Review of Andrew Cockburn, Rumsfeld: His
Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy. New York: Scribner,
2007. Pp. vii, 247. ISBN 978-1-4165-3574-4.
Andrew Cockburn gives us a well
written career study of Donald Rumsfeld; readers will find its
arguments suggestive rather than conclusive. The book's limitations
stem, in part, from its narrow focus, but also from the author's
reliance on unnamed sources ("one senior general," "an Assistant
Secretary of State," "a former senior official," "a Rumsfeld
intimate"); the citations of printed sources require just eight
pages. Cockburn finds few redeeming features in this career. His
portrait of Secretary Rumsfeld as a man imbued with unquenchable
ambition allied with boundless hubris rings true. Although Cockburn
does not make this claim, many of his readers will see the Donald
Rumsfeld portrayed here as representative of a generation (or more)
of policy makers whose choices have left most Americans believing
their nation is on the wrong course--and large numbers of the world's
citizens actually loathing the United States.
Rumsfeld came into modern
conservatism on the ground floor. "By the time he began running for
Congress as a twenty-nine-year-old ... he had attended Princeton on
an ROTC scholarship, which he followed with three years in the navy"
(12). In 1962, he won a "safe"
Republican congressional seat north of Chicago; he served three
terms before joining the Nixon administration as head of the Office
of Economic Opportunity. This "half forgotten" dimension of
Rumsfeld's career reveals to Cockburn much of his protagonist's
essence. The future Secretary of Defense possessed ambition, but no
particular ideology. The author describes him as "a conventional
conservative, loyal to his business sponsors and to the routine
prejudices of their class" (14). Indeed, "few people had much
idea of his ideas," perhaps because Rumsfeld viewed "ideology simply
as a matter of tactics" (13). He cared little about facts or
information (as Cockburn frequently reasserts); he worshipped only
success. The neophyte politician fit well in the Nixon White House
and into the neo-conservative political movement Nixon was beginning
to fashion. Like Nixon and those around him, the young Rumsfeld
displayed a flair for intrigue and divisive politics. He acquired,
according to Cockburn's sources, the reputation of a "ruthless
little bastard" capable of almost any "slimy maneuver"
Predictably, such a man created a skein of resentful
colleagues--"embittered enemies," Cockburn calls them. His most
inveterate antagonists? Nelson Rockefeller and George Herbert Walker
Bush. While Cockburn offers no systematic analysis of Rumsfeld's
electoral weaknesses, it does seem that he lacked the common touch,
which, added to his powerful enemies, meant he was unlikely to
achieve his goal of the presidency. Instead, he settled into a new
role, becoming, in Cockburn's somewhat hyperbolic phrase, "one of
history's great courtiers" (98). A man of limited experience,
education, and knowledge, Rumsfeld succeeded by loyally serving the
needs of individuals and interests that could advance his career. He
also proved to be lucky: Watergate did not touch him; instead it
In 1975, Rumsfeld became Gerald
Ford's Secretary of Defense and revealed himself as the avatar of
the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). A key theme
of his tenure at the Pentagon was the effort to increase
expenditures and thereby to serve his clients. Successful courtiers
know what's expected of them. As had been the case since the 1950s,
the MIC viewed the Soviet Union as a "fearful specter" and an
imminent danger; this was the era of the Committee on the Present
Danger. As in the Eisenhower years, these threats were mostly
fictional. However, Rumsfeld accepted this position without question
or qualification. Thus, he approved weapons systems (M-1 tank, B-1
bomber) better designed to win votes and profits than to win wars.
Rumsfeld displayed an eager "willingness to bend before corporate
requirements" and to "feed the machine"; it "was all a
game, a game ... [the MIC] could win" (49, 109).
Denied power in the Reagan
years, Rumsfeld remained active in national security issues. In
1983, he took up the position of special envoy to the Middle East.
Cockburn observes: "despite his total lack of experience or
knowledge of the region's turbulent politics, he was, of course,
fully confident that he had the answers" (75). Saddam Hussein
was the man of the hour, so Rumsfeld sought business deals with Iraq
and had himself photographed shaking hands with the dictator. In
1998, he signed a statement demanding the overthrow of the fiend.
Inconsistency did not trouble him, if it advanced his career.
The symbiotic relationship
between government and corporations began long before Rumsfeld was
born, but he perfectly embodies the pattern of individuals crossing
and re-crossing the line between public and personal interests. His
first term as courtier having ended with the Ford Administration,
Rumsfeld jumped easily to the private sector, chosen as President
and CEO of G.D. Searle, a pharmaceutical company. He brought in
others like himself "who knew the world of government and how to use
it" (57). They gained approval of a sweetener ("Equal"),
despite studies that suggested a link with brain cancer. In this
effort, Rumsfeld displayed a quality that typifies his whole career:
"not interested in facts, not interested in truth, not interested in
... the fundamental realities," his only concern was "setting a goal
and then by will and force ... [achieving] that goal" (65). As a
CEO, Rumsfeld cultivated a reputation as an efficient manager.
Cockburn will have none of it: he was a "bully," more interested in
keeping subordinates "off balance" and "impeding" their work than
achieving efficiency. It was all about him, all about control—not
about team building.
We need to know much more than
Cockburn tells us about Rumsfeld's return to Defense in the George
W. Bush regime. Given the strained relationship between Bush père
and Rumsfeld, we sense that this decision plumbs deep psychological
waters for all three men. Cockburn sees the second term as largely
"a rerun" of the first. However, in some respects it was much worse.
The Pentagon boss showed little interest in the effective management
of the place, remaining addicted to the "contemptuous bullying" and
"aggressive rudeness" toward subordinates that had characterized his
tenure at Searle. In some areas he micro-managed; in others he
followed a policy of laissez-faire. On his second watch, the
Department of Defense became rife with feuding and rivalries. He was
a persistent--even vehement--spokesman for lighter, more
sophisticated high-tech modes of war fighting; however, in
Cockburn's view, this campaign primarily served corporate interests.
In any case, only one old-fashioned project was cancelled (the
Army's Crusader artillery system) and, in the end, few of the
military's high brass lost jobs for opposing the Secretary. Perhaps
because of the war, the MIC felt new weapons were not a high
Like those of others in the
Bush administration, Rumsfeld's thoughts turned to Iraq even as the
smoke cleared on 9/11. Oddly, Cockburn is not entirely clear as to
why. Patently, preemptive war satisfied some of the same needs that
bullying at the Pentagon and Searle had. Some of Cockburn's sources
locate the desire for war in his commitment to "will and force" and
to impressing the world with "America's (and his own?) invincible
power" (162, 151). Perhaps, as a good liege courtier, he was simply
doing what he sensed his masters wanted. In any case, for a time, he
was "the public face" of an administration at war—it's warlord.
Sadly, George C. Marshall he was not! Impressed by the success of
the "light" war in Afghanistan—and characteristically ignoring the
key role played there by Afghan forces—he demanded a limited
military commitment in Iraq. He showed almost no interest in postwar
arrangements, aside from finding Weapons of Mass Destruction; later
he was in full "denial" on the insurgency. He insisted on being
"personally involved" in the general administration of facilities
like Guantánamo, but also demanded continuous reports on the torture
of individual suspects. It was Rumsfeld who ordered that Abu Ghraib
be "Gitmoized." None of this will shock many readers. However, one
new dimension, of particular interest to military historians, is
Cockburn's assertion that, as in Vietnam, the military "accepted"
Rumsfeld's Iraq strategy without complaint. Recent revelations of
General Shinseki's quiet equivocations on the amount of force needed
to police post-war Iraq reinforces this point. A question Cockburn
might have taken up concerns the use of contractors in Iraq. Should
we view their numbers, variety, and no-bid contracts as yet another
benefit provided by this loyal retainer of the MIC? One amusing
tidbit: in a fit of pettiness in a time of war, Rumsfeld barred
Pentagon employees from visiting France. In the end, he was removed
by the same political strategies he had always followed.
So, while the overall story is
not exactly new, Cockburn moves the narrative along and provides
plenty of anecdotes. There is much we do not yet know about this man
Rumsfeld and his age—and won't know for decades. Think of the
present book as a good introduction to Rumsfeld and his milieu; that
is, as an introduction to our times. Cockburn may be right about the
hubris, greed, and self-promotion of the conservatives shown here.
As a teacher, I half-hope he is wrong; what, after all, does the
existence of such officials say about us? However, since we seem
destined to teach future students about America's decline (absolute
or relative), the big story here will have intense relevance.
Rumsfeld the book will recede to the margins of memory, but
Rumsfeld the man will remain central to any understanding of the Age
of George W. Bush.
Greenhills School & Oakland
--revised 7 Sep 2008