Donald Rumsfeld: Matinee Idol or Prevaricator-in-Chief?

News & Politics

Just when you thought the press coverage of the Bush administration's war on terrorism couldn't get more surreal, along came the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 31 to up the ante. In an essay in the newspaper's "Leisure and Arts" section, journal editorial board member Claudia Rosett described Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's press briefings on the war in Afghanistan as "the best new show on television." Rosett enthusiastically cited CNN's description of Rumsfeld as a "virtual rock star" and Fox News' description of the Pentagon chief as "a babe magnet for the 70-year old set." She went on to argue that "in recent weeks, the geriatric qualifiers have pretty much faded away, and in print and on the air, we've been hearing about Donald Rumsfeld, sex symbol, the new hunk of home-front air time."

The adulation has carried over into the new year. During a January 20th interview with Rumsfeld on NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert held up a copy of National Review with a cover story entitled "The Stud: Donald Rumsfeld, America's New Pinup." And in a Jan. 22 essay, New York Times fashion reporter Ginia Belafonte argued that "the post-Sept. 11 world has caused a certain kind of woman to reevaluate what she is looking for in a man. She has seen the valiant efforts of rescue workers and remarked to herself that men like Donald Rumsfeld make big, impactive decisions in the time it would take any of her exes to order lunch."

There's obviously no accounting for tastes, but it is interesting to probe the roots of this newfound attraction to America's warmaker-in-chief. The Wall Street Journal's Rosett argues that "the world loves a winner," a variation on Henry Kissinger's claim that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." In addition, she claims that "the basic source of Rumsfeld's charm is that he talks straight." On this score, Rosett cites with approval Rumsfeld's statement that the goal of the U.S. war effort is "to capture or kill all the Al Qaeda." Ms. Rosett is so smitten with Rumsfeld's performances that she actually suggests that "if you don't own a TV, I'd suggest buying one just to watch him."

Leaving aside the strong possibility that Rumsfeld's alleged sex appeal is evidence of a rare strain of war fever that has infected certain regions of the American body politic, you have to admit there's something different about his public relations strategy. Unlike most public figures these days who tend to dance around issues in the hopes of coming across as likeable, Rumsfeld likes to go on the attack, using preemptive verbal strikes to disarm, befuddle, and intimidate his questioner, even as he manages to come across as an amiable fellow.

Rumsfeld may relish "straight talk" about "killing" Al Qaeda members, but as media critic Norman Solomon has noted, the Defense Secretary has been loathe to deal seriously with the question of civilian deaths caused by U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan. From the outset Rumsfeld and his official spokespersons have reacted harshly to questions about civilian casualties, alternating between blaming them on the Taliban, or claiming that the Afghan sources reporting the bombing deaths are unreliable, or stating that they picked the target based on "solid intelligence," or simply stating that in the fog of war it's hard to really know for sure who killed whom using what.

Even as he warns his critics to be cautious about making claims about civilian casualties, Rumsfeld himself shows no such restraint as he repeatedly makes blanket statements such as the following "I can't imagine there's been a conflict in history where there has been less collateral damage, less unintended consequences."

A new report from the Project on Defense Alternatives, "Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a Higher Rate of Civilian Bombing Casualties," contradicts Rumsfeld's claim. The report notes that the number of civilians killed by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan to date is at least 900 to 1,500, a figure two to three times as high as the civilian casualty rate during the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo. In Afghanistan, the fatality rate per bomb dropped is four times higher than in Kosovo. Reasons cited for the higher civilian death rate included a greater percentage of unguided bombs used in Afghanistan, the targeting of residential areas in efforts to hit Taliban leadership, and "reliance on intelligence from local sources who were at times less than trustworthy."

The PDA study makes a more conservative estimate of civilian bombing deaths than an ongoing data base maintained by Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire, who has used press accounts to assemble an estimate of over 4,000 civilian deaths in the war. But don't expect Rumsfeld to respond seriously to either report -- according to military expert William Arkin, neither the Pentagon, nor the Air Force, nor the U.S. intelligence community are planning to take a close look at the issue of civilian casualties in their forthcoming studies of U.S. military performance in Afghanistan.

Similarly, when human rights groups, U.S. allies in Europe, and UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson raised questions about Rumsfeld's decision to treat Taliban and Al Qaeda captives as "unlawful combatants" who are not entitled to the rights granted to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions and to house them in chain link cages, he brushed off the criticism. Rumsfeld argued that the makeshift prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was "not a country club," but that it was better than the conditions they had experienced in Afghanistan. On January 22nd, in an hour long session with reporters on the issue, Rumsfeld referred to the cages in which the prisoners were held, which are big enough to hold a sleeping mat and a bucket that serves as a toilet, as "sunny Guantanamo." His recent "photo op" trip to Guantanamo Bay to convince foreign reporters that all is well there avoids the basic point: that prisoners are entitled to the rights set out in the Geneva Conventions at least until their status has been determined by a legitimate judicial body. But that would interfere with U.S. officials desire to squeeze as much information out of the captives as possible as quickly as possible without being bound by the niceties of the Geneva accords.

Rumsfeld's depiction of the Pentagon's budget for the war on terrorism has been equally misleading. He spent the first nine months of 2001 arguing that he was going to "transform" the U.S. military by canceling or cutting back obsolete systems to forge a quicker, more mobile force. But Rumsfeld's budgets for this year and next have managed to retain every major weapons program that was in the pipeline when he came into office, including nuclear attack submarines, heavy destroyers, the 70-ton Crusader artillery system, and the $200 million per copy F-22 fighter plane. This despite the fact that these systems were designed to fight heavily armored Soviet forces, not the terrorists and so-called "rogue regimes" that are the Pentagon's current enemies of choice. President Bush's recent announcement that he will seek a $48 billion increase in Pentagon spending this year confirms what had long been suspected: notions of military reform have taken second place to the "needs" of weapons contractors, military bureaucrats, and members of Congress from militarily -- dependent states and districts. But don't expect the "straight-talking" Mr. Rumsfeld to admit that.

As Paul Krugman of the New York Times has noted, Rumsfeld's decision to save the Crusader system from the budget ax directly benefited his old college roommate and wrestling partner Frank Carlucci, whose Carlyle Group investment company owns United Defense, the manufacturer of the Crusader. Carlyle, which also employs former Secretary of State James Baker and former President George Herbert Walker Bush, took United Defense public late last year and raised over $200 million in capital in the process. Suggestions that Rumsfeld may have cut a deal to help an old buddy (not to mention the company that employs our current president's father) have been met with the argument that Don Rumsfeld just doesn't do that kind of thing.

After particularly harsh treatment at the hands of Rumsfeld while she was attempting to interview him late last year, Newsweek reporter Lally Weymouth tried to make nice and flatter him by noting that people were saying he was "the new Gary Cooper." That does not sound quite right. A better person to compare Rumsfeld to might be the compulsive liar played by Jon Lovitz in his old Saturday Night Live routines. The only difference is that Rumsfeld is so much better at distorting the truth -- with thousands of lives and billions of dollars on the line -- that somehow it's just not funny. If Rumsfeld's gruff humor and congenital evasiveness are what's fashionable these days, our democracy is in even deeper trouble than I thought.

William D. Hartung is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute.

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