo-Nazis. The isolationist Trump, ironically, tried to rein in such adventurism and faced a non-stop Democrat destabilisation effort as a result. But, with Biden now at the controls, the process is on again, as the US presses ahead against Moscow, against Tehran and, most dangerously of all, against Beijing in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

To be sure, the United States is facing a rout in Afghanistan, where US intervention is coming to the same disastrous end as suffered by the Soviet Union in 1979-89. It is a devastating setback that could deprive America of a base of operations in central Asia, just as the Vietnam debacle for a time threatened to shut it out of south-east Asia.

Based on experience, however, the obvious conclusion is that it will only drive US militarism to new heights. Volatility will rise, as the imperial crisis intensifies.

  1. B Woodward Bush at war New York 2002, p49.↩︎

  2. www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/06/how-donald-rumsfeld-deserves-be-remembered/619334.↩︎

  3. www.nytimes.com/2002/12/08/magazine/the-liberal-quandary-over-iraq.html.↩︎

  4. twitter.com/RichardHaass/status/1410549345422745604.↩︎

  5. charlierose.com/videos/27893 (quote begins at 21.30).↩︎

  6. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jul/01/donald-rumsfeld-defense-secretary-lies-crime-death.↩︎

  7. www.theguardian.com/news/2003/jan/19/leaders.politics.↩︎

  8. www.nytimes.com/2003/03/18/opinion/good-reasons-for-going-around-the-un.html.See also A-M Slaughter, ‘The use of force in Iraq: illegal and illegitimate’ Proceedings of the annual meeting (American Society of International Law) No98, March 31 2004, p262.↩︎

  9. www.factcheck.org/2013/09/kerry-spins-his-record-on-iraq.↩︎

  10. www.cfr.org/event/conversation-joseph-r-biden-jr.↩︎