“Donald Rumsfeld never loses.” James Mann in his book about George W Bush’s war cabinet, The Rise of the Vulcans, calls this “an old bit of folk wisdom that has been quietly passed around among Republicans for decades”.
Rumsfeld, who died last week, served as an aide to president Richard Nixon at the end of the 1960s. The Watergate tapes recording Nixon’s conversations show he and his hard-bitten aides John Ehrlichman and H R Haldeman regarded Rumsfeld as an ambitious and untrustworthy operator.
He proved this after Nixon was forced to resign in August 1974. The new president, Gerald Ford, made Rumsfeld first his chief of staff and then defence secretary, when Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s protege and deputy, took over as White House chief of staff. They systematically undermined the foreign policy of secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who was pursuing detente with the Soviet Union.
Alongside more junior bureaucrats, Rumsfeld and Cheney sought to reverse the humiliating defeat the United States had suffered in Vietnam. They laid the basis for the Second Cold War that developed in the late 1970s.
Rumsfeld’s ill-concealed presidential ambitions never came to anything, so he went into business and amassed a fortune.
He served as Ronald Reagan’s Middle East envoy. In that role, he flew to Baghdad in December 1983 to meet the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Rumsfeld told Saddam, “Our understanding of the importance of balance in the world and the region was similar to Iraq’s.” In other words, the US wanted to use Iraq as a counterweight to Iran. Reagan and Rumsfeld ignored the intelligence that Saddam was using chemical weapons against both Iran and his Kurdish subjects.
Saddam’s crimes only became worth mentioning when— after Iran’s defeat and the collapse of the Soviet Union—his regional ambitions became a threat to US domination of the Middle East. Rumsfeld joined the neoconservative lobby that argued president George H W Bush had been wrong not to topple Saddam when the US-led coalition defeated him in the first Gulf War in 1991.
It was after Bush Senior’s son George W Bush entered the White House ten years later that Rumsfeld had the opportunity to correct this mistake.
His old crony Cheney, George Bush Junior’s vice-president, helped to ensure Rumsfeld was appointed defence secretary.
Then came the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Even though they had nothing to do with Iraq, Rumsfeld dictated to an aide, “Judge whether good enough (to) hit S.H. (Saddam Hussein) at same time. Not only UBL (Osama bin Laden).”
The strategy behind targeting Iraq was formulated most clearly by Wolfowitz, now Rumsfeld’s deputy defence secretary.
He argued that the global hegemony of US imperialism was threatened by the rise of “new powers”, above all China. Seizing Iraq and installing a pro-Western “democratic” regime would entrench US domination of a region that was a crucial source of energy to Washington’s main rivals.
Rumsfeld implemented this strategy. His bullying charm made him a media star. Mann, writing in 2004, called him “America’s consummate war minister”.
By contrast, after he died, George Packer of Atlantic Monthly wrote, “Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defence in American history.” Rumsfeld’s crucial error was to believe that a stripped-down but heavily armed expeditionary force, supported by a nexus of private corporations, could take and hold Iraq, an impoverished but large and complex country.
The US could indeed defeat Saddam’s army in conventional warfare. But Rumsfeld and his generals had no idea how to deal with the armed resistance that developed all over the country. Indiscriminate use of firepower and torture at Abu Ghraib prison didn’t work. Nor did encouraging sectarian warfare.
Bush had to sack Rumsfeld in November 2006. Washington’s client regime forced US troops to withdraw from Iraq in 2011. In his youth Rumsfeld grappled with US defeat in Vietnam. But he was the architect of an even greater defeat.
Rumsfeld lost big. And so did the empire he served.