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Enigma Variations: The Rumsfeld Phenomenon
Last uploaded : Thursday 20th Mar 2003 at 23:55
Contributed by : The Editor



[Photograph of United States Defence Secretary Donald H Rumsfeld at the Pentagon
by Mike Lynaugh 7 November 2002}

As an accompaniment/update to this article we highly recommend:


Since the original article below was posted to this site on 4 March, a further controversy has arisen around the words of the American Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

On March 11th at a Pentagon briefing he suggested that the invasion of Iraq might have to go ahead without major British participation. In the days leading up to his comments, we in Britain were acutely aware of a colossal Parliamentary crisis about to befall Prime Minister Tony Blair. Polls were suggesting that a mere 20% of the British public supported involvement in an Iraq engagement. So Rumsfeld, in a deliberate and thoughtful discourse, answered the following question:
Q: Sir, support for a possible war is shrinking rapidly in Great Britain. Would the -- two questions. Would the United States go to war without Great Britain? And two, would the role of the British in an initial assault be scaled back?

Rumsfeld: This is a matter that most of the senior officials in the government discuss with the U.K. on a daily or every- other-day basis. And I had a good visit with the Minister of Defense of the U.K. about an hour ago. Their situation is distinctive to their country, and they have a government that deals with a parliament in their way, distinctive way. And what will ultimately be decided is unclear as to their role; that is to say, their role in the event that a decision is made to use force. There's the second issue of their role in a post-Saddam Hussein reconstruction process or stabilization process, which would be a different matter. And I think until we know what the resolution is, we won't know the answer as to what their role will be and to the extent they're able to participate in the event the President decides to use force, that would obviously be welcomed. To the extent they're not, there are workarounds and they would not be involved, at least in that phase of it.

Q: We would consider going to war without our closest ally, then?

Rumsfeld: That is an issue that the President will be addressing in the days ahead, one would assume.
Well, one would have thought Armageddon had begun. Every British newspaper, radio and television outlet jumped to the conclusion that Rumsfeld was showing typical American contempt for foreign military power and Anne McElvoy in ?The Evening Standard? went so far as to say that Rumsfeld would emerge from this period as the most destructive force in Western relations.

If one looks at ?The Guardian;??The Times;? ?The Independent? and other UK papers since 11 March one will find a treasure-trove of Rummy-bashing. This writer became so exasperated with ?Mr Smallweed,? a columnist for ?The Guardian? who has had an obsessive devotion to Rummy-trashing for some months now that I wrote to him. He mentioned me in his next column, but proceeded to trash Rumsfeld, or ?Ronald Dumsfeld? as he likes to call him, all over again. In ?The Times? colour supplement Michael Gove presented an impressive feature about the American Pentagon chief, calling his article ?High Noon for a Lonesome Cowboy? but the Times had to put a large colour picture of Rumsfeld on the supplement?s cover with devil eyes superimposed and the title ?Is This the Most Dangerous Man in the World?? Aside from the fact that I do not and never have seen the Defence Secretary as either a cowboy or dangerous, I am perplexed by the fury this man engenders.

Tonight on BBC ?Question Time,? nothing brought more applause and mirth than Daily Mirror Editor Piers Morgan?s loud and rather vulgar condemnation of Rumsfeld, whom he assessed as ?a cowboy? whom ?you just have to look at and you get sick.? (On the BBC panel were William Hague MP, Baroness Williams and Cabinet Minister Peter Hain MP but none seemed particularly bothered by this exercise in character assassination of an ally?s Defence Minister.)

The misrepresentation of a man whose erudition and wit are unmatched in any government anywhere in the world at the moment has even appeared in the American press. This week?s ?Newsweek? has a major feature about America the Hated by Fareed Zakaria, who tells the world in a large, boxed caption, ?Donald Rumsfeld often Quotes Al Capone. But should our guiding philosophy really be the street talk of a Chicago mobster?? Those of us who have watched Secretary Rumsfeld?s lengthy and detailed Pentagon briefings over the past two years will know that HE NEVER MENTIONS AL CAPONE. I happen to know that in Munich during the International Conference on Security in early February, Rumsfeld broke the ice with considerable urbanity at the official dinner by entertaining Bavarian Prime Minister Stoiber with an Al Capone quote: ?You will get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.?. End of story. He is not a cowboy. Nor is he a purveyor of gangsterism.

On 5 March the ubiquitous Rumsfeld was given a harsh grilling on national British television (BBC postponed its regularly scheduled prime-time programme for Dumsfeld the ?cowboy?) by David Dimbleby. The British have an obsession with two things: America?s support for Israel (translate: Britain lost Palestine and hates the idea that a phenomenon called Israel emerged after they left) and Rumsfeld?s visit to Saddam Hussein in 1983 (translate: Britain and Old Europe did some of their own dirty dealings with Saddam but of course, let?s blame the cowboys for his WMD.) In the two years in which I have been studying the emerging stardom of Rumsfeld I have never seen him lose his cool but Dimbleby?s barely-concealed contempt would have provoked Mahatma Gandhi. With uncharacteristic ire and devoid of his usual aplomb Rumsfeld expressed his resentment that his 1983 visit to Saddam had become a cause celebre ( had it been me, I would never have gone near Saddam even then, even if Iran was our mutual enemy) and became even more agitated when Dimbleby did the usual BBC shtick of accusing Rumsfeld of committing the unspeakable misdemeanour of -- heaven forbid -- supporting Jewish aspirations in the Territories. (See ?Rumsfeld on Israel? in our archive.)

On a lighter note, when TIME featured Rumsfeld on its cover last month with the large title ?PENTAGON WARLORD,? the magazine was inundated with letters from aggrieved readers and was compelled to make a short statement in red. The red-letter notice explained that many readers had been ?frightened? by the terrifying depiction of the Secretary (this seems to be a common antic amongst the media who perceive him in cartoons and drawings as some form of menacing Svengali), and one reader wrote in that she thought his eyes were more like those of Michelangelo?s David than those depicted in the sinister cover painting. (I wonder if her husband worries that she stops everything to write in defence of the doe-eyed septuagenarian?)

In the ?Vanity Fair? April issue many letters appeared in response to the February feature including one from a woman who described asking Rumsfeld to autograph the Annie Leibovitz portrait, at which he ?beamed,? but ultimate credit must go to Vanity Fair?s editors for placing a photo of Rummy atop the very full Letters page with the caption, ?Frankly my dear, I don?t give a Saddam.?

All in all, it has been a tough month for Rummy and one cannot blame him (if this is true) for saying what an American paper has quoted him as telling a friend: ?I am learning to hate the British.? In recent years, I have been having troubled sentiments about a country I know and love far better than any Bush man would, and it is interesting that a brief excursion into British hostility has so wounded the tough old Pentagon warhorse. Despite his ill-advised visit to Saddam in 1983, I remain impressed, and am proud to share the same birthplace and passport as Rumsfeld. That the eminent historian Sir John Keegan compared his working methods to those of Churchill and Lincoln cannot be taken lightly. He is a force to be reckoned with.

The following is the original article we posted on 4 March:

March 4, 2003
Some fourteen years ago, an event occurred in my life that has remained indelibly imprinted on my memory bank. In reviewing our lives, we have individual memories that to each of us are of immense importance. Some who read this will think my ?event? banal compared to the crises and tragedies that befall so many of us. However, I want to relate the story and hope it will provide a context, or serve as an allegory for the issues the second half of this commentary will examine.

In 1988 when I was a senior Drama executive with a British primetime network, our department was embarking on a major project: the filming of a play by Sir Terence Rattigan, a masterpiece about a sensational murder trial. I had spent six months negotiating with the Boulting Brothers? company, with the radio authority and with the Rattigan estate to secure the watertight rights to the film adaptation.

That year, a remarkable but little-known actress was about to make a sensation in a Hollywood film. I had seen her some time before in another film and had come in the next morning to excitedly tell my colleagues, who included the legendary Producer Sir John Woolf (?The Day of the Jackal;? ?Room at the Top;? ?Moulin Rouge;? ?The African Queen?) that I had seen a tremendous star being born.

When it came time to cast the plum role of the leading lady (the North American wife of an elderly Englishman), I pushed the actress, who was receiving rave reviews for her new film (it had not been released in the UK) and was being touted for the Best Actress Oscar. To use an aphorism made famous by BBC Radio 4?s ?Rumsfeld Daily Soundbytes,? she was to me 'a known known' whilst to some of my colleagues she was a ? known unknown? but to the management of the network company to which I was attached she was an ?unknown unknown.?

I battled for many days to get the company to cast her in the role, and she in turn was keen to play the part. We would have had to convert from video to film, (this would have guaranteed a lucrative main US network sale, our first ever, as we had only ever sold to PBS) but the management was not about to sanction a much higher budget for a 35mm production starring an ?unknown.' In the end, after weeks of much gnashing of teeth and shouting in corridors -- and repudiation of my powerful instincts about the new American star -- it was decided that an English actress would play the North American siren. The production, made on video, was a respectable effort. It has been shown on PBS several times. End of story.

But was it? What remains indelibly etched in my memory was the stubborn, closed-minded and arrogant attitude of the executives who presumed to tell me, a young American with her finger on the Hollywood pulse, what ?sells in Peoria.? This was my first experience of the breathtaking closed-mindedness of ?Old Europe,? whose contempt for the instincts of a native of the New World was breathtaking. The star I had spotted so many years ago has gone on to be a Hollywood and Broadway great.

This brings me, in a somewhat convoluted way, to the present worldwide debate about ?Old and New Europe? that was inspired by a man whom I consider to be one of the stars of public life but whose image is so utterly distorted as to make his admirers into a clan of pariahs. (Considering that one of his biggest admirers is the eminent historian Sir John Keegan I feel in honoured company.) No matter how I try to convince my wide circle of friends, neighbours and even American contacts that this man is a caring, thoughtful and articulate leader whose press briefings are usually an event to savour, I am repudiated. He has regularly discussed woth great erudition the dangers of Hezbollah; Saddam-supported Hamas suicide bombers; North Korea and al Qaeda, but here in Old Europe 'folks' will only see him as the evil Bush-clone creation of their imaginations. I am convinced that had my colleagues not been so closed-minded about him they would not be writing offensive and inaccurate diatribes about him as the Iraq conflict approaches.

The man in question is US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whom we first profiled here on 30th September 2002 in 'The Rummy Show' and 'Rumsfeld on Israel.' (See our archive.)

Those of us who once a week visit Planet Rummy and through journalistic requirements are compelled to keep track of events emanating from the Pentagon will be aware of a typically original statement made by Rumsfeld on Friday 28 February.

In what must be the seventieth Pentagon news briefing he has held since taking office in January 2001, Rumsfeld was in an exceptionally jovial mood, bantering with the reporters and shamelessly flirting with the females in the room. He asked the usually dour Barbara Starr of CNN why she was ?sitting in the penalty box ?--she was in the back row, miles away from her seat of honour at the front -- and she playfully replied that the Secretary had been late for the briefing, she had a story to file and did not want to stomp off from the front row mid-briefing. (Starr was the one who described Rumsfeld as ?just a big flirty pussycat? in the December 2002 special ?Sexiest Man Alive ? issue of ?People? Magazine in which the seventy-year-old Pentagon Chief was listed as Number Five Sexiest Man Alive.)

Now to the astonishing remark. Asked about US troop deployment in the Philippines, he grinned like a Cheshire cat and said :

'Oh, I think in the last analysis, the United States government .. daily demonstrates its inability to deal with nuance. '
(Laughter from Pentagon press corps)

If this quote were to be taken on its own without attribution one would assume it had been uttered by a writer for ?Truthout? or by a disaffected Democrat.

Considering the veritable earthquake Rumsfeld caused on this side of the ocean with his well-meaning ?Old Europe? remark not long ago, and subsequently with his ?lumping? of Germany with Libya and Cuba, one would have thought the world?s press would have jumped on this as a sign of a crack in the armour of the ?axis of hawks.? But no. In fact, over the weekend the left-leaning papers in this country, now fuelled by Spanish Prime Minister Aznar's extraordinarily impertinent condemnation of Rumsfeld, continued to write bilious editorials accusing the good-natured Defence chief of the usual string of reactionary premeditation. Prime Minister Aznar, in talks with Tony Blair and George W Bush last week, made no bones about his wanting Rumsfeld to be muzzled once and for all.

When asked about this at the Friday press conference, the Secretary's deft reply was in character:

Q: Mr. Secretary, the Spanish prime minister has been
quoted recently as urging President Bush -- or at least
suggesting that there be more Powell and less Rumsfeld. And I
was wondering --

Rumsfeld: That's not a bad idea! (Laughter.)

Q: -- are you inclined to take that advice?

Rumsfeld: Oh, goodness. I haven't heard it from the president.

(Scattered laughter.)

Much later, when the same reporter raised his hand:

Rumsfeld: No, I didn't like the earlier one you had.
Maybe I'll try someone -- (laughter) --

Q: I never get a --

Rumsfeld: (Laughing) Sorry! I'm kidding! I'm kidding!

At the end of a particularly gruelling period in his stewardship, culminating in the public tongue-lashing by Joschka Fischer in Munich a fortnight ago, Rumsfeld appears unaffected by the slings and arrows hurled his way. In December he gave a long and thoughtful discourse about Congressman Charles Rangel?s efforts to restore the military Draft. (The Democrats wish to bring back the Draft to ?hammer home to the hawks? the trauma of sending their own kin off to war. My personal feeling is that children of hawkish families will be more than willing to fight for their country. This is another example of Democrats clutching at straws, but that is another editorial?) The Defence chief explained that the long drawn out process of processing and training draftees was unsatisfactory and that this manner of intake wrecked the lives of the Draftees and their families and did not add anything to the military establishment. This caused an unholy uproar, with the Vietnam Veterans Association and the American Legion condemning Rumsfeld and one Vets? group demanding his immediate resignation.

This proud patriot, who had himself served as a gifted Navy pilot and had remained on Reserve lists until his retirement with the rank of Captain in 1989, who is cheered and clapped in a deafening roar on his frequent visits to the troops -- a man whom one would least expect to be ?anti-Veteran,? -- was forced to issue a long apology on the Pentagon website. Frankly, I found this a degrading end to an episode that should never have reached such levels of hysteria. Part of the problem, of course, is that the Democrats and liberals who had the election decided for them by the Supreme Court on 14 December 2000 are fixated on a belief that anyone who came in with George W Bush is a neo0-fascist intent on turning the United States into a dictatorship worse than anything Richard Nixon or Joe McCarthy could have envisaged. It also irritated me that a man of the character of Rumsfeld, who had refused to go to a bunker on September 11th 2001 when his own building was hit by a hijacked jetliner and who rescued the gravely injured with his own bare hands, could be misunderstood by the veterans? groups when in essence he was saying that the Vietnam Draft was a form of coercion that made the Draftees? lives a misery and plucked them from a world they did not want to leave, most particularly a military commitment they had no intention of making into a career.

This takes us back to the comments made this past Friday on the US government?s lack of ability on nuance, which no news agency has singled out, and which no international cartoonists have used as an example of painful reflection by a ? Bush hardliner.?

Near the end of the Friday briefing, in which, incidentally, the always forthcoming Rumsfeld explained at great length and in his typically professorial style the concept of ?balikatan ? (Filipino for shoulder to shoulder) , he looked out at the room full of reporters and said;

Rumsfeld: ..What I'm saying is that we are working through those details. I can't
understand why that isn't acceptable.

Q: Mr. Secretary --

Rumsfeld: You want to say, "Oh, Don, thank you!"

Q: Oh, Don, thank you! (Laughter.)

Rumsfeld: (Laughs.) That's good -- all together now! (Laughter.)

Q: Oh, Don, thank you!

Whether or not the White House will thank Don for his acerbic assessment of its ability to deal with nuance is an open question.

The fact that Rumsfeld was conspicuously absent from a long-hyped event today to announce the architects who are the winners of the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial commission was significant. Is he already being muzzled? What an irony it would be if the man whom Europe has come to hate for his hawkishness is now to be muzzled not because of a complaint from European leaders, but for making a frank observation about the conduct of the government. Whilst in Germany last month the Defence Secretary told a talk show host, anxious on behalf of her people about his having lumped her country with Cuba and Libya (to be exact, he was answering a Senator at a hearing who had asked which nations were without doubt the most obstreperous in supporting intervention and in fighting terror) that his forthrightness was a genetic trait derived from his German Lower Saxony forebears. Rumsfeld was promptly ?disowned? by his German relatives on national TV and even in a large spread in our own Sunday Telegraph.

So what is one to make of this mercurial cult hero? Across the Internet are numerous fan sites peopled by admirers whose erudition on world affairs often far exceeds that of some of my colleagues in the Fourth Estate. In the past eighteen months since September 11th 2001 scores of articles lauding the American Pentagon chief have appeared across the world, written by some of the trade?s most eminent journalists and culminating last month with Sir John Keegan?s excellent feature in ?Vanity Fair? in which the historian likened Rumsfeld to Lincoln and Churchill. (Needless to say, how many Defence Secretaries have ever had the full treatment in ?Vanity Fair,? including a glamorous full-page portrait by the legendary Annie Leibovitz?) At the Fortune Forum dinner last November, Rumsfeld was introduced by Dick Parsons of AOL Time Warner as ?The Stud,? quoting the moniker first given to ?Rummy? by National Review Magazine. Here is a man who on the one hand is reviled in most of the world and parodied in Britain and Old Europe, but whose press briefings continue to be so engaging as to make his foibles somehow excusable.

At the end of the Friday briefing this extraordinary exchange took place:

Rumsfeld: I'm going to close the session by asking our
friend General Richard Myers how old he's going to be tomorrow.

Myers: And I thought we had a relationship! (Laughter.) This is -- (chuckles) --

Q: I think you do, and that was evidence. (Laughter.)

Myers: I'll be 61 tomorrow?.

Rumsfeld: Just a child. (Laughter, cross talk.)

Q: You're a child.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you know that Antarctica is a
continent? Antarctica is a continent, and you keep saying that
there are terrorists from every continent and coalition partners
from every continent.

Rumsfeld: Can you assure me there are not? (Laughter.)

Q: No, but you said that there were.

Q: If you would release a list, sir --

Rumsfeld: I stand corrected.

Q: Do you have evidence --

Rumsfeld: How old are you today?

Q: I'm not at liberty to say. (Laughter.)?.
I've seen some of those penguins that look like they might --

The man one sees time and again in public view bears little resemblance to the ogre created by the European media. To take it to an extreme, I am reminded by the grotesque and in some cases obscene cartoons of the Bush team in our papers of the terrible parodies of Jews in 1930s Germany. That Richard Dawkins can ascribe to the bumbling George Bush the description ? uncouth fundamentalist redneck? and ?swaggering lout? in the Indy this past Saturday is as worrying as the descriptions of Zionists in anti-Semitic literature. (Has Richard Dawkins ever met Dubya? Would he rather spend time with Gaddafy or Mugabe? Are they not also ?swaggering louts?)

In ?The Independent? this past week it was suggested in no less than the leader editorial that Donald Rumsfeld is a venomous hawk hell-bent on removing the United Nations from the shores of the United States inasmuch as he sees it as a threat to democracy. Is this the same thoughtful, sometimes offbeat speaker whom I have heard on innumerable occasions in the recent past, and whose only criticism of the UN came last month when he expressed astonishment at the fact that the erstwhile body had offered chairmanships of Committees including Human Rights and Disarmament to Iraq, Syria and Libya?

It is reassuring to me (you can gather by now that I did not march on February 15th) that the United States has at the helm of its military machine a man who can survive one of the most worrying periods of anti-Americanism in living memory and come out with warmth and humour. I would not trade Don Rumsfeld for Chirac, Schroeder, or any ?swaggering lout? and challenge those who write vitriolic personal attacks on him (including some in the USA) to entertain and enlighten as he does; the fact that the man was nearly reduced to tears in recent months is a heartening reminder of his humanity. Another American who likes to cry is George W. How many Americans? farms has he confiscated? How many Zimbabweans? farms has Mugabe confiscated? Who is the swaggering lout?

Rumsfeld likes to refer to those who ?strut like banty roosters.? I'd feel secure in his coop.


Carol Gould is the author of 'Spitfire Girls,' a novel about the women pilots of Air Transport Auxiliary in World War II.

To read the complete transcript of the Pentagon briefing quoted in this article, please go to:
Mike Lynaugh Photography


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