The Sunday Times: Rumsfeld was the wrong man at the wrong time

Bush’s war supremo brought about his own worst fear: another Vietnam

July 4, 2021

On the whole, sacked US defence secretaries should avoid quoting Winston Churchill as they depart from the White House, in much the same way as disgraced preachers should leave off quoting Jesus as they are led away in handcuffs. Donald Rumsfeld, who died aged 88 last week, was the chief architect of the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The aftermath was considered a failure, however, and President George W Bush reversed course after Rumsfeld’s departure in December 2006, sending in extra troops to stop Iraq’s descent into civil war. Rumsfeld handled being fired with his customary mix of puckish humour and pugnacious bravado. In his final speech he paraphrased Churchill, saying:“I have benefited greatly from criticism and at no time have I suffered a lack thereof.”

The last bit was true then, and it continued to be until his death. Rumsfeld’s critics on his refusal to commit sufficient fighting troops in either Afghanistan or Iraq could fill a football pitch. (The first of many damning appraisals appeared in 2007, entitled Rumsfeld: An American Disaster.) But the claim he benefited from criticism was so laughable to anyone who knew him that it only highlighted the catastrophic deficiencies of the man. Rumsfeld was incapable of listening to anyone who didn’t already agree with him. He was the wrong man for the job at the most inopportune time in America’s history.

As several obituaries of Rumsfeld pointed out, his first stint as defence secretary, under Gerald Ford in 1975-77, happened under arguably worse circumstances. A survivor from Richard Nixon’s administration, where he stood out for his unwavering commitment to civil rights, Rumsfeld was the White House chief of staff during the last days of Saigon in April 1975. Appointed defence secretary shortly afterwards, Rumsfeld regarded it as his mission to keep the military ready and competitive but essentially inactive. This wasn’t cowardice but good Cold War strategy.

Rumsfeld’s reputation as a strategic thinker was subsequently borne out by his wildly successful transition to the business world. He was also a clear, no-nonsense communicator, whose fondness for aphorisms and golden rules became the stuff of legend. When Rumsfeld left the White House for the first time, he bequeathed a memorandum of best practices, Rumsfeld’s Rules, 11 of which were specific to the secretary of defence. They began with the reminder: “The secretary of defence is not a super general or admiral. His task is to exercise civilian control over the department for the commander-in-chief [the president] and the country”, and included such important pieces of advice as: “Establish good relations between the departments of Defence, State, the National Security Council, CIA and the Office of Management and Budget.”

When Rumsfeld returned to the White House in 2001, aged 68, he broke almost every one of his own rules. Not only did he allow relations between the departments to become utterly dysfunctional but he so alienated the generals and joint chiefs of staff that it was widely assumed he “hated” the military. The serving chairman of the joint chiefs, General Hugh Shelton, complained that Rumsfeld operated “the worst style of leadership I witnessed in 38 years of service”. Rumsfeld treated all soldiers as boneheaded grunts, and the generals simply as boneheaded grunts with the medals to prove it.

His planned military transformations suffered from an overly technocratic mentality. He believed that the army was costly and lacked efficiency — what army doesn’t?— as though bottom lines apply equally in business and fighting. Rumsfeld wanted to remake the military as one that relied more on air power and technical advantages and less on soldiers with guns. The charge against him is that he eviscerated the military’s ground capabilities and reduced its fighting numbers at precisely the moment both were paramount to American success in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What was going through Rumsfeld’s mind? Millions of words have been spilt in the effort to explain why the defence secretary doggedly pursued a losing policy in the teeth of protests from the military. In his last year in the job six retired generals publicly rebuked him. Part of the answer lies in his character: he was a micromanager who failed to engage, a bureaucrat who despised professionals, an aggressor who disliked to fight. But the real driver of his actions can be traced back to 1975. More than anything else, even more than winning perhaps, he wanted to avoid a repeat of the Vietnam War, with its “limited war” rhetoric that was belied by the fact it was the first of what the US media have dubbed America’s “forever wars” — metastasising conflicts without a clear end in sight.

Rumsfeld emerged from his first period in the White House blaming the military for having misled successive administrations into committing themselves to an unwinnable and unpopular war. Hence, he believed that nothing the military said could be taken at face value. He was not going to allow himself to be taken prisoner by the top brass. Unlike Robert McNamara, the defence secretary most associated with US involvement in Vietnam, Rumsfeld was determined to stick to quick, in-and-out military objectives. There would be no quagmires, mass body bags, forever wars or attempts at nation-building on his watch.

Yet he was a prisoner all the same. Even though the causes and conditions were different, the Vietnam War remained the lens through which Americans judged the Iraq war. A few months after the coalition’s initial victory in Iraq in 2003, Senator John McCain, who spent five years as a PoW in Vietnam, warned the Bush administration that stopping the army doing its job, as interpreted by McCain, would risk “the most serious American defeat on the global stage since Vietnam”. By 2004, Democrats were saying: “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam”. Rumsfeld ended up being directly compared to McNamara, even though, by winding down, rather than ratcheting up, the US presence in the Middle East, he was doing the opposite of his predecessor. A 2005 column in the Washington Post intoned: “Just as Vietnam became McNamara’s war, Iraq has become Rumsfeld’s war”.

The successful troop “surge” in 2008 appeared to erase Rumsfeld’s Vietnam legacy. Only it didn’t. Barack Obama’s foreign policy — summed up as “leading from behind” — was Rumsfeldian in its horror of American military entanglement in foreign affairs. The Trump administration’s was even more so. More than six trillion war dollars later, with countless lives lost, if Rumsfeld leaves anything behind, it’s the lesson that America’s forever war syndrome is a state of mind, not just a reality.

PORTER Magazine: The Lady of the House

Photo: Jason Schmidt, Courtesy PORTER Magazine

Photo: Jason Schmidt, Courtesy PORTER Magazine

I have interviewed dozens of female politicians in my time, and the thing that stands out is how different they are from other women. In that one respect they are just like male politicians who, when you meet them, come across as a race apart from ordinary mortals. First and foremost, they are doers. There’s none of that second-guessing, procrastinating, or introspection that holds the rest of us back. Obstacles only make them try harder. To a woman (or man) they radiate a special combination of ego and energy that seems to propel them faster and higher than everyone else.

In the United States, there is no better example of this all-conquering breed than Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives, the first female Speaker of the House and the highest-ranking political woman in American history. As she strides towards my table in the restaurant of the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, immaculately presented in powder blue, smile at the ready, it is like being drawn into a powerful tractor beam. When she speaks she’s so loud and full of purpose, it’s mesmerizing. Despite her slight stature, Pelosi has a diaphragm that could hit you at a thousand paces.

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‘Lying, grasping politicians have an easy ride. Unleash the next ‘Gotcha’’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Josh Felise

Photo: Josh Felise

There are two political scandals doing the rounds in the US media. The first involves the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, who retired in 2007. During his eight-­‐year tenure as the longest-­‐serving Republican Speaker, Hastert presented a somewhat shambolic, avuncular front that endeared him to both parties.

He wasn’t known for being especially honest or particularly careful about the moral and ethical reputation of the House. But he was thought to be a man of good character and wholesome values — and that counted for a lot.

However, last Tuesday Hastert pleaded not guilty to federal money laundering charges. It is alleged that he paid $3.5m (£2.3m) in cash to an unnamed individual in return for that person’s silence about having been sexually molested by Hastert some years ago. It turns out that the man whom everyone considered a good old-fashioned Washingtonian of the right sort may have been a paedophile who was being blackmailed by at least one of his victims.

The same day that Hastert entered his plea, an even bigger scandal was splashed across the front page of The New York Times. The newspaper revealed that the Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio isn’t rich. In fact, a thorough investigation of his finances showed Rubio has so many debts and so few assets that he is distinctly middle class. Oh, and he’s bad at paying his parking fines.

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The Sunday Times: America’s lost its can-do spirit in the jam of trains, planes and automobiles

Photo: Will Langenberg

Photo: Will Langenberg

I wish I could say that last week’s tragedy in Philadelphia — where a speeding Amtrak train jumped the tracks, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 — will create sufficient shockwaves that the government will have to change its attitude towards America’s crumbling infrastructure.

Even a small change would help, such as an end to the political deadlock over fitting all trains with the new anti-accident technology known as positive train control. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s possible.

America is a young country, not even 250 years old. Yet a creeping sclerosis is spreading through the body politic. The country’s ability and, more important, its will, to fix what needs fixing and improve what needs improving is collapsing.

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The Sunday Times: The friction making Baltimore burn is not race but class

Photo: Skitter Photo

Photo: Skitter Photo

The riots in Ferguson, Missouri, last year were provoked by racism. No rational person could argue otherwise after a black man was shot dead by a white police officer. The facts speak for themselves. This small suburb adjacent to the port city of St Louis has only 21,000 residents, two-­‐thirds of whom are black. Yet its officials are almost without exception white — from the 94% white police force to the white mayor, the white police chief and almost all-­‐white city council.

In Ferguson’s case, at least, one answer to the institutional imbalance is relatively easy to see: encourage more people to vote in local elections and they will have more say in the outcome. A mere 6% of black voters took part in the 2013 local elections. It stands to reason, if more people within the community are involved in its decision-making processes there is a greater chance that the right kind of change will happen from within.

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The Sunday Times: Even as California dries and cracks, farmers are paid to waste water

Photo: Casey Fyfe

Photo: Casey Fyfe

FANS of Roman Polanski’s iconic 1974 film Chinatown will remember a scene where the former mayor of Los Angeles reminds the city council of the Faustian pact that keeps the city alive: “We live next door to the ocean but we also live on the edge of a desert. Los Angeles is a desert community; beneath this building, beneath every street there’s a desert and, without water, the dust will rise up and cover us as if this place never existed.”

Although Chinatown was a product of screenwriter Robert Towne’s imagination, its depiction of the violence and corruption surrounding the so-called California “water wars” had the ring of dramatic truth. Los Angeles was transformed from a struggling conurbation into a thriving city by two men: Fred Eaton and William Mulholland, who schemed, tricked and pressured their way into obtaining the water rights of the Owens Valley.

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The Sunday Times: America has laid a road to civil rights but is just as ready to dig it up

Photo: Anthony Delanoix

Photo: Anthony Delanoix

On March 9, 1961, a Siera Leonean diplomat, William Fitzjohn, was being driven along Maryland’s Route 40, when he stopped at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant to eat. The manager refused to serve him, informing the irate envoy that this restaurant, like all the roadside eateries on Route 40, was segregated.

On learning of the incident, the Kennedy administration immediately went into damage limitation mode. Fitzjohn was invited to dinner at the White House. The mayor of Hagerstown, Maryland, and Howard D Johnson, the founder of the restaurant chain, made public apologies.

Three months later, the new ambassador from Chad, Adam Malick Sow, was driving to Washington to present his credentials, when he, too, decided to stop at a restaurant along Route 40.

This time, on being informed by the ambassador’s interpreter that the full weight of US-Chadian relations hinged on a cup of coffee, the manageress of the Bonnie Brae Diner responded that Sow should “get his ass out” of the restaurant.

Such mistreatment of the African corps diplomatique did not go unnoticed by the anti-American press.

Throughout 1961, the Kennedy administration tried hard to persuade the governor of Maryland to end racial discrimination along Route 40 before a diplomatic embarrassment escalated into a Cold War incident.

It took three years and three attempts before Maryland grudgingly passed a partial desegregation law. At which point, the tide of history swept across the country, leaving behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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The Sunday Times: In pill-popping America even shyness is a medical condition

Photo: Martin Vorel

Photo: Martin Vorel

What’s the biggest difference between Americans and Britons? Is it the broad vowel sounds, the prevalence of guns, or the belief in God? No, it’s the number of healthy people who believe they have a medical issue.

Call it the medicalisation of life, or slick marketing, the fact is there is an entire industry in America dedicated to turning the human condition into a chronic disease.

The topic has resurfaced because the Supreme Court has been listening to arguments in King v Burwell — ostensibly a lawsuit about the legality of federal health insurance schemes, but in reality an attempt by rightwingers to kill the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as Obamacare. A ruling is expected in June.

If Obamacare is struck down, one consequence will be a resurgence in health costs. The ACA is problematic, but its limits on Medicare payments and emphasis on lower-cost preventative medicine over higher-priced chronic-disease care has had a beneficial effect; last year’s rate of growth in healthcare spending was the slowest since 1960.

No sane person would argue that medical innovation is bad, or that the relief of suffering is not a worthy end. Who doesn’t hope scientists will be able to prevent Alzheimer’s or cure cancer. But along with the miracle of modern medicine something else has been happening, something so insidious and pervasive to the concept of wellbeing that it took a while before anybody noticed.

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The Sunday Times: Hillary’s emails honour the creed of hiding, twisting, leaking at the top

Photo: Pawel Kadysz

Photo: Pawel Kadysz

WHY DID Great Britain stay neutral during the American Civil War? Back when I was researching this question, one answer that seemed particularly intriguing was the claim — made at the time in America and by subsequent historians — that it was due to a severe wheat shortage.

Repeated crop failures in the early 1860s had led to a massive reliance on imports from America and Russia. Ergo, Britain intervening in the war between the states would have been an unaffordable risk.

I combed through four years of cabinet reports, memoranda, letters and diaries, looking for proof. Cotton, slavery, Canada, blockade running, the balance of power: these were frequent subjects of fretful debate, but never wheat. The paper record showed the theory to be an utter dud, thereby freeing me to find the true causes of British neutrality.

I tell this story because I don’t see any point in hiding the fact that I am entirely partisan in the debate about government transparency. I believe that everything should be maintained in its proper place. What is classified should remain so, what is public should be open, and all must be preserved for future scrutiny.

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The Sunday Times: Money, energy and cunning, the US’s new Cold War armoury

Photo: Blair Fraser

Photo: Blair Fraser

MORE THAN 5,000 people have died in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s annexation and despoilment campaign. It is not as though the EU and the US have looked the other way during this bloodshed; it’s just that every attempt to engage or contain Russia has so far ended in failure.

Does Russia’s dismantling of Ukraine mean that the Cold War has resumed after a 25-year hiatus? Or is it a new Cold War with America? Or a neo-Cold War against liberal democracies, or a frozen conflict with Nato, or just a regional conflict within the old Soviet bloc?

The reason the categorisation is so important is that the naming of the crisis brings with it a set of ideological and practical responses.

The term “Cold War” carries the unmistakeable baggage of an existential conflict between irreconcilable systems of government. It implies that democracy itself is once again on trial for its life. This is all rather unfortunate timing considering that the major democracies are still reeling from the financial crisis of 2007-8, and in many cases have yet to prove themselves capable of restoring public confidence or fiscal order.

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