'A ruthless little bastard

May 18, 2007

Alex Danchev examines the malevolent influence of Donald Rumsfeld on US politics

Andrew Cockburn's Rumsfeld contributes to a burgeoning new genre, the literature of debacle in Iraq. This book surge exhibits two different tendencies, complementary but distinct. There is the more or less explicit criminography, individual and collective, clearly signalled by the choice of words in the title with varying degrees of pithiness: Fiasco , by Thomas Ricks, State of Denial , by Bob Woodward (a late convert), and The End of Iraq: How America's Incompetence Created a War without End , by Peter Galbraith.

Alternatively, there is reportage, with an admixture of reflection: a kind of improvised explosive device of a book, based on evidence gathered in the field and the corridors of power, very often from the boss himself, his consigliere and associates.

The Bush Administration is a family affair - like the Sopranos - complete with blood feuds, made guys, stool pigeons, psychological issues and seething resentments. Much of the resentment has been poured into the eager ear of the investigative journalist. It spices some of the best accounts of this sort, such as The Assassins' Gate , by George Packer, State of War , by James Risen, and Imperial Life in the Emerald City , by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

Rumsfeld is straightforward criminography, spiced with the accumulated resentments of a 40-year political career spent treading sharply on rival toes. It is efficiently written but poorly edited, the no-nonsense style marred by irritating minor repetitions. Iraq is at once the centrepiece and culmination of the story, but it backtracks to the beginning of Rumsfeld's career as boy-wonder congressman from Chicago in the early 1960s. As a biographical study, it is somewhat abbreviated and focused almost entirely on the public life. Cockburn has no time for the biographer's usual vices such as empathy or psychology; he tends not to indulge in reconstruction or speculation. He briskly tells us what he knows and (in suitably guarded terms) how he knows. It is above all a functional indictment.

In its own terms, this treatment is very effective. Cockburn is a level-headed and experienced observer of the piranha politics at which Rumsfeld truly excelled. He gives us a guided tour of the malevolence and the malfeasance and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Perhaps the nearest he gets to an epitaph is the shrewd observation that Rumsfeld should be remembered as one of history's great courtiers. A man who served Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush must have a certain talent in that direction. "He's a ruthless little bastard," Nixon remarked appreciatively. "You can be sure of that."

With Bush, Cockburn notes, Rumsfeld recognised immediately what the President needed: reassurance that he was "fit for command". That is precisely what he supplied. In return, he gained access and influence over an unconscionably long period. He also triumphed in the turf war with Colin Powell, effectively excluding the Secretary of State from much of the executive action. Powell could never quite disguise his belittling assessment of Bush the son. ("Powell worked for 41 (the 41st President, Bush senior). He worked with 43.") This may have been flattering to Powell's vanity, but it gave the Secretary of Defense the sort of opening he spent a career seizing. Rumsfeld ran rings around him. The consequences were severe.

The chief delight of the book lies in its lovingly garnered snippets of information. If some of these verge on gossip, it is gossip of the superior sort and highly revealing. Rumsfeld's chief of staff, an Olympic-standard squash player, lost regularly and dutifully to his master. Douglas Feith, his trusty Under-Secretary for Policy, interviewed a Middle East specialist for a possible vacancy. "Do you speak Arabic?" asked Feith. "Yes, fluently," replied the specialist. "Too bad," said Feith, crossing him off the list. He was an Arabist, and therefore suspect.

When George Bush the father was elected President in 1988, Rumsfeld wrote to him and said that he would like to be his ambassador to Japan. No offer was forthcoming. The letter was later found by an official. Scrawled on it in Bush's own hand was the legend: "No! This will never happen!! GB." Bush senior could not abide Rumsfeld - as Bush junior must have known.

The choicest items relate to Rumsfeld's responsibility for the institutionalised culture of torture and abuse in the War on Terror.

Cockburn makes surprisingly little of them. It is now well-known that in personally authorising the "interrogation plan" for one particular high-value detainee, Rumsfeld could not resist annotating the memorandum: "However, I stand for eight to ten hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?"

Not so well-known, perhaps, is his first reaction when he was told about the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib: "I didn't know you were allowed to bring cameras into a prison."

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

Rumsfeld: An American Disaster

Author - Andrew Cockburn
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 247
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 9781844671281

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