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Book Salon: Andrew Cockburn on Rumsfeld

Cockburn on Rumsfeld

Firedoglake is pleased and honored to welcome Andrew Cockburn, acclaimed writer and lecturer on defense and national affairs, to discuss his new book, Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy. Andrew is the co-author, with brother Patrick Cockburn, of Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein and the co-author with wife Leslie Cockburn of One Point Safe and Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship.

On Friday I previewed the first half of Rumsfeld, which Cockburn begins on the morning of 9/11. That was when Rumsfeld made himself a hero by pushing gurneys with injured Pentagon employees, while forgetting he was in the chain of command and out of touch while this country was under attack and Dick Cheney, who wasn't in the chain of command, was ordering the Air Force to shoot passenger planes out of the sky.

But to get to that moment, Cockburn circles back to Rumsfeld's early political career as an undistinguished Congressman, and then Director of Nixon's Office of Economic Opportunity. During a brief stint in Europe as a NATO official, we learn how Rumsfeld cleverly set himself up for Nixon's eventual resignation, which allowed Rumsfeld to become President Ford's WH Chief of Staff, followed by his first tour as Secretary of Defense under Ford. In addition, we read fascinating details of how Rumsfeld conspired to convince Gerald Ford to dump Nelson Rockefeller, hoping that Ford would pick Rumsfeld as his VP running mate in 1976. In the process he marginalized and alienated his rival for the spot, George H. W. Bush, earning an enemy for life from the father and his allies, but unfortunately, not the son.

When Carter became President in 1976, Rumsfeld became CEO of the pharmaceutical company, G.D. Searle. In a chilling chapter, Cockburn traces how the new CEO used his Washington connections to help secure FDA approval of aspartame (aka, NutraSweet and Equal), an artificial sweetner that early tests linked to brain tumors. It made Rumsfeld a rich man.

Through Cockburn's discerning eye, we see an ambitious, arrogant, and essentially unprincipled man who believed he should be President and who used every position he had to undermine and manipulate the men around him who stood in his way. In telling this story, Cockburn reveals the myth of Rumsfeld's managerial competence, the carefully packaged image (via Karen Hughes) that he was an effective CEO and administrator, when in fact the man rarely accomplished what he claimed, never followed up on his own recommendations — the infamous "snowflake" memos became a Pentagon joke — but spent countless hours immersed in the details of matters well beyond his expertise — like how to provide logistics for the Army (his plan left the medics out of the invasion plans), not to mention how to torture people. His vision of "transformation" of the armed services, driven by Star Wars fantasies of a computerized system in which men could conduct and win wars from their laptops in the Pentagon turned out to be little more than a cover for the huge expansion in more traditional military spending for complex systems unlikely ever to work as advertised — a still hidden financial/budget legacy we will face for decades.

Cockburn devotes the second half of his story to Rumsfeld's disastrous reign as Defense Secretary for Bush 43 and his role in the Afghan and Iraq wars. Here we see the ambitious Rumsfeld setting up his empire to become, next to Cheney and Bush, the most powerful man on the planet. By intimidating the Pentagon's generals, he controlled the world's most powerful armed forces and by far the largest discretionary portion of the federal budget, though he essentially gave up on trying to trim it. And as both Colin Powell and Condi Rice would learn, Rumsfeld had a veto on US foreign policy, which he used to squash State Department efforts at diplomacy and accommodation.

As Cockburn documents, the debacle of Iraq is as much Rumsfeld's debacle as anyone's. It is hard even to summarize the magnitude of this catastrophe, but I appreciate the fact that Cockburn is unflinching as he documents Rumsfeld's personal role in the major crimes: the effort using Feith and others to bypass the intelligence services in order to mislead the country about WMD and the reasons for invading Iraq; the gross incompetence in planning and implementing the invasion and occupation, particularly relating to the number of troops that would be needed and what to expect once you've toppled a regime; and Rumsfeld's (and Wolfowitz') personal responsibility in setting up the environment and rules for torture, which were applied first to Afghani and presumed al Qaeda prisoners and then to Iraqis. Although Cockburn does not use the terms, he is clearly describing war crimes and leaves no doubt about who was responsible.

There is a particularly disturbing section on torture, and what happened to PUCs — "persons under confinement" — in the environment fostered by Rumsfeld's obsession with extracting information. As retold by a sergeant from the 82nd Airborne, guard duty with the prisoners became a highly sought after assignment, because it allowed the guards to brutalize the PUCs:

People would just volunteer just to get their frustrations out. We had guys from all over the base just come to guard PUCs so they could fuck them up.

It seems Rumsfeld (as well as Wolfowitz and others) took a personal interest in how well the tactics he had authorized were working to extract information from the Afghani and Iraqi prisoners. And he was not happy:

Scathingly, he compared the quality of the Iraqi information with the excellent intelligence that was now, in his view, being extracted from prisoners being held at Guantanamo, or "Gitmo," as the military termed it, under the able supervision of prison commander Major General Geoffrey Miller. Rumsfeld concluded his diatribe with a forthright instruction to Cambone that Miller be ordered immediately to the Abu Ghraib prison and "Gitmoize it." Cambone, in turn, dispatched the deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence, Lieutenant General William Boykin, a fervent Christian fundamentalist given to deriding the Muslims' Allah as "an idol," to Cuba to brief Miller on his mission.

There is so much more in Rumsfeld; we follow the man through his repeated denials, the "revolt of the generals," and his eventual loss of favor and forced resignation. Cockburn has covered it all in a very readable, disturbing, and carefully researched book that I highly recommend. We are fortunate to have Andrew Cockburn here to answer our questions and discuss his book. Please welcome Andrew to Firedoglake and Book Salon.

And as usual during Book Salon, please keep all comments and questions on topic; if you wish to comment on other topics, you can use the prior thread.

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Book Salon: Andrew Cockburn on Rumsfeld

Cockburn on Rumsfeld

Firedoglake is pleased and honored to welcome Andrew Cockburn, acclaimed writer and lecturer on defense and national affairs, to discuss his new book, Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy. Andrew is the co-author, with brother Patrick Cockburn, of Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein and the co-author with wife Leslie Cockburn of One Point Safe and Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship.

On Friday I previewed the first half of Rumsfeld, which Cockburn begins on the morning of 9/11. That was when Rumsfeld made himself a hero by pushing gurneys with injured Pentagon employees, while forgetting he was in the chain of command and out of touch while this country was under attack and Dick Cheney, who wasn't in the chain of command, was ordering the Air Force to shoot passenger planes out of the sky.

But to get to that moment, Cockburn circles back to Rumsfeld's early political career as an undistinguished Congressman, and then Director of Nixon's Office of Economic Opportunity. During a brief stint in Europe as a NATO official, we learn how Rumsfeld cleverly set himself up for Nixon's eventual resignation, which (more…)

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley

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