Donald Rumsfeld: The hawk of the Pentagon who withdrew his talons

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The Independent Online

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense, just hasn't been the same since 11 September, when a hijacked airliner smashed into the Pentagon in Washington, not so very far from where he was sitting in his office. And, as even his detractors would say, the transformation has been entirely for the better.

Before the terrorist attacks, Rumsfeld was seen as a shoot-from-the-hip hardliner trapped in the quagmire of a bureaucracy he was supposed to reform. In the new, jittery universe of today, age (he's 69) has become an asset, and a safe pair of hands the most precious attribute. Suddenly, none looks safer than those of Donald Rumsfeld.

A year ago, you wouldn't have guessed so; indeed, you wouldn't have guessed that Rumsfeld would be in government at all. In 1988, after a futile and short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he came out not for the eventual winner, George Bush Sr, but for his old friend Bob Dole. The Bush clan, which values loyalty above all else, does not usually forget such slights.

But two factors persuaded the President-elect to choose Rumsfeld ahead of the favourites, among them the former Bush administration official Paul Wolfowitz. One was the urging of Vice-President Dick Cheney, an old protégé and friend from the Ford administration; the other was Rumsfeld's passionate advocacy of national missile defence, a project to which Bush-the-younger is devoted. So Rumsfeld got the job, leaving the intimidatingly brainy Wolfowitz to be his deputy.

The appointment crowned a blue-chip career split between public and private sectors, which saw Rumsfeld metamorphose from scholar into navy pilot, then high government official, corporate honcho and multi-purpose Washington wise man. From Princeton, he entered the navy, then Congress as a 30-year-old representative for an Illinois district, before serving in the Nixon administration, latterly as ambassador to Nato. In summer 1974 he was summoned back to Washington by Gerald Ford to head the presidential transition, before becoming White House chief of staff and then Defense Secretary.

At 43, he was the youngest Defense Secretary. This time, if he lasts three years, he'll become the oldest. But, until the airliners slammed into the World Trade Centre towers and Pentagon, there seemed scant chance of it. No student of the muscle-bound US military could dispute Rumsfeld's insistence on the need for a top-down review of defence policy. His questioning of the doctrine that the US should be able to fight two large regional wars at once was also entirely legitimate. The problem was not the questions but the way Rumsfeld asked them. He has approached the Pentagon as if it were a $350bn-a-year corporation called "Department of Defense Inc", with himself chairman and chief executive, but he forgot that the place is a bureaucracy to eclipse even the most hidebound private-sector business. And bureaucracies fight back.

Compounding the problem was his penchant for secrecy. Even four-star generals were thrown off balance by Rumsfeld's tactic of peppering them with questions and soaking up information, without letting slip any in return. But the brass fought back, leaking to the press and marshalling sympathisers on Capitol Hill. Soon, while he might be winning the battle with Powell for President Bush's ear, he was losing the one in his own backyard.

The US's military-industrial complex rests upon an "iron triangle" of the Pentagon, Congress and the defence companies, a three-way marriage of convenience between generals who never met a weapons system they didn't like, contract-hungry manufacturers, and Congressmen who prospered on the latter's political donations. Rumsfeld managed to alienate all three – a feat all the more notable considering that the Pentagon establishment had prayed for a Republican comeback for years.

His mistake was to play by the old rules which had gone for ever, and by mid-August he was hauling up the white flag. As Washington sweltered in a summer haze, and the terrorists quietly perfected their plans, the man Henry Kissinger said was the only person who could best him in a bureaucratic fight gave a plaintive interview to Time magazine. Back in the Ford era, Rumsfeld lamented, the press was still respectful, Congress didn't meddle, and the defence contractors were less powerful. Now, nobody listened and everybody leaked. Insiders fancied that Rumsfeld was one more hardcharging outsider tamed by the US's armour-plated and immovable bureaucracy.

But September 11 has changed that. Liabilities such as age have become virtues. If Rumsfeld is secretive, secrecy is now the watchword for the US's military preparations. Let others such as Wolfowitz do the conceptual thinking; his administrative despatch is exactly what is wanted. And the instinctive courage Rumsfeld showed in going to the damaged Pentagon within a few minutes of the disaster to pull survivors from the wreckage was a lift for everyone's morale.

After 1977 Rumsfeld went into business, running pharmaceutical and hi-tech companies, and was voted by his peers one of the US's toughest executives. He also amassed a fortune, and emerged as a front-rank member of the great and good, adorning important commissions and advising presidents, mostly on national-security issues. One lifelong conviction has not changed: that the world is a dangerous place and, for all its power, the US remains under threat. A Chicagoan, he often quotes an adage attributed to another noted son of that city, Al Capone: "You'll get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone." The belief explains Rumsfeld's aversion to treaties, whether of the anti-ballistic-missile, chemical-weapon or test-banning variety. In the new administration, Colin Powell was seen as the frustrated internationalist, Rumsfeld as the unilateralist "hawk".

In private, "Rummy" (his student nickname) is by all accounts an agreeable fellow with a wry sense of humour, utterly devoted to Joyce, his wife of almost 47 years. He collects bronzes of Theodore Roosevelt, a president whose outdoor, frontier spirit mirrors his own. A college wrestling champion, he still visibly brims with fitness. His favourite bolt-hole is a ranch at Taos, New Mexico, where he likes to brand his own cattle.

At the office it is a similar story. "He never seems to sit down," says an aide. He works standing up at a small desk, rather than the great walnut table where most defence secretaries do their business. He can be icily controlled or bursting with enthusiasm, pacing up and down the room, waving his arms to make a point.

Pentagon jargon now includes the term "snowflakes" – meaning the stream of instructions and queries he fires off into a dictaphone, to be transcribed and directed into every corner of the building. Replies are meant to be similarly brief; Rumsfeld wants facts, not waffle. "Learn to say 'I don't know'" is one of Rumsfeld's Rules, aphorisms garnered over 40 years of running things in government and business, and now a handbook distributed to his staff. But terseness is easily taken for rudeness and arrogance. Which is why, before 11 September, things were so rocky at the Pentagon.

No longer. Rumsfeld has confounded expectations by his handling of the 11 September aftermath. The hawk conceals his talons – while Wolfowitz breathes fire about "ending states" that support terrorism. Far from raising gung-ho expectations of an imminent firework display in Afghanistan, he warns of a long, complicated struggle. He disclaims omniscience, likening the conflict to billiard balls careening around a table. His challenge is to ensure they end up in the right pockets.

In short, the great reformer has become a regular soldier. And if you see the odd bitter smile of satisfaction, forgive him. For years he has said that the US was in danger. His warning has been borne out with a savagery that even this most far-sighted of men could not have imagined.