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King of the Plastic Rambos

Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy, Andrew Cockburn, Scribner, 247 pages

“Good morning, good morning!” the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the men that he smiled at are most of them dead

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

Rereading Siegfried Sassoon’s great poem of World War I, the sense is overwhelming that it was a vision of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. His eerie, uncrackable arrogance and unwavering faith in his own genius have so far cost the lives of more than 3,000 American soldiers and maimed more than 22,000. But not the slightest hint of self-doubt or remorse intrudes. One is left with little doubt that he sleeps the sound sleep of the just every night.

Yet after six years in the limelight he so relished as supreme warlord of the global hyper-power, we know little about the real Rumsfeld. Andrew Cockburn, for more than 20 years one of the most magnificently politically incorrect mavericks of English-language journalism, has now rectified the incompetence, laziness, and plain servility of the mainstream American media with this invaluable new book. Lean and muscular, with not a sentence wasted, it documents old suspicions, strips away hoary myths, and reveals startling new knowledge.

Rumsfeld was supposed to have been a brilliant captain of industry who brought the driving efficiency and towering intellect of a successful CEO to the running of the U.S. Department of Defense. But in reality, Cockburn reveals, his business record was muddling and inept: he proved to be a byword for incompetent management. At first, his endless blaze of terse messages and dictates made thousands quiver, generating panic and chaos wherever they fluttered in the cavernous rings of the Pentagon. Then it dawned on the secretary’s underlings that he never remembered to follow up on any of them.

Rumsfeld was sold by his myth-makers—and even believed himself—that he was a ruthless juggernaut, killing obsolete weapons programs and dragging the American Armed Services kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Instead, as Cockburn shows, when it came to taking on the generals and the military-industrial complex, Rummy was a toothless, clawless old teddy bear. The only major system scrapped during his six-year tenure under Bush was the Crusader heavy artillery gun. And Rumsfeld did not even have the interest or stomach to heft the axe. Responsibility fell to Paul Wolfowitz, who waffled endlessly before doing so.

Even Rumsfeld’s supposed finest hour, his calm and commanding presence as a leader after a hijacked airliner crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, the moment that truly “made” him in the eyes of America and gave him the towering reputation that freed him to wreak so much havoc in the years that followed, was the result of his serene ineptitude, not a cool-headed Caesar-style grasp of command.

Cockburn interviews eyewitnesses and security guards who accompanied Rumsfeld on that fateful morning and makes clear that the SecDef abandoned his command post at a key time during the crisis. He spent most of that fateful morning drafting rules of engagement for U.S. fighter pilots to deal with the hijacked airliners. “This was an irrelevant exercise for he did not complete and issue them until 1:00 p.m., hours after the last hijacker had died,” the author writes.

Rumsfeld, the most micromanaging defense secretary in U.S. history, took no part whatsoever in directing the military when the attacks were actually in progress. “Later, when asked why he had taken no part in military operations that morning, Rumsfeld blithely insisted it was not his job,” Cockburn notes. The nerve center of America’s national defense that day was not in the hands of Douglas MacArthur redux but of Mr. Magoo.

Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s chief deputy who was obsessed with conquering Iraq for his good friend Ahmad Chalabi but never with hunting down the actual perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocities, also shrivels under the merciless light of Cockburn’s research. He was so feckless that he did not even realize that to keep 150,000 men in Iraq indefinitely actually meant tying up three times that number as the forces had to be rested, rotated, and prepared for their new tours of duty. Wolfowitz, Cockburn documents, was another cartoon figure—notorious for never being able to make a clear-cut decision. If Rumsfeld had the unremitting self-regard of Mr. Magoo, Wolfowitz emerges from these pages more as Porky Pig, the stutter of indecision reducing to chaos everything he touched.

But this bungling in no way reduced Wolfowitz’s contempt for the men in uniform he was charged with directing. “Where do all these stupid generals come from?” Cockburn cites the deputy secretary as asking.

Wolfowitz was fond of talking endlessly about the buzzword “maneuvers” without apparently realizing that many troops are required to carry them out. At one point before the invasion of Iraq, Cockburn writes, Wolfowitz and company seriously thought all that was needed to topple Saddam was 10,000-15,000 American troops.

Cockburn also performs a valuable service in showing how the scare tactics that so effectively hyped the negligible threat of Saddam Hussein developing new weapons of mass destruction were nothing more than a rerun on a larger stage of the false alarms Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and their neoconservative blood brothers sounded about non-existent Soviet death rays and antiballistic missile wonder weapons in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Donald Rumsfeld’s A-team of the 21st century was staffed by the B-team of a quarter century before—and trafficked in exactly the same kind of hysteria.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, only Seymour Hersh at the New Yorker and I at UPI reported in a sustained manner on the profound divide over the supposed threat from Iraq between the professional U.S. military, which overwhelmingly knew better, and Rumsfeld’s cadre of neocon true believers. Here, too, Cockburn does indispensable work. He confirms Hersh’s key reports and my own with a wealth of documentation. He also focuses on the key role of Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans in churning out wild tales that serious intelligence analysts recognized immediately for the worthless and unsubstantiated junk that they were.

Cockburn also confirms my and Hersh’s reporting on the resentment that so many long-serving military officers felt over Rumsfeld’s contempt for their experience and his childish enthusiasm for the recommendations of flaky amateurs, the three most influential of whom were Richard Perle, Newt Gingrich, and former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey. All were gung-ho for the invasion of Iraq. Senior military officers in the Pentagon, Cockburn writes, dubbed them “the plastic Rambos.”

Cockburn also has startling insights into the downing of a U.S. Air Force E-P3 electronic surveillance aircraft after it collided with a Chinese F-8 interceptor buzzing it in spring 2001. Now forgotten, the incident was the most serious and embarrassing foreign-policy snafu for the Bush administration before the 9/11 attacks and led to a short but intense escalation of tensions with China.

But was the E-P3 simply carrying out long established and necessary routine surveillance? Cockburn says no: “These espionage flights had recently been stepped up for no better reason than that the air force had stopped monitoring the former Soviet cold war enemy and had E-P3s to spare.”

He proves equally unrelenting in his analysis of Rumsfeld’s most expensive high-tech passion, the Future Combat Systems program. The FCS, he writes,

was projected to consume at least $128 billion by 2014 and would consist of manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles all tied together by computer networks that would automatically identify targets and instantly destroy them with precise firepower. So rapidly would it destroy enemies, proponents boasted, that U.S. troops would no longer need armor in their vehicles.

Tell that to the Marines, especially the ones serving in Iraq. In March 2005, Cockburn notes, the Government Accountability Office told Congress, “only one of over 50 technologies (required for the FCS) are mature.” Another way of saying it remained a sci-fi fan’s fantasy.

Cockburn has not written a crowd-pleaser. But at a time when even valuable writing on the Bush administration is bloated and filled with melodramatic set-pieces, he has produced a sober, precise indictment, backed by remarkable documentation.

One has a few caveats: while Wolfowitz and Feith receive their due, too many significant actors on the Rumsfeld and Cheney teams manage to successfully skulk in the shadows. Cockburn understandably kept his primary focus on his protagonist. But perhaps Scribner’s could be prevailed upon to offer him a healthy advance for a sequel, Rumsfeld’s Lieutenants?

Also, Cockburn refers to but does not quote from Midge Decter’s notorious hagiography of Rumsfeld published in 2003. This remarkable study in shameless sycophancy deserves far greater remembrance than it has received.

Finally, something must be done about the dustcover of the book. When you close it and place it on a shelf, one of Rumsfeld’s eyes is staring remorselessly at you from the spine, wherever you stand. Surely this is too much to ask even those of stout mind and spirit to endure?

Otherwise, unconditionally recommended. But let us leave the last word to Sassoon: “‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack / As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. / But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”

Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International. He has reported from more than 60 countries, covered seven guerrilla wars and ethnic conflicts and been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.