More political buffoon than military hardman

Donald Rumsfeld has a lot to answer for. So do the neocons and commentators currently cheering his demise.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
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‘Mark my words, this is a day in modern political history…. He was the architect and agent of almost everything that has crashed in America’s Iraq policy. I can’t tell if he has been sacked or resigned, but this place has gone mad.’

So wrote a hyper Jon Snow on Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation in Wednesday’s ‘Snowmail’, his daily bulletin of what’s coming up in Channel 4 News which doubles up as a kind of psychological profile of Britain’s bicycle-riding, Guardian-reading ‘pinko liberals’ (how Snow once described himself). Snow’s latest missive suggests that some pinko liberals think – or rather fantasise – that the hanging-out-to-dry of Rumsfeld post-mid-terms is a political earthquake (or a ‘political coup’, in Snow’s words) after which nothing will be the same again. Get a grip.

Rumsfeld has been turned into a scapegoat for Iraq – by President Bush, by various neocons who supported the war but then changed their minds, and by anti-war commentators like Snow who seriously imagine that the war and occupation came about by Rumsfeld’s own volition or sense of vengeance. All of this underestimates the powerful political malaise among the American elite that makes it turn to the international arena in search of a moral boost, and lets off the hook the various thinkers, officials and statesmen – both American and British – who cheer-led and devised the disastrous invasion.

Rumsfeld certainly has a lot to answer for. He was often talked about as the hardman of the Bush administration, the unflinching, cocksure defence secretary who wouldn’t let anyone stand in the way of his grand war plans. In fact, he summed up the bumbling idiocy of the Bush-led Republicans, and the extent to which they were a lame-duck party, bereft of vision or resolve, long before they lost control of both Houses of Congress this week.

Looking back at Rummy’s plans for Iraq, there’s little evidence that he was, as one American commentator argued after his resignation, ‘the grandmaster of American expansionism’, a kind of contemporary Alexander. In fact, he planned a risk-free, quickfire, media-orientated invasion of Iraq that he hoped would make America look cool and purposeful in the eyes of the world without requiring too much hard graft. It was the political equivalent of boys playing with toy soldiers.

Rumsfeld’s ‘grandmaster plan’ for Iraq included launching a massive 72-hour bombardment – ‘shock and awe’, or a ‘blitzkrieg’ as one US military official described it – which he hoped would literally shock and overawe the Ba’athists into surrendering. As the LA Times reported, the US military was seeking to ‘defeat Saddam Hussein with “effects” rather than the physical destruction of enemy troops or their resources’. After these ‘effects’ had done the hard task of making the enemy magically evaporate, Rumsfeld and Co planned to send US troops over the border into Basra where they would apparently be greeted by cheering crowds readying garlands to put around the soldiers’ thick necks. This was about creating the right media image of modern-day America, as one newspaper reported in March 2003: ‘Officials say they are aiming for a rapid and benign occupation of Basra that results in flag-waving crowds hugging British and American soldiers – all of which would create an immediate positive image of American and British war aims while undermining Iraqi resistance elsewhere in the country.’ (1)

Rumsfeld’s was not some secret and dastardly plan to take over the Middle East whatever the cost to American soldiers or Iraqi civilians. Rather it was a fantasy war of liberation designed for the front pages of the papers. As I argued on spiked a week before the war began in March 2003: ‘America is hoping for a war without risk, using massive bombardments, special effects and plain old wishful thinking to compensate for traditional military engagement.’ (See Military disengagement, by Brendan O’Neill.) Rumsfeld was less a political hardman than a political fantasist – and everything that has gone wrong in Iraq since is a consequence of that old devil called reality getting in the way of the fantasy.

It should be remembered, however, that many of those now slating him and cheering his demise shared in his fantasies – not only his military fantasy of a quick and clean war, but also the bigger political fantasy that America is a liberating force on a white charger with a right and responsibility to topple tinpot tyrannies from Afghanistan to Iraq.

The leading military men in America who have turned against Rumsfeld went along with his plans for a short, sharp ‘war of liberation’. They especially liked the idea of having images of Iraqis high-fiving US soldiers ‘beamed to a sceptical world’. As Major Chris Hughes of the US Marine Corps said in 2003: ‘The first image of this war will define the conflict.’ (2) Over the past three years, this agreement over Iraq has descended into a spat between leading military officials and Rumsfeld’s department about the planning and political ownership of the war, and now military officials are trying to pin all the blame for Iraq on one man: Rumsfeld.

If Rumsfeld was initially physically backed by military men, he was also morally cheered on by various neocon thinkers and politicians. Yet now, as Vanity Fair revealed this month, in a feature titled ‘Neo Culpa’, these ‘neoconservative boosters’ of the war in Iraq are turning on President Bush and Rumsfeld and arguing that ‘their grand designs [for the Middle East] have been undermined by White House incompetence’ (3). In truth, the incompetence was written into the neocons’ designs. It is not that invading Iraq was a good plan but Bush and Rumsfeld executed it badly; rather, the ‘grand design’ of hurling a few bombs to topple Saddam in the belief that this would send a message to the world about American values was fatally flawed from the outset and destined to end in disaster.

These neocon detractors have achieved the rather remarkable feat of making Rumsfeld look almost principled. At least in resigning he is taking some responsibility for Iraq, whereas they are shirking theirs. As for all those British commentators ‘going mad’ over Rummy’s fall: they might look a bit closer to home for the origins of Rumsfeld’s fantasy politics of war. It is well known that he was inspired by Tony Blair’s words and actions over Kosovo in 1999. Rumsfeld’s claim that America had the right to override Iraq’s national sovereignty ‘because the people there are suffering’ comes from Blair’s ‘Chicago Doctrine’. In April 1999, Blair gave a speech at the Chicago Economic Club, in which he called for a decisive move away from the old UN emphasis on respecting nations’ sovereign independence and towards more pro-active forms of military intervention to topple ‘regimes that are undemocratic and engaged in barbarous acts’ (4). This heavily influenced both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration that followed.

Also, Rumsfeld’s application of the precautionary principle to international affairs – as summed up, or not summed up as the case may be, in his widely ridiculed speech about fighting ‘unknown unknowns’ – comes straight from Blair’s own elevation of risk-avoidance as a key justification for military action. Back in 2001, Blair said of foreign ventures: ‘Whatever the dangers of the action we take, the dangers of inaction are often far, far greater.’ (5) We can mock America’s big dumb Donald, but we should at least admit that some of his war fantasies are very British in origin.

The idea that politics might return to normality, and even that there might be an end to war now that Rummy has gone, is also a fantasy. To argue that the Bush administration has lost its moral authority as a result of Iraq gets things the wrong way around; in fact, the Iraq war has its origins in America’s loss of moral authority, in a powerful sense of political uncertainty and crisis. Rumsfeld may have been hung out to dry, but the American elite remains high and dry.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) See Military disengagement, by Brendan O’Neill

(2) See Military disengagement, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) Neo Culpa, Vanity Fair, November 2006

(4) See Is Bush Blair’s poodle?, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) See Is Bush Blair’s poodle?, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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