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The American Prospect February 26, 2001

Darth Rumsfeld

Don Rumsfeld developed his foreign policy in the early 1970s, under President Gerald Ford. It was bad then. It's worse now.

BY JASON VEST; Washington-based journalist JASON VEST is a contributing editor to In These Times and Regardie's.

Since Donald Rumsfeld's appointment as secretary of defense was announced on December 28, approbatory phrases have been the order of the day. The Washington Post cast him as "elder statesman," while The New York Times characterized him as a "tough-minded manager." At his January 11 confirmation hearing, the servile aria started by the press was taken up by the Senate Armed Services Committee: Save for a few pointed questions on fiscal oversight by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, Rumsfeld's hearing could have passed for a mannerly colloquy of academics discussing the future of defense. On January 20, moments after George W. Bush was sworn in, Donald Rumsfeld -- "Rummy," as he is known to his friends -- was confirmed by the Senate.

To longtime defense policy observers and arms control advocates, watching the restoration of Rumsfeld to the Pentagon has been disconcerting. Though genuflected to by the Washington press corps and political establishment as a genteel graybeard, the real Rumsfeld may be, in fact, much closer to Darth Vader, both on defense issues and as a practitioner of politics. "The notion that he's a gray eminence," laments William Hartung, the World Policy Institute's veteran defense analyst and a longtime Rumsfeld watcher, "is, in large part, based on press laziness."

During his confirmation hearings and in the press, there has been hardly any mention of Rumsfeld's participation in a slew of far-right organizations going back to the 1970s. Nor has there been any real acknowledgment that the watershed ballistic missile panel he headed in 1998 was not the levelheaded "bipartisan" effort it claimed to be but, rather, a distressing flashback to one of the most outrageous intelligence manipulations of the Cold War. That the supposedly "moderate" chairman of this commission had an egregious conflict of interest has also escaped attention.

And while a few profiles have made passing references to Rumsfeld's Machiavellian power politicking during the Ford era, few seem to comprehend just how formidable he is likely to be within the Bush administration. Indeed, there's a striking parallel between the new administration's power structure and the regime Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney effectively controlled nearly 30 years ago, in which the duo set up a dominant advisory axis to a perceptibly weak-on-national-security president, in part by marginalizing a high-profile secretary of state seen as too moderate. Back then, Rumsfeld had a reliable coterie of proteges and comrades he could depend on in the service of furthering his goals. Three decades later, a new generation of Rumsfeld admirers is obsessed with the idea that a completely effective nuclear missile defense system can be deployed, giving America the power to use "peace through strength" in dealing with the rest of the world.

In 1975, when Gerald Ford fired James Schlesinger from the Pentagon and replaced him with Donald Rumsfeld, Washington's hawks were apoplectic: While Schlesinger was an advocate of big defense spending, Rumsfeld was an unknown; worse, he was seen to be a sop to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

As the 1976 election approached, a Kissinger ally was not the best thing to be. Ford was running scared from archconservative Ronald Reagan and his supporters, who held that two of the Ford administration's higher profiles -- Kissinger and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller -- were too liberal. ("Under Kissinger and Ford," Reagan intoned, "this nation has become number two in a world where it is dangerous -- if not fatal -- to be second best.") Conservatives were convinced that Kissinger's policy of detente with the Soviet Union would ultimately embolden the Russians to fight and win a nuclear world war.

So a friendly hawk phoned Rumsfeld and asked him if he had ever heard of Albert Wohlstetter, at the Rand Corporation. Rumsfeld said no. The friend told Rumsfeld to ask Wohlsteter to lunch -- and to make sure the press knew about it. A low-profile but eminently influential shaper of nuclear strategy, Wohlstetter was spiritual godfather to the Cold War's atomic hawks; his Rand Corporation reports had been a guiding light to hard-line strategists since the 1950s. Wohlstetter flew in from Rand for a two-and-half-hour lunch with Rumsfeld -- and "the hawks were rapturous," says Rumsfeld's comrade.

His conservative credentials established, Rumsfeld began to chip away at Kissinger's access and public image. Some of Kissinger's partisans in the press corps found Rumsfeld's campaign against the K so heavy-handed they virtually outed him as Kissinger's nemesis, by making Rummy's identity as a Kissinger-bashing source obvious. Then, on November 1, 1975, Ford fired William Colby, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Schlesinger, the secretary of defense, replacing them with George H. W. Bush and Rumsfeld, respectively. Though Kissinger remained as secretary of state, Ford stripped him of his position as national-security adviser. The greatest ignominy, however, was yet to come.

This year, in his January 11 confirmation hearing, Rumsfeld told Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy that if President Bush wants arms reductions lower than required by treaty, he'd support the president. But, he added, he would "offer his views" to the contrary: "I mean, people, honorable people, can come to different views, and I did with respect to SALT II." But the reality of SALT II -- the second phase of the strategic-arms-limitation talks between the Soviet Union and the United States -- belies Rumsfeld's gentle revisionism; in fact, Rumsfeld and his allies used hardball and subterfuge to kill the treaty and undermine Henry Kissinger.

In early December 1975, Ford and Kissinger embarked on a Pacific Rim swing. Afterward, Kissinger was going to head to Moscow, hoping to conclude negotiations for SALT II. En route to Jakarta from Hong Kong, however, Rumsfeld cabled Air Force One, rebuking Kissinger for even considering a Moscow trip without consulting Rumsfeld and others. Kissinger's Russia sojourn was nixed. Then, on December 6, columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported that a number of Ford advisers were "outraged" at Kissinger's "drafting top secret proposals for major concessions to Moscow." The column implied that only one man could save the republic from the betrayal of giving away the nuclear farm: Donald Rumsfeld.

Though the sources for the Evans and Novak column were anonymous, those in the know had little trouble divining who they were. A small group of conservative arms control opponents in the executive and legislative branches known as "the cabal" was becoming increasingly, if quietly, effective. To them -- Richard Perle, an aide to Democratic Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington (and the son-in-law of Wohlstetter); U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) Deputy Director John Lehman; and Lieutenant General Edward Rowny, among others -- Rumsfeld was an ally, and the antithesis of Kissinger, whose ideas of "detente" and "rapprochement" were anathema.

Ford thought he could protect himself from Ronald Reagan and satisfy the defense establishment hawks in both parties by nixing SALT II. Later, Ford's other advisers felt the move cost him the 1976 election. And in a 1988 interview, the former president wasn't shy about explaining why SALT II died. "The attitude in the Defense Department," he said, "made it impossible to proceed in the environment of 1976."

By March 1976, the word detente had disappeared from Gerald Ford's vocabulary. Meanwhile, a group of like-minded gentlemen continued to meet at Washington's exclusive Metropolitan Club for a series of discussions on what to do about the menace of detente and, in their view, the insatiable Soviet Union.

Out of these meetings came the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), whose existence revolved around the die-hard belief that the United States was failing to keep pace with the Soviet war machine. Though originally seen as an extremist organization, the group -- which included a number of Rumsfeld's adepts and comrades-in-arms -- managed to prevail upon the Ford administration to let its members have access to CIA data in the service of providing an "alternative" assessment of the Soviet threat.

In CPD's view, the agency chronically minimized the Soviet military threat, thus creating a false basis for what CPD saw as insufficient U.S. defense expenditures. At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld was pushing hard for new strategic endeavors, such as the MX missile and the B-1 bomber. Though William Colby had successfully fought against outside analysis, new CIA Director George Bush was much more receptive to the suggestion from the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board -- which included CPD members -- that the agency's analysts hadn't been on the ball. It was no surprise, then, that when Bush asked the White House for permission to bring in the CPD, he obtained an enthusiastic response.

The CPD experts, who by this point had come to be known as "Team B," crafted an assessment that, as American University national security expert Anne Hessing Cahn put it, "everywhere saw the worst case," was rife with what we now know was rampant overestimation of Soviet military capability, and led to dire predictions. It's hard to know which is more surprising: that Team B's exaggerated findings were accepted then, or that reporters still accept them today.

The findings were submitted to the White House too late to be of any use to the floundering Gerald Ford, but CPD mounted an incredibly effective media campaign of leaking and spinning to create something approaching public hysteria. Despite Kissinger's condemnation of Team B's assessment, Rumsfeld was effusive in promoting it as a credible study -- and thereby undermining arms control efforts for the next four years. Two days before Jimmy Carter's inauguration, Rumsfeld fired parting shots at Kissinger and other disarmament advocates, saying that "no doubt exists about the capabilities of the Soviet armed forces" and that those capabilities "indicate a tendency toward war fighting . . . rather than the more modish Western models of deterrence through mutual vulnerability."

Team B's efforts not only were effective in undermining the incoming Carter administration's disarmament efforts but also laid the foundation for the unnecessary explosion of the defense budget in the Reagan years. And it was during those years that virtually all of Rumsfeld's compatriots were elevated to positions of power in the executive branch. From there they defended programs Rumsfeld had pushed, like the MX and the B-1. Though he did a brief turn as special envoy to the Middle East in 1983 and 1984, Rummy also had another quiet and influential role: adviser to Eugene V. Rostow, veteran Cold Warrior and head of the ACDA. When Reagan fired Rostow in 1983, the president replaced him with another of Rumsfeld's proteges: Kenneth Adelman, whose entire defense experience had consisted of one year spent as a Rumsfeld special assistant at the Pentagon. Not surprisingly, Rumsfeld continued on as a member of ACDA's advisory board.

Rumsfeld maintained a presence in Washington during the Reagan years (and briefly contemplated a presidential run, in 1987), but under Bush, Rumsfeld was less welcome. When his name was floated as a prospective member for a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel, the White House batted it down almost immediately. Though Bush and Rumsfeld had helped midwife the Team B project, relations between the two were not exactly warm; indeed, many believed that Rumsfeld had advocated recalling Bush from his diplomatic post in China to head the CIA so that Bush -- once he was ensconced in a job not tailored to furthering political ambition -- would be neutralized as a vice presidential rival to Rumsfeld in 1976.

During the Bush years, Rumsfeld contented himself with being chairman of the Committee for the Free World (CFW), a repository of right-wing defense hawks. In addition to alerting the nation to the continued red menace in Central America, CFW also sold numerous publications extolling the virtuous brilliance of Reagan's Star Wars program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Rumsfeld also sat on the board of fellow CPD member Leo Cherne's International Rescue Committee, the antileftist human rights organization effusive in its support of right-wing regimes all over the world. And Rumsfeld joined up with William Bennett's Empower America.

In the post -- Cold War world, Rumsfeld's name often appeared as a signatory on letters opposing various forms of arms control, including the chemical weapons ban. But Rumsfeld has only recently reasserted himself as a patron saint of the Star Warrior lobby. In 1996 he occupied a quiet but pivotal position as Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole's campaign chairman and defense adviser, ensuring that Dole made the latest incarnation of Star Wars a campaign centerpiece. According to candidate Dole, America's "top defense priority" had to be national missile defense (NMD), a scaled-down version of Reagan's SDI.

But intelligence data and analysis didn't bear out the necessity of rapid NMD deployment. In 1995 the CIA reported in a national intelligence estimate that a nuclear missile threat from a new foreign power was at least 15 years away. At this point, Rumsfeld acolyte Frank Gaffney, Jr., of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), mounted a campaign against the CIA's estimates; with the aid of right-wing congressional Republicans, he successfully pushed for the establishment of an outside group to provide an alternative assessment to the CIA's -- in effect, another Team B.

This time, however, the team -- headed by ex -- CIA Director Robert Gates -- essentially concurred with the national intelligence estimate. So Gaffney prevailed upon the minions of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich for yet another assessment. Thus the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States was born, with Donald Rumsfeld as chair. Widely characterized as "bipartisan in its conclusions," the final Rumsfeld commission report was, for all intents and purposes, a Team B redux: The CIA, the report concluded, was wrong, and the very real threat of ICBM attack from a "rogue state" was at most five, not 15, years off. Such an event, said the report, could occur with "little or no warning."

Scores of experts have since taken issue with the report's analysis, noting that key variables and scenarios were given short shrift or were unexamined by the commission. "There are two different takes on the Rumsfeld report," says veteran defense analyst John Pike, now of GlobalSecurity.org. "One of them is that it basically helped define the conventional wisdom, that there was basically a bipartisan consensus that missile defense was no longer controversial." The other view, he says, is that the report is one of the greatest travesties in the history of the intelligence community.

Team B at least looked at data before trying "to discover new and more alarming facts and place the most pessimistic interpretation on them," says Pike. "The Rumsfeld Report basically says, 'We have no interest in examining what's probably going to happen in these other countries.' Rather than basing policy on intelligence estimates of what will probably happen politically and economically and what the bad guys really want, it's basing policy on that which is not physically impossible. This is really an extraordinary epistemological conceit, which is applied to no other realm of national policy, and if manifest in a single human being would be diagnosed as paranoid."

While the report didn't explicitly recommend the deployment of NMD, there was no doubt about the commission's desire to see the system -- which Bill Clinton had vetoed -- put back into play. Making the situation even more unbelievable was the lack of outrage over Rumsfeld's ties to Gaffney and CSP, which gets a goodly amount of its funding from defense contractors making money off the NMD program. In 1998 Gaffney gave Rumsfeld CSP's "Keeper of the Flame" Award for producing the document that revitalized the Reagan Star Wars concept. At that point, William Hartung and others believe, the commission's report should have been tanked. "It's somewhat of a tribute to the way he operates," says Hartung, "that he's able to get away with all this."

Hartung says that SDI haunts the Democrats because "they're afraid if they don't support missile defense they'll be outflanked from the right. But this is so far out of step with what most people are thinking about these days. And as a result, we're not getting the debate we need to have."

Perhaps worst of all, for missile defense to become a reality, the landmark Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty needs to be amended -- something the Russians are not eager to do. No matter, says Rumsfeld; at his confirmation hearings, he dismissed the ABM treaty as "ancient history" and said he had no compunction about abrogating it.

This is troubling to longtime investigative analysts like Hartung and Pike, who view such a move as provoking a new, wholly unnecessary arms race with new nuclear actors. However often NMD is cast as a benign "defensive" measure, the fact remains that it is a weapon whose deployment would likely cause other countries to build up their forces in an effort to overwhelm it. This is, says Pike, a good reason to put the brakes on.

Moreover, for NMD to work as leverage in countries like Saudi Arabia and Japan -- which are afraid of attacks from Iraq or North Korea, for example -- "everyone has to be convinced that it will work," says Pike. "And nothing to date shows that it will."

How all this will play out in the new administration remains to be seen. But if history is any indicator, there's likely to be some friction between Rumsfeld and the new secretary of state, Colin Powell. During the Ford administration, Rumsfeld masterfully neutralized many political and policy rivals, creating a national-security advisory chain that ran from himself to Cheney to Ford, with the once-mighty Kissinger cut down to size.

For George W. Bush, an administration without Colin Powell was unthinkable. But Powell is viewed with suspicion by many on the right, over everything from Iraq policy to missile defense. He has an appeal and a constituency broader than either Bush's or Cheney's. "On both counts -- politics and policy -- Powell scares them a little," says a senior Republican operative close to the Bush White House. "They wanted someone committed to missile defense and who can go toe-to-toe with Powell," who is not known to be an enthusiastic supporter of an expansive NMD program.

When the Bush administration was hunting for a new secretary of defense, Powell's recommendation, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, was eliminated for being insufficiently pro -- missile defense: Once, during his congressional service, he voted to shave some money from NMD. Trent Lott's choice, former Indiana Senator Dan Coats, proved himself unworthy to Bush and Cheney by asking if he would be second fiddle to Powell. ("Reasonable question, but if you had to ask and couldn't assert, that's the end of it," says the GOP operative.) Paul Wolfowitz, a star Rumsfeld protege, was in the middle of a complicated divorce.

It's difficult not to see Cheney as the forceful hand behind the Rumsfeld appointment. Conventional wisdom holds that the Bush administration will be unlike any other, with Bush as chairman and Cheney as CEO, or Bush as president and Cheney as prime minister (with oversight of the defense and diplomacy portfolios). In a sense, it's Ford all over again: Rummy back at the Pentagon, Cheney as the sitting president's right hand, and a secretary of state who's potential trouble. That Powell's recommendations for secretary of defense died early on, and that his suggestion for Rumsfeld's number two at the Pentagon -- his old friend Richard Armitage, seen by many in Rummy's circle as a dangerous moderate -- was also shot down, recalls some familiar executive maneuvering.

John Pike says defense watchers are keeping a close eye on whether the cabinet secretaries fill their senior staff positions with "the mad dogs and hard-line ideologues." There's potential for more blasts from the past: Even if they don't return to government in official capacities, the likes of Gaffney and Perle will doubtless be called on as advisers or sounding boards, and they may enjoy greater access and influence than they have in years.

Yet Rumsfeld and Cheney's Ford years won't necessarily translate to a repeat performance. Jude Wanniski, a former hawk who has known or worked with Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle, and Powell over the last 30 years, says that while concern over the return of the Wohlstetter followers is merited ("If defense and security types are like watchdogs, Perle and Wolfowitz are Dobermans, and Gaffney's a Doberman with no sense at all," he says), there is in fact some balance on the national-security axis: "Powell is on one side, Rumsfeld on the other, with Cheney in the middle, seeing that every perspective is engaged."

But does Rumsfeld have ambitions beyond the Pentagon? Kissinger recently told that he has buried the hatchet with Rumsfeld, and that he believes his former adversary will concentrate on his stewardship of the Defense Department. Yet Cheney's heart ailments raise the specter of what would happen if the vice president were to die in office. Cheney's position as national-security arbiter in the unique Bush command structure would be a coveted slot for both Rumsfeld and Powell. Each man has his champions, and either one could leave his department in the capable hands of his deputies. Time will tell whom the force is with, but given his past, there's no doubt that Rumsfeld is comfortable holding a light saber for the dark side.

GRAPHIC: Picture, no caption, BILL NELSON

Copyright 2001 The American Prospect, Inc.