Donald Rumsfeld, twice Defence Secretary of the United States and one of the main architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, died of cancer at his home in New Mexico on Tuesday, at the age of 88.
Rumsfeld had a distinguished career in both politics and the private sector, with some odd incidents: he was once named the country’s “sexiest cabinet member”, and his book of “embedded” poetry, Pieces of Intelligence (ed. Hart Seely), is an entertaining read. But like his friend and protegé Dick Cheney he will be remembered primarily for the Iraq war: one of the most egregious violations of international law in the last half-century, and perhaps the most consequential.
A generation has now grown up with at best hazy memories of the Iraq war. But if you are looking for reasons why democracy seems in relentless decline, and why respect for standards of public behavior and for truth itself has fallen precipitously, Iraq would be a good place to start.
I am not one of those who takes a reflexively anti-American position in world affairs; I think American policy has often been a force for good, and that even when its actions have been harmful they have often stemmed from good intentions. The invasion of Iraq, however, was an ill-intentioned policy, badly implemented.
Rumsfeld and Cheney seemed to be driven not be any calculation, reasonable or not, of the costs and benefits of intervention in the Middle East, but by a determination to spite their domestic political enemies and to demonstrate their own power by delivering a symbolic expression of contempt for world opinion. Undermining the institutions of international co-operation seemed to be not just a means to their goals but an end in itself.
This mindset did not come out of nowhere; the Republican Party in the 1990s had already started down the track of letting its tribal hatreds take precedence over the merits of policy. But it was Iraq that exhibited it on a world stage, fatally undermining the west’s moral standing and handing the likes of Vladimir Putin a propaganda victory that they could only have dreamt about.
It could at least be said that Rumsfeld paid some price for the crimes of Iraq: he was relieved of his position in November 2006 after the Democrats won control of Congress in mid-term elections. In the Cheney biopic Vice, the vice-president is depicted as cheerfully throwing his mentor overboard, although other sources say that Cheney resisted the move and it was insisted on by the president, George W Bush.
But either way, there was no admission of guilt. As Leon Wieseltier said at the time, “Rumsfeld was not fired for the results of the war. He was fired for the results of the election.”
Even when Barack Obama came to power two years later, partly on a wave of revulsion against what had happened in Iraq, there was no serious suggestion that his predecessor’s officials should be prosecuted. America does not work that way. Rumsfeld enjoyed a comfortable retirement, although it must be assumed that there were countries he avoided travelling to for fear of judicial systems that might be less restrained.
Rumsfeld remained loyal to the party whose demons he had come to embody. He endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, but it is fair to say that he was never a full-blown Trumpist, and in January this year he joined all other living former defence secretaries (including Cheney) in a letter rejecting Trump’s attempts to overturn last year’s election result.