The U.S.

Donald Rumsfeld (1932-2021): Unapologetic warmonger

Print edition : July 30, 2021

Donald Rumsfeld (1932-2021). The day after the 9/11 attack in New York, Rumsfeld, who was then Defence Secretary, prepared a note for President George W. Bush advocating the removal of President Saddam Hussein, although he was fully aware that Iraq had nothing to do with the attack. Photo: TIM CHONG/ REUTERS

April 1969: President Richard Nixon (right) announcing the appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and as a presidential assistant with cabinet rank. Photo: AP

Donald Rumsfeld (1932-2021) will be remembered for his role in the U.S.’ occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and as one who showed no remorse for the deaths of countless civilians in these wars.

Donald Rumsfeld, one of the main proponents of the United States-led wars of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, died in his sleep on June 29 at the age of 88. Rumsfeld, well-known for his right-wing views, also played a role in the earlier wars the U.S. had waged or supported in different parts of the world. He was a leading figure in the neo-conservative (neo-con) movement and its Project for the New American Century (PNAC) along with Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Elliot Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz. All of them played prominent roles in the wars the U.S. waged in the last four decades.

The PNAC had lobbied strongly for the invasion of Iraq much before the events of September 11, 2001, which shook the U.S. and the world. The day after the twin towers in New York went down and parts of the Pentagon were destroyed, Rumsfeld, then serving as Defence Secretary, prepared a note for President George W. Bush advocating the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, although he was fully aware that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 terror attacks. Till the end, Rumsfeld had no words of remorse for the deaths of countless civilians killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had a major role in the planning and the execution of the brutal war in Afghanistan. Civilian population centres were targeted during the invasion. Asked about civilian casualties in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion, Rumsfeld said: “We don’t do body counts”. Rumsfeld did not raise any concerns when it was brought to his notice that the U.S. forces were using banned weapons such as cluster bombs.

Many commentators, including U.S. ones, have not hesitated to describe Rumsfeld as a “war criminal” who, unlike many of the U.S’ enemies who were accused of war crimes, had the privilege of living a long life and dying at home. Former President of Serbia Slobodan Milosevic died in jail; while Saddam Hussein was hanged when Iraq was under U.S. military occupation. Spencer Ackerman, the national security editor of The Daily Beast, wrote: “The only thing tragic about the death of Donald Rumsfeld is that it did not occur in an Iraqi prison.” When questioned about the veracity of claims that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” and that Saddam Hussein had a role in the planning of the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld came up with this classic evasive response: “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know that there are known unknowns; that is to say that there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Also read: Anti-war upsurge

Rumsfeld and his neo-con cohorts who ran the Bush administration had been planning the attack on Iraq even before 9/11 in order to implement the PNAC plan to redraw the map of West Asia. Iraq, Syria and Iran were among the countries which stood up against Israel and challenged the hegemony of the U.S. in the region. The U.S. also wanted to strengthen its stranglehold on the region’s energy resources and further expand its military bases.

Six months before the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld claimed that he had “no doubt” that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction”. He also claimed that the Iraqi invasion had nothing to do with the country’s vast oil wealth. One of the first acts of the U.S. military after capturing Baghdad was to secure Iraq’s Oil Ministry. The only other Ministry that the U.S. troops protected from a rampaging and thieving mob was the Ministry of Interior. That was where the U.S. hoped to uncover Iraq’s state secrets.

The U.S. forces let the mobs ransack all the other public buildings and ministries. Residential properties were also not spared as the U.S. troops stood aside and watched. Even the internationally reputed national museum, which housed ancient artefacts, statues and other treasures, was left to the mercy of the mob. Many of the looted objects ended up in Western countries and the Gulf Sheikhdoms. Rumsfeld was not at all apologetic about the lawlessness that followed the fall of Baghdad. “Stuff happens” was his infamous response when queried about the anarchy that prevailed in Baghdad and other cities after the U.S. military occupation began.

Rumsfeld had initially said that the war in Iraq would be over within weeks and at the most, last some months. The U.S. troops, though their numbers are considerably reduced, are still there. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are estimated to have cost the U.S. government more than $5.3 trillion so far. As many as 4,400 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives so far in Iraq along with 5,00,000 Iraqis as a result of the occupation. The rise of the Islamic State (IS) can, to a large extent, be attributed to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. Many of the IS leaders, including Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, were radicalised in the prison camps run by the U.S. military.

Role in Vietnam war

As a young acolyte of Richard Nixon during his successful bid for the presidency in 1968, Rumsfeld played a role in sabotaging the peace talks between Washington and Hanoi to end the unpopular war in Vietnam. Nixon knew that his chances of winning the election were slim if Lyndon Johnson was able to end the war in Vietnam. After coming to power, Nixon had in fact expanded the war to neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. Deaths in these countries had reached genocidal levels as a result of U.S. military intervention. But despite the U.S. military debacle in Vietnam, throughout his career Rumsfeld continued to be an avid drum-beater for the never-ending wars that the U.S has been involved in ever since.

Also read: Resisting the global domination project

Nixon had described the young Rumsfeld as “a ruthless little bastard” in his secretly recorded tapes. That did not prevent him from appointing Rumsfeld to important posts in his administration. Rumsfeld served as the U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) during Nixon’s presidency, at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact military alliance under Moscow’s leadership and the U.S.-led NATO were eyeball-to-eyeball across Europe. Rumsfeld, as was his wont, hyped up the threat from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, helping to further sour relations between Washington and Moscow during a tense period in the Cold War.

Youngest Defence Secretary

After Nixon was forced out of office following the Watergate scandal and was succeeded by Gerald Ford in 1975, Rumsfeld was appointed to the post of Defence Secretary. At 43, he was the youngest person to hold one of the most important posts in the U.S. government. Many foreign policy commentators have called him the “worst defence secretary” in U.S. history. His next stint as Defence Secretary was at the age of 74, after George W. Bush was elected President in 2000.

In the intervening years, Rumsfeld alternated between high-paying jobs in the corporate sector and serving the government in important positions whenever the Republicans were in power in Washington. President Ronald Reagan appointed him special envoy to West Asia in the 1980s. That was the decade which witnessed the eight-year-long war between Iraq and Iran which resulted in the deaths of more than a million people on both sides.

The U.S. had a major role to play in instigating that war. Washington remained, and continues to remain, unreconciled to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, who at the time was Washington’s closest ally in the region along with Israel.

Also read: The war of occupation

The Washington-Tel Aviv-Tehran nexus was the strongest at the time. The conservative Arab regimes were also alarmed at the overthrow of the pro-Western government in Iran. President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, too, had his concerns, fearing that the Shia theocracy in Iran under the charismatic leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would act as a beacon for the Shia in Iraq; the Shia constitute the overwhelming majority of the population in Iraq. Saddam Hussein, instigated by the likes of Rumsfeld and other top U.S. officials, thought he could score an easy military victory in a war with his neighbour, as the Iranian army officer corps were purged following the 1979 revolution and the West stopped supplying weaponry to the country.

Iran-Iraq War (1980-88)

The war that Iraq waged against Iran was largely funded by the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti governments. The U.S. and their European allies readily provided the Iraqis with weapons, including chemicals that were used to produce chemical weapons. The Iraqi side was the first to use chemical weapons in the war. Rumsfeld, as special envoy of the U.S. President, visited Baghdad in 1983, when the tide of war was turning against Iraq. During his meeting with Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld seems to have encouraged the Iraqi leader to keep on fighting an unwinnable war.

Another important purpose of Rumsfeld’s visit was to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and re-establish trade and business links with Baghdad. According to declassified official papers, Rumsfeld did not raise the issue of chemical weapons being used by the Iraqi army in the war against Iran.

Rumsfeld visited Iraq again the next year. His visit in 1984 coincided with the release of a United Nations report that stated that chemical weapons had been used against Iran. But at the time, Washington was a strong backer of the Iraqi government, and Rumsfeld chose to remain mum on the issue. According to official transcripts, Rumsfeld told Saddam Hussein that the U.S. would regard “any major reversal of Iraq’s fortunes as a strategic defeat for the West”. So the war went on for another four years, claiming more Iraqi and Iranian lives. The U.S. Navy patrolled the Gulf waters to protect Iraqi military interests. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, a U.S. naval ship, shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 people on board. The Pentagon claimed it was an accident and the U.S. has still not issued an apology to the Iranians.

Second stint

It was Rumsfeld, as Defence Secretary under George W. Bush, who was the most strident in his insistence that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction to justify the regime change in Iraq. The events of 9/11 had given the pretext for neo-cons like Rumsfeld to redraw the map of West Asia and the wider region. Under their influence, the Bush administration took the decision to launch open-ended invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under the mistaken notion that the people of both the countries would welcome the U.S. occupation with open arms. When the inevitable uprising of the Iraqis happened, much sooner than the U.S. military had anticipated, Rumsfeld termed the resistance as “dead-end losers” who could be easily dealt with.

Sanctioning torture

In both countries, when the going got tough for the U.S. military, Rumsfeld gave approval for the use of brutal torture tactics in the military prisons established in Guantanamo Bay (Cuba), Abu Ghraib (Iraq) and Afghanistan. There were “black sites” run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in different parts of the world where prisoners were taken to be tortured and interrogated. The “enhanced interrogation methods”, as the Pentagon descibed them, included sleep deprivation, hours of standing and waterboarding. As Defence Secretary, Rumsfeld issued a directive allowing U.S. military torturers to withhold medical care to prisoners under interrogation who had injuries as serious as gunshot wounds. A U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee concluded that Rumsfeld’s “authorisation of interrogation techniques… was a direct cause of detainee abuse”.

Also read: In the war of occupation

Rumsfeld was mentor to and the ideological soulmate of Dick Cheney, who served as Vice President under George W. Bush. It was Rumsfeld who first brought Cheney into political prominence by getting him an important position in the Ford administration. During the Bush administration, the two formed a tag team, manipulating the President into the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The invasion of Iraq has been described as U.S.’ greatest foreign policy debacle after Vietnam.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor