He was in Richard Nixon’s words, “a ruthless little bastard.” That was a compliment coming from Nixon. “Ruthless” was the adjective most frequently attached to his name, and it didn’t bother him one bit. He knew it was better to be feared than liked in politics and when he wanted some sympathy he always had his dog Checkers.
Donald Rumsfeld was born on July 9, 1932 in Chicago, Illinois. His father George was a real estate salesman and his mother Jeanette was a school teacher. Young Donald was both a Boy Scout and an Eagle Scout, and years later in 2006 the Boy Scouts of America would honor him with the Silver Buffalo Award. His work ethic, which was called “legendary” later in his career, was already evident. He went to Princeton where he became captain of the varsity wrestling team. It’s remarkable the number of politicians who were in their youth amateur wrestlers. Of course, now we’ve had a president who was also involved in professional wrestling. Which may or may not say something about the evolution of the office of the presidency. While at Princeton Rumsfeld also studied political science, which is not a science in the usual meaning of the word, but rather a subject more akin to marketing. Trying to figure out why some people prefer Big Macs instead of Whoppers. Nevertheless, it signaled his future career in politics.
Here, with mention of Rumsfeld’s time at Princeton, I must make a disclosure. I also got a degree from that university. But with one big difference. My degree was a PhD, whereas his degree was a BA. And a PhD from Princeton is not worth nearly as much as a BA—as the judge in my divorce noted when my wife tried to sue for 20% of the value of my degree. The judge ruled in my favor saying, “In my experience these academic PhDs aren’t worth very much.”
Soon after I got to Princeton, besides working towards a PhD in Arabic literature I became a graduate teaching assistant. In that capacity I found that the undergraduate population consisted roughly of two groups of students. The first group were ‘legacy students.’ The other group of students were everybody else. The classic example of a legacy student is George W Bush who clearly did not get into Yale on his intellectual merits. ‘Legacy’ meant his dad and his uncles went there—and contributed to the general fund—and he was destined to go there also as long as he wasn’t in jail.
Donald Rumsfeld was not a legacy student. He came from a middle-class background as I did, and Princeton must have exposed him to a part of America that was new to him as it was to me—more so to him since I hadn’t let as sheltered a life as he had before he got to Princeton. It probably didn’t take him long to realize that he was smarter than most of the legacy kids and he could outwork all of them. That was no contest. And these things were likely as important for his career as anything else he learned at Princeton. Possibly more important. Because in the future he would work with many such people and so he knew how to manipulate them, how to play to their vanities and how to exploit their insecurities. One day he would work for George W Bush who was in many ways still a legacy student when he became president.
A Texas politician, Jim Hightower, said of George W Bush, “He is a man who was born on third base and he thinks he hit a triple.” It stuck. But this wasn’t quite accurate. Bush often acted like he hit a triple, but he really knew he hadn’t. This was evident in the patently fake bonhomie he affected when he had to mix with a key Republican constituency, disaffected white working-class males. His dad showed the same ill-ease in the midst of such people. It was hard for them to mix with those men because they made them feel like the frauds they were. Rumsfeld understood all of these things. He also understood George W Bush’s relationship with his father was less than optimal—to use one of Rumsfeld’s euphemisms. Rumsfeld’s own relation with Bush’s dad was also uneasy, because he had outmaneuvered Bush senior at several points in their careers. And he was also able to use these things to his advantage, especially when selling the invasion of Iraq to Bush junior.
After Princeton, Rumsfeld served in the Navy until 1957. Then he worked as an assistant to a few Republican congressmen. After that was employed by an investment bank until 1962. That year he was elected to the House of Representatives where he served until 1969 when he went to work for Richard Nixon.
Nixon immediately recognized his talent. Rumsfeld had an office in the West Wing that same year and the next year he became a member of the cabinet whose job title was Counselor to the President. When Nixon resigned in 1974, Gerald Ford made Rumsfeld his Chief of Staff, by the next year he was Secretary of Defense. Serving the obtuse Ford, who is now only remembered for pardoning Nixon and hitting people on the head with golf balls, must have been a plum position Rumsfeld. It also marked significant change in Rumsfeld’s career. After Nixon, Rumsfeld would never again work for an intelligent person.
When Ford lost to Carter, Rumsfeld turned his DC contacts into corporate money. In 1977 he became the CEO of the G.D. Searle chemical company. There his signal achievement was using his DC contacts to get the FDA to approve the aspartame as a food additive. Aspartame, which contained methanol, was the active ingredient in NutraSweet, and tests had showed that it caused brain cancer in rats. The biotech and chemical giant Monsanto bought Searle in 1985—aspartame fit with its products like DDT and Agent Orange—and Monsanto gave Rumsfeld a 12-million-dollar bonus.
In the meantime, Rumsfeld had returned to Washington. In 1983 Ronald Reagan appointed him Special Envoy to the Middle East. This was ominous for the peoples of the Middle East, although it follows a well-established tradition in American politics when one person who is wholly ignorant of a subject appoints another whose ignorance is only slightly less comprehensive as his expert. A president who knew nothing of people or the world outside his own social sphere—Tampico, Illinois and the movie business—appointed someone whose expertise lay in political and financial maneuvering in DC and Wall Street to be his advisor on the Middle East of which he knew next to nothing.
This pattern would be an interesting experiment in human folly were it not for the consequences it has had for the people of the Middle East who have served as the laboratory mice for it. That one man after another has willingly accepted this task may be written off to the human propensity to think that oneself is smarter than all the fools who preceded and failed, but in American life that is not all. At the top there is often no risk attached to failure. In fact one is often rewarded for it. Rumsfeld received an impressive list of awards and honors, several of them mentioning his statesmanship and contributions to freedom. In fact according to Wikipedia in the derby of awards and honors Rumsfeld’s tally of thirty-four far outnumbers that of his fellow Princetonian Albert Einstein who only racked up twenty-one. One in particular stands out, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given him by Gerald Ford. This award has been given to people ranging from T.S. Eliot to Rush Limbaugh. But it eluded even Albert Einstein.
One of Rumsfeld’s first tasks as Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East was to visit someone special in the Middle East. Rumsfeld selected Saddam Hussein. It made little news at the time, but in retrospect it marked a shift in US policy at the time. By 1983 Iraq had been at war with Iran for three years. The US attitude towards that conflict was until Rumsfeld’s visit somewhat neutral despite its abhorrence for Iran. “It’s a pity both sides can’t lose,” Henry Kissinger said, who by the way had no liking for Rumsfeld having recognized him immediately as a wily operator like himself. Rumsfeld’s visit yielded several things: First Saddam agreed to explore the possibility to build a pipeline from Iraq to Aqaba in Jordan which, were it to be built, would be built by the Pentagon favorite Bechtel. Second, Rumsfeld promised to increase military support for Iraq, including its chemical weapons, and third, there would be a restoration of diplomatic relations. A now well-known photograph shows Rumsfeld and Saddam shaking hands. Saddam must have insisted on the photo-op since Iraq had broken off relations as a result of the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel and since then the US had scorned Iraq as one of the Arab states making up the “rejectionist front” against Israel. In a way, Rumsfeld’s meeting with Saddam can be seen as the initial event in a sequence that would culminate twenty years later in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Even with his ignorance and ineptitude outside of political in-fighting, Rumsfeld may not have caused much more harm to the people of the Middle East than his similarly ill-informed predecessors had two events not happened. The first was the electoral fraud of 2000 that made George W Bush president. The second was 9/11. George W Bush put Rumsfeld in a position which enabled him to exploit the opportunity that 9/11 presented to launch the massive war in the Middle East that the neocons had been dreaming about ever since Bush père had decided to leave Saddam in power in the war of 1991.
It was an opportunity that Rumsfeld seized immediately. The afternoon of September 11, he sent the following memo to his people:
Best info fast.
judge whether good enough
hit SH @ same time
not only UBL
Near term target needs –
– go massive – sweep it all up
– Things related & not
The only problem with using 9/11 to get rid of Saddam Hussein was that he had nothing to do with it. Rumsfeld, Cheney and their neocon allies in the Bush administration knew they must concoct a big lie à la Goebbels. Any account of what happened before the invasions that speaks of Rumsfeld and Cheney and the neocons being mistaken that the WMDs really existed is simply another big lie. They all ignored the massive evidence to the contrary. French intelligence kept telling their fellows in US intelligence, “There is nothing there.” All the so-called debates and discussions between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, were really only attempts to find out which lie would attract the greatest support. The neocons’ calculation was that the war would be such a magnificent triumph that the absence of any WMDs would soon be forgotten. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a done deal by 2:40 pm September 11, 2001.
The complicity of the news media in this is well known. The dreadful Judith Miller of the New York Times is only the most famous instance of the press’s collusion in the criminal enterprise. The mass media not only aided Rumsfeld and his allies in creating support for the war, they made him a TV star. Once the invasion began this was almost predictable since the news is, at bottom, simply another television show. The invasion itself provided almost no drama, no good TV. The outcome was known in advance and the military suppressed the most gruesome footage of the invasion. Lacking those elements, Rumsfeld’s daily briefings full of his folksy phrases and pseudo-philosophical meanderings became a hit series. Hogan’s Heroes meets American Idol. People magazine put Rumsfeld on their list of sexiest men of the year. CNN’s Pentagon reporter called him “a big flirty pussycat.” The Wall Street Journal called him “the new hunk of home-front airtime.” “Sixty-nine years old, and your America’s stud,” Tim Russert, the host of “Meet The Press,” said to him. Fox News called him a “babe-magnet.” And neocon midwife Midge Dector wrote a gushy biography of him that must have brought tears even to the eyes of her dour husband, Norman Podhoretz. There is something about rightwing sexuality—it almost always involves some perverse element.
Bush’s derring-do carrier landing and his Mission Accomplished was the final episode of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Things went south quickly after that.
By late 2003 the initial armed resistance of Ba’athists and some Shi’ite militias began to swell and other groups also formed. By then it was also plain there had never been any WMDs and support for the war nosedived as American casualties mounted. In the end the invasion of Iraq did transform the Middle East. But not in the way that Rumsfeld and the neocons intended. The revolutions and civil wars and the flood of refugees across the region made that clear.
Although the catastrophes Rumsfeld caused grew in size and his power grew throughout his career, one thing never changed. He never expressed any regret for the destruction and death he caused. It’s useless to consult his autobiography. Scores of pages are devoted to the mysteries and enigmas involved in the missing WMDs, in the difficulties of settling the thorny question of whether prisoners of the US military should be tortured, raped and murdered. Rumsfeld’s final inclination was to take a measured philosophical view of them. This from a man who decided within minutes of the planes hitting the twin towers that the entire political structure of the Middle East should be overturned.
In his memoir Rumsfeld still claims that the invasion of Iraq was still the best thing to do, that the Middle East is now a better place for it. This, after the deaths of half a million Iraqi dead (Lancet), and the chaos it brought through the Arab World, the death and destruction of the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the massive flood of refugees fleeing those wars.
Only a man so ignorant and blind could have thought that US soldiers would be welcomed in Iraq. Could have expected that, as his pal Dick Cheney said, Iraqis would throw flowers at them. Before the invasion, Rumsfeld predicted a short war. “I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” When Rumsfeld died, there were still 2,500 US troops in Iraq subject to intermittent attacks by Shi’ite militias and remnants of ISIS.
In the Errol Morris documentary “The Unknown Knowns,” Rumsfeld tells Morris that he would like to talk with Tariq Aziz, the former foreign minister of Iraq who was then in an Iraqi prison. He says he would like to ask Aziz “what the U.S. might have done to reach out and get them [the Iraqis] to behave rationally.” Rationally—like himself, that is. Rumsfeld had no idea of what sort of a person Aziz—who was far more rational than himself—might be. Like most Americans he had no idea of what the wars he and his colleagues had started were really like. The problems he thought he was trying to solve—setting aside the ideological lens which defined those ‘problems’—those problems were mere abstractions for him. Like most Americans, war was something that happened elsewhere. He never knew anyone—as I do—whose home was hit by rockets, whose father was kidnapped and held for a quarter of a million dollars ransom, who was thrown in prison for what they write. America’s wars were for him really a television program and the foremost concern was the ratings of the program. There was a small scandal when it was revealed that he had devised a computerized form of his signature for the letters of condolence that following tradition he sent to American families whose husbands and wives, and sons and daughters had died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
He also devised a computerized form of the version of solitaire that Winston Churchill played. You can download it from his website for free.