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Rumsfeld – American Icon

Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait
Midge Decter
Regan Books, 2003

This sympathetic study can almost be regarded as a pre-emptive strike from the right from someone whose neo-con credentials are impeccable. Her personal motives or incentives to write the book are not clearly and explicitly given, but the Prelude, which comes between the Acknowledgements and the Introduction, gives perhaps a hint that Rumsfeld’s appeal to women, even at age 70, might have something to do with it. Perhaps again she views him at the right distance; she has known him for several years, certainly not intimately and through official contact. The inside of the dustjacket has a sub-title, not found elsewhere: The Making of an American Icon. The man himself is not given to self-revelation and the impression is that he knows when best to keep his mouth shut – and those of any others that might be tempted to speak for him.

Born in 1932 and therefore “too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam” (p. 178), the chief influences on his early life, though indirect, were the Depression and World War II; his father, who worked as an estate agent, first for a firm, then for himself, went into the US Navy at a mature age and his mother followed him with her family to each port nearest his assignment. Donald was successful at school; though too lightly built for American football, he became a champion wrestler, continuing to be one when he followed his father into the Navy.

He went to Princeton ( “the most military of the Ivy League colleges” – p. 31) on a scholarship, studying “government and politics” and passed into the US naval air arm, also on a scholarship and hence as an officer, marrying his schoolmate Joyce and introducing her into the same peripatetic way of life his parents had had. During his years of service, 1955-7, he became a pilot trainer and then went to Washington to enter politics as a Republican, working first as a staff assistant for a member of the House of Representatives.

He was elected to Congress himself in 1962. He served for six years (3 terms) and was then invited by Nixon in 1968 to join the Executive in the White House. He was put in charge of the Office for Economic Opportunity, about as far left an organisation as a Republican could stomach and the setting up of which he’d opposed – but Nixon had, after all, been elected after the student riots and general mayhem that concluded Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Even worse was to be put in charge of a Cost of Living Council, a thinly disguised Prices and Incomes Enforcement Body, a concept to which he was totally opposed. Neither of these bodies, both totally of the contemporary Zeitgeist, would work – or survive.

Soon after Nixon was re-elected in 1972, he appointed Rumsfeld US Ambassador to NATO, who thus avoided contamination with the messiness associated with Nixon’s having to resign in 1974 because of Watergate. He was recalled to the White House by Ford, an old friend, first to sort out the new presidential team, then to become Ford’s Chief of Staff and finally his Secretary for Defence. He was thus involved with the policy of detente with the USSR and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), but though loyal to Ford’s initiatives, clashed with Kissinger about how far to follow them up, making Kissinger characterise him as “ruthless”, i.e., someone who stood up to him and carried his point. Carter and the Democrats came in in 1976 and Rumsfeld, leaving Washington, went successfully into business, rationalising and rescuing the pharmaceutical firm Searle. Just as going to NATO in Brussels had initiated him into foreign affairs, so did becoming Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Searle open his eyes to the realities and urgencies of civilian life. He remarks: “A government agency or a congressional committee can delay something for a week or a month or a year … To get into a business and get a sense of the things we had been taking for granted in Congress was just fascinating” (p. 84). Incidentally, of course, his forays into the business world have left him relatively well off.

When Reagan arrived in the White House, he had employment for him, but, perhaps because Rumsfeld had ruffled Vice President Bush, only as an overseas envoy on special missions. On one of these, he met Saddam Hussain, to convey US support for Iraq against Iran, seen as the greater threat of the two to Middle East security. He made a serious bid to succeed Reagan, but gave up when he failed to gain any significant popular support. His move further alienated him from Bush Sr., who suspected him of having a hand in Nixon’s appointing him to head the CIA, a position from which it was believed, wrongly, no President could emerge; there had also been the suggestion that Reagan might have looked favourably on Rumsfeld as a running-mate.

Rumsfeld was therefore excluded from the White House during the four years of the Bush Sr. and the eight years of the Clinton presidencies (1989-92; 1893-2000), though not entirely from political life, serving on two important commissions. One was on the proliferation of ballistic missiles in the post-Soviet era, the other on the dominating and monitoring of space; neither commission seems to have had much political impact, but doubtless all the facts and their implications had their effect on him. He was also successfully active back in business. Then, twentyfour years after he had left the White House, he was summoned by Bush Jr. to the same position, Secretary of Defence, that he had held under Ford. Disappointingly, we are not told why Bush Jr. selected him; it would seem most unlikely that any recommendation came from his father. He was certainly something of a new broom, intent, as newcomers are, to fight bureaucratic overproduction (the Defence Authorisation Bill, for example, comprised 988 pages, up from 75 in 1975 and 1 page in 1961), obstruction in Congress and a pro status quo military.

An early opponent of the now long abolished draft, he favoured a leaner fighting force, securing which brought controversy down on him during the Iraq War, even when it turned out for the best. It is impossible to tell how successful he would have been in his post if the events of September 11th hadn’t changed the attitude of the whole country to one of urgency. Rumsfeld, who had assured the devotion of the Pentagon staff by immediately participating in the rescue of survivors of the attack there, now became a national celebrity with his Pentagon Press Corps briefings on TV after the war in Afghanistan started at the beginning of October. This war elicited minimal opposition at home (it was very economical with US manpower) and very little abroad.

Very different was the problem with Iraq, a situation left over from the Clinton presidency, and which came to the boil a year later. It was during the interminable wrangling at the UN that Rumsfeld let drop, in January 2003, the famous phrase “Old Europe” when referring to the obstructive tactics of France and Germany. In contrast to Afghanistan, in Iraq the US did most of the fighting, but, in accordance with Rumsfeld’s strategy, implemented with General Franks, used only about half the troops and far less bombing than in the Gulf War of 1991. But although the war lasted only three weeks, some sections of the media still found something to carp about during most of the time.

Rumsfeld, with the prestige gained by success, has “requested Congress to grant him broad new powers that would enable him to reshape the armed forces from top to bottom …” and Decter lists some of these, with the caveat “If Congress were to approve”, on pages 203-205. She ends with a paean which is unlikely to be echoed on this side of the Atlantic and certainly not by the BBC, which every week during the conflict made a point of holding up a particular quote of Rumsfeld’s to ridicule:

The popular ‘discovery’ of Donald H. Rumsfeld spells the return of the ideal of the Middle American family man, with all that such an ideal entails in the way of vitality, determination, humor, seriousness, and abiding self-confidence, along with protectiveness toward loved ones, neighbors, and country. In the long run, this change may well be more important to the fortunes of his country than the changes he will have wrought in the armed forces.

13 comments to Rumsfeld – American Icon

  • Alexander Crawford

    There was a well written piece on Rumsfeld in the Atlantic a couple months ago that’s worth perusing for an interesting insight into Cheney and Rumsfelds tag team thing.

  • Alexander Crawford

    There was a well written piece on Rumsfeld in the Atlantic a couple months ago that’s worth perusing for an interesting insight into Cheney and Rumsfelds tag team thing.

  • Verity

    Donald Rumsfeld is a BABE.

  • DSpears

    Can somebody please tell me what a Neo-conservative is? I’ve seen the term thrown around a lot but have never seen a definition. A lot of people use it as a trerm of derision, but I’ve never seen anybody actually refer to themselves as one. Does that mean it’s just a ideological slur intended to paint somebody in an unflattering light?

    The people like Rumsfeld who are considered neocons certainly make sense to me in a lot of areas, does that make me one?

    They seem to know what they are doing even if they can’t come out and say it to the world. It’s obvious from the positioning of the US military in the middle east after 2 wars that somebody in the administration played the game “Risk” when they were kids. The biggest trouble makers in the area, Iran and Syria are effectively surrounded, and Iraq is no longer a terrorist highway between the two. Smart.

  • mad dog

    “and Iraq is no longer a terrorist highway …”

    …doncha just love the grasp of current affairs that some have. I just knew that when we arrived all the terrorists would quit Iraq…

  • rkb

    “Neo-conservative” was first applied as a label in the 1970s to Democrats who were in favor of civil rights, feminism and similar socially liberal or moderate actions, and who were also willing to use military and diplomatic strength pro-actively on behalf of spreading democracy. Although John F. Kennedy might well fit this group, by the mid to late 70s the Democratic party had become increasingly obsessed with Vietnam, nominating people like George McGovern to run for the Presidency.

    Midge Dector is among the original generation of neo-conservatives.

    Cheney was a Rumsfeld protege, one reason this Bush administation asked Runsfeld to take on the SecDef role again. Another reason is that it was widely believed by many that the Clinton administration had left the military with a slew of “political generals” who were skilled in Washington infighting but who were failing to understand or respond to massive technological and geopolitical changes that threatened our security in the mid and long term. Of course, after 9/11, it was clear to the public that the threat was more immediate.

  • rkb

    Sorry – premature posting. To finish that thought, the reason Rumsfeld was so attractive as SecDef again was that a) he knew the Pentagon and the Washington scene well and b) he had a history of successfully shaking up bureaucracies and reworking them to fit new realities (he really did do a great job of that at Searle) and c) he could do so freely because he was not interested in running for office later.

  • NeoCon has also become a sort of oblique, stage whisper meaning J.E.W.S. for the middling-to-hard left in the U.S. The general slur runs along the lines of “We wouldn’t even be in this war if there were so many zionist NeoCons in the White House and Defense Department.”

    As with many stereotypes, there is an underlying grain of truth – that truth is that many people who are now conservatives and Republicans were once liberal Democrats. Many were idealistic Jews, whose steady adherence to classical liberalism and tendency toward individual freedoms (hence a strong dislike of authoritarian states like the Soviets) kept them in one place on the political spectrum, as most Democrats moved past them to the left.

    The difference now is that the Democratic Party has moved well past the NeoCons, slipping steadily to the left. The NeoCons were easily left behind, since the Dems as a whole always had a couple wings whose anti-communism was suspect-to-nonexistant, and whose allegience ran to elective power politics rather than to timeless values. The Neo-Cons, sometimes called “Reagan Democrats”, were a natural fit within the Reaganized (really Goldwater-ized) Republican Party, with its staunch anti-communism, “get the government off my back” libertarianism, and Christian fundamentalist friendliness to Israel and other democracies that tolerate fundy proselytizing.

    The distinction “NeoCon” is sometimes a workable description of Jacksonian conservatives, people who feel (as Tony Blair does, apparently) that we have to try and spread democracy, or at least government that is non-oppressive. The Paleo Cons are distinguishable as conservative isolationists, and protectionists. Pat Buchanan is the best example of a Paleo, though Michael Novak is a pretty good sample too.

  • Amelia

    I love this man. He’s damn smart. I think that some credit is due to Bush for being man enough to surround himself with top people. Cheney, Rice, Powell, Todd-Whitman- none of these people are shrinking violets. Other than Rubin, Clinton did not have the top level working with him and I don’t think Kerry, should he become president, will either. It’s a confidence thing.

  • Verity

    Amelia – I agree with you. Bush has to have pretty unshakable confidence in himself to surround himself with people of this calibre. He also lets them do the public talking. He’s perfectly comfortable having them make their own statements.

  • Brock

    One keen observation (which I cannot attribute, as I forget who observed it) of the difference between the Clinton Whitehouse and the Bush Whitehouse was that Clinton surrounded himself with smart people who would support his decisions.

    Bush surrounded himself with people who could make their own decisions.

    Just about anyone in the Bush Administration could be President themselves. They’re that capable. And yes, that’s an amazingly humble and confident action by Bush.

  • Daniel J

    The best thing about Rummy is that he has his own style of kung fu

  • John F

    Rumsfeld is obviously very smart, and I his press conference performances are superb at showing up the asinine questions of the media.
    And, of course, he is the premier zen poet of our times.

    But… though radical reform of the military may be necessary, there are indications that preference for ‘fast and lean’ has led to problems in Iraq due to shortage of occupation forces.
    Might it not be better to postpone or moderate change at the operational level (as opposed to procurement and within the Pentagon) while engaged in or preparing for major operations?

    In any case, though, Rumsfeld has played a key role in deposing two vile tyrranies, and severely damaging one branch of Islamist terrorism.
    A good scorecard for anybody.