Please Help ZNet
Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and so many others killed in the wars he launched and in the torture cells he oversaw, Donald Rumsfeld died peacefully.
Taking over the Pentagon as secretary of defense for the second time in 2001, Rumsfeld was one of the leading neoconservative ideologues surrounding President George W. Bush who saw the 9/11 attacks in 2001 as an opportunity to go to war. The Washington Post described a conversation between the not-yet president and not-yet secretary of defense in which Rumsfeld told Bush that US military power was needed to discipline the world. “I left no doubt in his mind but that, at that moment where something happens, that I would be coming to him to lean forward, not back. And that I wanted [him] to know that.… And he said, unambiguously, that that is what he would be doing, and we had a clear, common understanding,” Rumsfeld recalled.
War was on the Bush administration’s agenda immediately. On September 12, Bush would give his infamous “We will rally the world” speech, and Rumsfeld began crafting an invasion of Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world. More than anyone else, Rumsfeld was the architect of Bush’s “Global War on Terror.”
Although the mainstream media didn’t report it right away, it quickly became clear that civilian casualties in Afghanistan were unspeakably high. The first survey of civilian casualties determined that the best explanation lay in “the apparent willingness of US military strategists to fire missiles into and drop bombs upon heavily populated areas of Afghanistan.… the critical element remains the very low value put upon Afghan civilian lives by US military planners and the political elite.” Rumsfeld, of course, was both.
EAT YOUR CLUSTER BOMBS, BOYS & GIRLS
Two weeks into the war, Rumsfeld’s press office grudgingly acknowledged that US bombers had indeed dropped cluster bombs, a now-illegal form of weapons, on the village of Shaker Qala, near Herat in western Afghanistan. The bombs killed nine civilians and injured another 14. But Rumsfeld’s office had a bigger problem than that. The cluster bombs were wrapped in bright yellow tape. And at the exact same time, Pentagon planes were dropping food packets for desperate Afghan refugees that were covered with identical bright yellow wrappings. Any famished child running to pick up what looked like a food packet ran a good chance of being blown up by a US cluster bomb. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, standing alongside Rumsfeld at a press conference, admitted that civilians might confuse the two, but said the United States had no intention of suspending the use of cluster bombs.
The Pentagon press glitches never got better. Rumsfeld kept journalists on a tight leash and largely out of frontline areas. His briefings never earned the Vietnam War–era “Five O-Clock Follies” sobriquet—not least because public support across the country remained high during the first months, even the first few years, of this first “forever war.” But outside US borders, the rest of the world, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, was learning more and more about civilian casualties. One response from Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was the establishment of the Office of Strategic Influence. Its official job included things like dropping leaflets advertising rewards for information on where Osama bin Laden might be hiding or radio scripts designed, in Rumsfeld’s own words, “to counter the lies that this was a war against the Afghan people or a war against Muslims, which it wasn’t.” The OSI was forced to close soon after its opening after an inconvenient leak to the press—but not before mainstream media outlets had a field day with the news. The New York Times headline was “New Agency Will Not Lie, Top Pentagon Officials Say.” Not The Onion—The New York Times.
AND ON TO BAGHDAD
For Rumsfeld, Afghanistan was never really the point. It was a gateway war, laying the groundwork for the real invasion that was possible as a result of the 9/11 attacks. War in Iraq had been on his agenda for years—and Rumsfeld put it on the table about 24 hours after the Twin Towers collapsed, in the early-morning meeting at the White House. He asked why the United States shouldn’t just go after Iraq right away. The only opposition was on the question of timing—the public was focused on Al Qaeda, so the war should start by going after Al Qaeda. Iraq could come later. No one among the top Bush officials seems to have answered Rumsfeld’s rhetorical question with the actual answer—that Iraq’s government had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the attacks of 9/11.
Rumsfeld’s interest in Iraq was long-standing. In early 1998, while the Republican neoconservative cabal that would staff George W. Bush’s White House and Pentagon was largely killing time in think tanks and making a killing in arms and related industries, the once-and-future secretary of defense was involved with the creation of the Project for the New American Century. PNAC’s founders included most of the key neoconservative ideologues who would, two years later, take back Washington’s reins of power—Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, and, of course, Rumsfeld. The goal of the project included pressuring then-President Bill Clinton to carry out regime change in Iraq and get rid of Saddam Hussein. Less than a year later, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, and regime change becomes official US policy.
Fifteen years earlier, in 1983, Rumsfeld had a more up-close and personal connection with the Iraqi leader—then Washington’s favorite to win the Iraq-Iran war that was devastating the young men and border communities of both countries. He went to Baghdad as the envoy of then-President Ronald Reagan, to arrange with Hussein how best Washington might make sure that Iraq, the weaker of the two sides, would win against Iran. The United States offered to provide arms, intelligence, and more—including material (which was indeed delivered) that became seed stock for biological weapons. Presumably by the time Hussein had become the US enemy du jour, Rumsfeld and his cohorts were counting on the American people’s short memory to make sure no one brought up the embarrassing meeting.
Somehow that didn’t work out so well. And as word got out during the run-up to the 2003 war that the secretary of defense had once shaken hands and talked nicely with this supposed monster, a few red faces emerged. As Al Jazeera described it, “An embarrassed Rumsfeld tried to salvage some mileage by claiming on 21 September 2002 in a CNN interview that he had during the 1983 meeting warned Saddam Hussein against the use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately for him, a US cable recording of his meeting with Saddam subsequently revealed he had said no such thing.”
War with Iraq, its physical and social infrastructure already shredded following a decade of Washington’s crippling sanctions, had nothing to do with 9/11. For Rumsfeld and his neocon colleagues, Iraq was a target waiting to be taken down. The reasons were both ideological and strategic—a crucial location for the projection of US military power, control of oil, the establishment of military bases; and destruction of a regional power challenging Washington’s and its Arab and Israeli allies’ hegemony in the Middle East.
It would be the critical success of the effort to transform US foreign policy from a kind of pragmatic imperialism often relying on fig leaves of multilateralism to an unlimited assertion of US power based on preemptive military force.
So within just a few months of the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and its replacement by an imposed government of Afghan exiles vetted and chosen by the US-led coalition, Washington’s strategic military energy turned from Kabul to Baghdad. Rumsfeld was in his element.