On Donald Rumsfeld

July 05, 2021 10:01
Donald Rumsfeld was the chief architect of America’s response to the 9/11 attacks. Photo: Reuters

Donald Rumsfeld passed away at the age of 88 on June 29.

Rumsfeld was a remarkable figure, for a plethora of reasons – from his unscrupulous and contentious approach to media and press relations, to his wanton disregard for human lives during the Iraq War, to the fact that he had twice served as Secretary of Defense, both as the youngest and second-oldest person on record to have done so.

Born in 1932 in Illnois, Rumsfeld descended from a family of German migrants that had settled in the United States in the late 19th century. He was educated at Princeton, where he was an amateur wrestler and avid sportsman. After brief stints in the army, investment banking, and political aide work, he was first elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 30, cultivating elaborate ties with factions – including those of Gerald Ford – through his suave politicking and lobbying skills. Rumsfeld had persistently raised questions over the viability and tenability of American war efforts in Vietnam – asking questions that he barely raised over the Iraq War, three decades down the road.

Nixon appointed Rumsfeld to a range of executive posts, in which the latter groomed proteges such as Dick Cheney and Frank Carlucci through imparting his distinctive approach to politics – an enigmatic blend of ruthless efficiency, trenchant assertiveness, and sycophancy in face of those with higher powers. Indeed, his efforts paid off – Gerald Ford later picked Rumsfeld to become his Chief of Staff in 1974 – followed by an appointment to the post of Secretary of Defense in 1975.

After retiring temporarily from frontline politics in 1977 and dabbling in the private sector, Rumsfeld found himself “summoned” by his former mentee – Dick Cheney – to serve in George Bush’s administration. Rumsfeld was the chief architect of America’s response to the 9/11 attacks – including the planning and execution of the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the proposal and subsequent passage of the Patriot Act.

To give credit where credit was due, Rumsfeld was praised by many for his “wit” (New York Times), his “straight-talking” candour (U.S. News and World Report), and willingness to push back against politicians who had sought to challenge or override the directives and interests of the Pentagon. He had sought to streamline and modernise the defense programme of the country, through reducing actively committed forces and shifting towards high-technology combat systems and air forces as the primary mode of field warfare.

Yet he was also – by all normative counts and measures of the word – a war criminal. The Iraq War – spurred by deeply spurious claims about the alleged harbouring of weapons of mass destruction in the country – wreaked total havoc on the Middle Eastern country. The Lancet survey put an estimate on 600,000 violent deaths out of 650,000 excess deaths induced by the Iraq War between March 2003 and June 2006. Classified, leaked documents (WikiLeaks) in October 2010 revealed that over 66,000 civilians died as a result of the military confrontations – with many taken and treated as “inevitable collateral damage” in a war that could have, and should have been avoided.

Rumsfeld pioneered the view that the United States should seek to disguise its geopolitical and economic ambitions in the Middle East in the guise of human rights – he built upon the past experience the country had accrued during the Gulf War in fighting in the region, by advancing an ambitious, regime-toppling agenda. In pulling down governments labelled as authoritarian by the United States, Rumsfeld saw the prospects and path towards the preservation of American hegemony and imperialism in the region.

And the costs of that are apparent for all to see. From huge economic devastation to the cultivation and propagation of staunchly anti-Western rhetoric and animosity, from precipitating the rise of ISIS to the enabling of regional terrorist organisations in recruiting local citizens, and – above all – to the abject poverty and destitution millions were left under… these were costs that Rumsfeld must and ought to be held accountable for to a very large extent, even if not for their entirety. He had blood on his hands – he has blood on his hands.

In reflecting upon Rumsfeld’s involvement and legacy, one inevitably would be struck by the semi-philosophical musing: to what extent are individuals truly responsible for their own conduct, given the structural constraints and adversities that constrain one’s agency. Surely, in lieu of attacking the individual, we should attack the system, instead?

Yet this view misses the point. It misses the point that in some cases, individual agency does indeed matter. That there indeed are consequences that individual persons can bring about through their own will, and that must be attributed to their own successes and failures, their strengths and inadequacies. For as we dismantle the very structures that ostensibly shackle our arms and tie us to particular outcomes, we would find, unsurprisingly, that these structures are propped and held up by the hands of individuals – ambitious, cantankerous agents, who could have acted otherwise, who could have done more (or less), yet, due to their sheer self-interested egotism, refused to do so. And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how unjust structures are formed and enabled – by those who stand by idly and do nothing.

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Assistant Professor, HKU