My travels with Donald Rumsfeld


One of my most incongruous memories of the cover of Donald Rumsfeld, who died this week at the age of 88, was to see the US Secretary of Defense receive a lesson in Irish revolutionary history at the Shannon Airport bar .

Returning from a trip to China, we were stopped at Shannon to refuel. Telling him that he was rude about not drinking with an Irishman in his own country, I convinced Rumsfeld to join the journalists and helpers to drink.

While Rumsfeld drank Irish coffee, the bartender explained how one of the journalists had committed a sin by ordering a “Black & Tan” – the name given to a controversial British police unit during the Irish War of Independence, but a drink in the States United. It was a joyous time for someone whose own blunders made him land often in trouble.

During his career, Rumsfeld has held a myriad of roles, including as congressman, NATO ambassador and White House chief of staff to Gerald Ford, who made him later secretary of defense. When George W Bush appointed him to the same role in 2000, Rumsfeld made history by being both the youngest and oldest head of the Pentagon – and the only person to hold the role twice.

Bush nominated Rumsfeld both because of his security credentials and because as executive director of GD Searle, a pharmaceutical company, he had won applause for an effective restructuring of a large organization, and Bush wanted someone to reform the Pentagon. . But it has been thrown into a very different role after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which led to the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

When I started covering Rumsfeld in 2004, the Iraq war was almost a year old. The jubilation that had come with the capture of Saddam Hussein was turning into frustration when a powerful insurgency was born in the country.

After being caught for the speed with which the United States had killed Saddam, Rumsfeld became the poster for everything that went wrong in Iraq, much of which was due to a lack of planning and insufficient American troops.

Yet, even before Iraq descends into a treacherous state, he will evade harsh questions with his verbal dexterity. In a city of egos, he distinguishes himself as someone who was so sure he would never accept guilt.

When widespread looting swept across Iraq, his response was: “Freedom is disorderly” and “things are happening.” The insurgents were “dead.” When a soldier asked why America was so slow to arm its Humvees, he replied, “Go to war with the army you have.” Rumsfeld, who used a desk in the square, wrote: “I work 8-10 hours a day. Why is it limited to 4 hours? “

A former Navy pilot and wrestling champion at Princeton, Rumsfeld was hyper competitive. An avid squash player, he played his assistants the hard ball – a form of play that requires less running to give them an advantage – and jokingly posted the sign on the office door when he won.

While it was difficult to separate the man from the secretary of defense, Rumsfeld had charm and intelligence. But he also had a dark stripe that saw him intimidate people, including his generals. His fighting ability once led Richard Nixon to call him a “ruthless bastard.”

I experienced his abrasiveness on a trip to North Africa when he punished me on a blog that, he said, made him sound like he was traveling in luxury. When a reporter joked after Rumsfeld was afraid to play me squash, he exclaimed contemptuously, “What, this scumbag who wants to be the Financial Times’ food editor?” (I had interviewed him for Lunch with the FT just before the trip.) The real reason for his anger, I learned later, was that he had written that the military doctor distributed sleeping pills. to the print body by plane. He never let me travel with him.

But while Rumsfeld, as the former CEO of a pharmaceutical company, was very concerned about the prospect of giving sleep aides, he showed little concern for his image when it came to treating Guantanamo detainees, either. that Iraq did not have the weapons of mass destruction that the US claimed justified the fateful invasion.

One of his most vocal critics was Senator John McCain, who said he would “go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of defense.” He is often compared to Robert McNamara, the Vietnam War-era defense secretary, who also entered the public pantheon of evil defense officers. Yet, unlike McNamara, who later showed some remorse, Rumsfeld never showed remorse for the Iraq war, which killed nearly 500,000 people and left the country in chaos from which it failed. he also recovered.

Whether Rumsfeld has ever expressed remorse in private will remain, in his words, “a familiar unknown.”

demetri.sevastopulo@ft.com



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