See "Darth Rumsfeld"
When Gerald Ford fired James Schlesinger from the Pentagon in 1975 and replaced him with Donald Rumsfeld, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater -- a fan of Schlesinger's owing to the latter's advocacy of massive defense expenditure -- angrily asked Ford what qualified Rumsfeld to run the Department of Defense. As The New Republic's John Osborne reported at the time, Ford's entire answer consisted of the following: "He was a fighter pilot in the Korean War."
Rumsfeld did actually have a tad more experience with defense issues than his naval aviator days, as ambassador to NATO since 1973. When Congress began to call for Richard Nixon's impeachment, however, Rumsfeld -- who actually had his own little plumbers-type unit at the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969, charged with sniffing out "revolutionaries" who might disburse federal funds to "subversives" -- offered to resign and help the beleaguered president fight for survival. (Nixon declined.)
At the time, some held that if Nixon had tilted more towards Rumsfeld and Robert Finch earlier on, rather than Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, the president might have avoided Watergate entirely. But if Haldeman's diaries are any indicator, Nixon found Rumsfeld to be admirably Machiavellian. On May 21, 1970, as Nixon was fuming about disloyalty in the cabinet and contemplating a purge, Rumsfeld pointed out that a record of trying to work things out with the recalcitrant secretaries had to be established before firing them. The next line in Haldeman's entry: "[Nixon] Wants Don Rumsfeld brought more into the inner councils."
Though Nixon and Haldeman wanted Rumsfeld to take the GOP chairmanship in 1972 and run for Senate in Illinois, Rumsfeld seemed intent on staying in the executive branch, much to Haldeman's annoyance. (Rumsfeld, Haldeman wrote, had agreed with Ehrlichman that he should run for Senate, but then told Nixon, "that just wouldn't do, that he had to have an administration job for a year, which was a complete shock to the P[resident] and E[hrlichman], and typical Rumsfeld, rather slimy maneuver.") Off he went to NATO, apparently hoping for something bigger later in the administration, but not a White House staff job. After Nixon's resignation, however, Ford prevailed upon Rumsfeld to come back as his chief of staff -- though according to rumors that were anemically denied, only for a set period of time. According to Osborne (whose prodigious reporting became one of the definitive accounts of the Ford Administration), Rumsfeld "wanted an assignment with a political future and White House staff positions, however exalted, seldom offered that." The conventional wisdom held that after a certain interval, Ford would slide Rumsfeld into a cabinet post.
Once at the White House, the Rummy didn't even want to be called "chief of staff," but "coordinator." As "coordinator," however, Rumsfeld wielded a tremendous amount of power, and did it with gusto. In addition to firing two of Betty Ford's secretaries, he was seen by many as moving to isolate Ford from longtime associates, like speechwriter Robert Hartmann. ("He's another Bob Haldeman," a White House staffer said at the time, "only he smiles.") Also considered to have vice-presidential aspirations for 1976, the Rummy saw to it that Nelson Rockefeller's staff was cut to the bone, and later, in
Rockefeller's implicit view, orchestrated a subversive campaign to erode his political base.
A series of uncomplimentary White House leaks and unflattering public remarks about Rockefeller by Ford campaign operative Howard Callaway was too much for Rockefeller, who angrily confronted "the coordinator." Rumsfeld vociferously denied having anything to do with the leaks, but, as Osborne reported, Rockefeller's response -- "he said rather coldly that he had no choice but to take Rumsfeld's denials and assurances at face value" -- did not telegraph faith in Rumsfeld's veracity. Consensus, Osborne wrote, was that the Rummy might know a bit more than he let on: "Rumsfeld, who hoped in 1974 that he would be Mr. Ford's choice for appointment to the vice presidency, professes to hold Nelson Rockefeller in the highest esteem and to have no designs on the 1976 nomination [but] Rockefeller and his principal assistants are aware that Rumsfeld and his deputy Richard Cheney are actually running the President's pre-nomination campaign and that Callaway gets most of his orders from them."
As such, no one had heard an "expression of admiration and affection for Donald Rumsfeld in Nelson Rockefeller's vicinity." By fall of 1975, Rockefeller was out as the 1976 vice presidential nominee. By this time, Rumsfeld was concentrating on taking out another target: Henry Kissinger.
Though Ford had implored Kissinger to stay on in his administration, Rumsfeld began to chip away at Kissinger's access and public perception. Rumsfeld was frequently chatty with reporters on diplomatic missions so long as they quoted him only as a "senior American official." Some of Kissinger's partisans in the press corps found Rumsfeld's campaign against the K so heavy-handed they virtually outed him as Kissinger's nemesis. On the flight back from a European meeting on Air Force One, they attributed deep background remarks to "a senior American official very familiar with NATO who was traveling with the President," thus leaving little doubt as to who was gunning for the K. "What had become clear," John Newhouse wrote in War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, was that "Ford was taking advice from Rumsfeld on policy questions, which meant he was taking political advice from him, because policy and presidential politics had converged."
Ironically, it was less than 10 years later that Rumsfeld's name was being bandied about as a candidate for Kissinger's old job, Secretary of State. On the heels of his 1983 appointment by Ronald Reagan as the Special Envoy to the Middle East, conventional wisdom held that if George Shultz decided to retire, Rumsfeld was his likely -- and personally favored -- replacement. Alas for Rumsfeld, the six months he spent shuttling between the capitals of the Arab world demonstrated that when it came to diplomacy, he wasn't ready for prime time. However tough and effective Rumsfeld was in previous
incarnations, he met his match -- perhaps for the only time in his career -- in Hafez Assad.
Essentially charged with getting the Syrians, Israelis, Palestinians and U.S.-trained Lebanese army and militia units to abide by a May 17, 1983, accord calling for cadre withdrawals from Lebanon, Rumsfeld would spent late 1983 and early 1984 trying to further the Reagan Administration's policy of propping up Amin Gemayl's floundering Phalangist presidency. As the Reagan policy amounted to support for Israel's 1982 invasion and occupation (under Ariel Sharon's direction) of southern Lebanon, Assad told Shultz that Syria wasn't going to withdraw its troops. Though Syria wouldn't accept the
May 17 deal, the U.S. seemed to believe the country could eventually be brought to heel, and sought to do so through repeated shelling of Lebanon -- an action which (a) had the affect of radicalizing Muslims and Arabs in Lebanon and elsewhere, and (b) begetting the car bomb attack which killed U.S. Marines in their Beirut compound.
On his first two visits to Damascus after his November 1983 appointment, Assad wouldn't even deign to meet with Rumsfeld -- a clear diplomatic slight. Assad later added insult to injury by having a productive meeting with Jesse Jackson. Devoid of "special envoy" status, Jackson flew to Syria and successfully secured the release of downed American Navy flier Robert Goodman, who was shot down in December 1983 during a U.S. retaliatory raid against the Syrians for firing on U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. Both Assad and Jackson made much of the fact that Rumsfeld had never even mentioned
Goodman's name on his previous visits.
Chagrined, Rumsfeld and others responded that they hadn't discussed Goodman
for fear the Syrians would seek to use his release as a bargaining chip in the troop withdrawal negotiations. As reports from the time reveal, veteran diplomats and Arabists found this absurd; it seemed clear to them that Rumsfeld and Shultz were in far over their heads, oblivious to the nuances and complexities of Mideast geopolitics. It wasn't just that they had failed to grasp that the Syrians could not be compelled to accept the
May 17 accords, career diplomats explained at the time; Rumsfeld and others didn't get Syrian diplomacy, which is usually only responsive to repeated visits from a knowledgeable Secretary of State.
By the time Assad met with Rumsfeld in January 1984 on the latter's third trip to Damascus, Reagan's Lebanon policy was already in tatters, and Assad stuck to his guns: There would be absolutely no Syrian withdrawal until all the Israelis, as well as the battered multinational peacekeeping force of Americans, Italians, Britons and French, pulled out. As it became clearer that the administration had set itself up for failure by backing one group of combatants while insisting the U.S. was in fact an honest broker,
congressional Democrats who had voted to extend the U.S. Marine presence in Lebanon began to shift their views. The Rumsfeld and Shultz response: Charge the congressional critics with aiding Syria at the U.S.'s expense. According to a career U.S. diplomat interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor, this was more than a stretch. The blame, he said, lay with Rumsfeld, Shultz and the White House staff. "We never understood that we didn't have the assets to carry out the macho policy we were launched on," he said, explaining that "there was an assumption in the administration that just about anyone can handle foreign policy."
Rumsfeld -- who had said from the beginning that he'd only do the Middle East gig for six months -- resigned in May, with little to show for his efforts except an emboldened and resolute Assad. Though all of this happened 16 years ago, some observers hold that the episode highlights a Rumsfeld weakness, especially in today's world: an inability to appreciate the subtleties of situations where American power and force, however looming they might appear, won't work, or are likely to create more problems than they solve. In some respects, he may have learned his lesson; his early comments expressing disdain for using the military in the drug war appear give some reassurance that he won't champion an increased Pentagon role in Colombia.
But whether or not Rumsfeld really appreciates the complications of tending to the Latin America part of his portfolio remains to be seen. He inherits de facto stewardship of the controversial Plan Colombia, and at a time when Brazil, Panama and Venezuela are growing increasingly opposed to U.S. military aid and intervention in Colombia while Ecuador is actively seeking it (and the infusion of U.S. dollars). And most of Latin America still harbors intense suspicions that the U.S. seeks post Cold War hegemony, through a combination of U.S.-supported neoliberal economic policies and "counternarcotics" assistance. As most inter-American policy has been meted out between the Treasury Department, the U.S. Trade Representative and the Defense Department, over the past eight years -- with Foggy Bottom on the sidelines -- it's not hard to see why the view is persistent.
And it's not just a view exclusive to Latin America. In the past decade, the U.S.'s regional overseas military heads -- the Commanders in Chief, or CINCS, of the Southern, Central, Pacific and European Commands -- has increasingly eclipsed the State Department in the realm of foreign relations. As international security policy is hashed out, the most crucial players may become the CINCS. While these proconsuls are a new variable for Rumsfeld -- their legislated elevation of authority came in 1986, a decade after Rumsfeld left the Pentagon -- Powell knows them and their system quite well.
"It's entirely possible," says a veteran Pentagon officials, "that the CINCs will see their interests better served by a closer-than-ever relationship with the State Department under Powell. In many respects, they're more moderate than the civilians in Congress and DoD."
While Rumsfeld's clique is hot on missile defense, weaponizing space, demonizing China and funding the Iraqi opposition, there are career officers and civilians leery of weapons programs with a ridiculous burn rate, who don't see a need to create additional enemies. Their views are closer to Powell's, and how they interface across bureaucratic lines will be interesting to watch. "If Powell and Rumsfeld come together and say, 'Let's use the collective capability of Defense and State and the power of the CINCs to do cohesive and coherent things in the service of sound policy,' it could be pretty awesome," the Pentagon veteran says. "But that depends on a lot of factors that aren't clear yet, and the picture could be much more fractured. Because one of the problems with defense modernization figuring out who the fuck the enemy is. Expect Rumsfeld and his people to create enemies."