Andrew Cockburn’s Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy is an illuminating account of the career of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Cockburn examines Rumsfeld’s career from his campaign for Congress in the 1960s, to his role in the White Houses of Ford and Nixon, and up to his more well known position in the Bush administration.
Cockburn portrays Rumsfeld as a “ruthless little bastard” showing repeatedly how Rumsfeld only looked out for himself and the interests of those most loyal to him (assuming that they fit within his goals). Cockburn shows how Rumsfeld was not afraid to make enemies and frequently orchestrated leaks, set officials against each other, and was willing to withhold information to achieve his desired ends within the Nixon and Ford White Houses. At the center of this was Rumsfeld’s so-called “charm,” through which he was able to fend of queries of the press and distort the truth with impunity, seeing reality as nothing more than an unfortunate obstacle. Cockburn explains how Rumsfeld frequently sought aggressive military strategies and aimed to position himself for the presidency, although his only serious attempt at securing the Republican presidential nomination failed miserably. Rumsfeld’s role in the Regan administration as the United States’ representative to Baghdad–and his assurance that the United States would look the way regarding Iraq’s use of chemical weapons–tied Rumsfeld to the future of Iraq even before the 2003 invasion. Similarly, when Cockburn explains how Rumsfeld was seeking deals with the Iraqi government on behalf of US corporations, it makes it clear where Rumsfeld’s priorities lie.
In between his role in the Nixon and Ford White Houses and his role in the Regan administration, Rumsfeld served as CEO the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle. This has been largely ignored by the press, but Cockburn details Rumsfeld’s work as head of the company. Rumsfeld was hired to help the struggling company and he quickly increased its profits by slashing its workforce and selling off assets. His actions earned him a reputation as a “tough” manager, while his work in getting the company’s aspartame sweetener approved for sale showed how Rumsfeld was able to leverage his government connections to make himself and G.D. Searle millions. When aspartame was first suggested, numerous studies showed that it could potentially cause brain cancer and other serious health effects. Despite this, G.D. Searle lobbied aggressively for FDA approval of the sweetener, with cash contributions from the Searle family mixed with personal lobbying from Rumsfeld to gain approval for the drug. However, aside from the success of gaining approval for aspartame, Cockburn describes Rumsfeld as a failure as a manager. He explains how Rumsfeld frequently lost himself in the minutia of decisions on which he really did not need to be involved, drawing the ire of Searle’s employees.
Before gaining his position in the Bush White House and his media prominence following 9/11, Rumsfeld was heavily involved in the creation of a program known as Continuity of Government (COG) that was setup to maintain functioning of the government in the aftermath of nuclear war. His involvement often consisted of participating in “war games,” in which sources consulted by Cockburn reveal that Rumsfeld acted in a bellicose manner and frequently chose maximum retaliation as his strategy–frequently overriding the concerns of diplomats and others.
This is not surprising when one considers Rumsfeld’s role in the Iraq War as a prime architect of the war. There is little that can be said about Rumsfeld’s role that has not been said elsewhere, but Cockburn does an ample job of outlining Rumsfeld’s role. He explains that the Pentagon had intelligence before the war that there were no weapons of mass destruction, but it was ignored by the Pentagon and the Bush administration and even misused by the administration to build support for the war. Similarly, Cockburn explains how Rumsfeld inserted himself into the military planning of the war–against the protestation of his generals–and advocated for a significantly smaller force than what was being requested by the military. In this case, it is no surprise that the occupation has fared as poorly as it has, although Cockburn makes it clear that he is not certain a larger force would have curtailed the insurgency. Throughout the post-9/11 period to his resignation, Rumsfeld maintained a direct line of communication to President Bush and had considerable influence over the President. Cockburn also convincingly points out that Rumsfeld had a major role in sanctioning torture at both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
Rumsfeld is an interesting book not only in that it offers a number of facts and insights that opponents of the Iraq War and the Bush administration are probably unaware of, but also in that it provides a basis on which readers can develop a more sophisticated analysis of power dynamics in Washington. Rumsfeld’s career–from junior Congressman, to Secretary of Defense, to corporate CEO, “private intellectual,” and back to Secretary of Defense, shows the amazing continuity in power in Washington DC. Rumsfeld maintained considerable influence in Washington DC even when he did not hold a government position, moreover, many of the people with whom he frequently associated maintained similar positions. These politicians represent the elite strata of society and the ease at which people shift from government to private sector makes it clear who’s interest the government seeks to develop. Such a realization leads should lead readers to the conclusion that while Rumsfeld may have been a particularly “bad” Secretary of Defense, the problem is far bigger than Rumsfeld or this administration and is instead a matter of overthrowing an entrenched system of militarism and the dominance of government by the elites in society.
Andrew Cockburn, Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy, (Scribner, 2007).