Miles Kington: The Oscar Wilde of the new world order

'When someone with a rural accent says "I don't know anything about politics", zip up your pockets'
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The Independent Online

"All wars are interesting for the first thirty days," said Arthur Schlesinger, or at least he did according to an advance copy of The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations, which I have been sent.

Actually, the book isn't published yet – it isn't out not until 25 October – so I shouldn't really be quoting from it before then. But, on the other hand, what would happen if the war against terrorism was all over before 25 October? Or, if Arthur Schlesinger is right, the war was still going on but had ceased to be interesting? I would look pretty stupid if I started producing wise quotations about war after 25 October at a time when people had got bored with it all. So perhaps Penguin will manage to forgive me.

Or perhaps I should turn to a book that has already been published and that is, I suppose, out of print by now. This is The Unofficial Rules, a 1978 collection, by the American writer Paul Dickson, of all the laws governing human behaviour that he could find, from Parkinson's law to Sod's law.

These rules of life govern anything that cannot be explained by the great god Science, and that is quite a lot. For instance I find to my surprise that he includes a law that explains the demise of Railtrack quite satisfactorily.It's called Gray's Law of Bilateral Asymmetry in Networks, and goes as follows...

"Information flows efficiently through organisations, except that bad news encounters high impedance in flowing upwards..." Or, in other words: "People at the top make decisions as though times were good, when people at the bottom know the organisation is collapsing."

But if you want guidance on the current "crusade" against Osama bin Laden, you will also find help. Here is one rule, about national resolve and unity, that is interesting to read at one of those rare times when America stands united and resolved...

"In unanimity there may well be either cowardice or uncritical thinking."

And at a time when America is being presented with the idea that we now have a new kind of war, the war against terrorism, here is another timely rule of behaviour.

"When an idea is being pushed because it is 'exciting', 'new' or 'innovative' – beware. An exciting, new or innovative idea can also be foolish. If in doubt, don't."

The interesting thing about those two latter rules are that they were written by Donald Rumsfeld, who is also the American Secretary of Defence, the man in charge of the war against terrorism. He wrote them back in 1977 after his first stint in the White House, presumably at a time when he thought that he would not be back again.

Of course, he would fairly point out that what the Americans are doing at the moment is not particularly new or innovative. Throwing long-distance bombs at a supposed enemy is what the Americans have been doing ever since the mass casualties of the Vietnam War, in Iraq and Kosovo and elsewhere, and the fact that it hasn't so far worked in Kosovo or Iraq or elsewhere doesn't mean that it won't work one day. It just seems unlikely, that's all, even when they are bombarding the enemy with food parcels as well.

Originally, according to Paul Dickson, Rumsfeld's rules covered 18 pages of a memorandum, but Dickson only reprinted about a page's worth. A lot of them make good sense. I particularly like his rule about talking to journalists: "With the press it is safe to assume that there is no 'off the record'." I like his rule about regional demands for money. "When someone with a rural accent says 'I don't know anything about politics', zip up your pockets."

But his rule for behaviour in the White House is perhaps more topical, as follows: "Read and listen for what is missing. Many advisers – in and out of government – are quite capable of telling the president how to improve what's been proposed, or what's gone wrong. Few seem capable of sensing what isn't there."

So there you are. If you think President Bush has forgotten something or missed something out of his calculations, unlikely though it is, write to him at the White House, starting your letter: "Donald Rumsfeld recommends that I should write to you to point out the following omissions..."

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