Rumsfeld and the Big Picture

Whatever the secretary of defense might think, history will not exonerate him or his colleagues for their grave failures.

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Article created by the Boston Globe.

”FORTUNATELY, history is not made up of daily headlines, blogs on websites, or the latest sensational attack,” Donald Rumsfeld wrote in a Washington Post op-ed column last week. ”History is a bigger picture, and it takes some time and perspective to measure accurately.”

Rumsfeld was arguing that any evaluation of the present catastrophe in Iraq should take a longer view, and I agree with him. Indeed, I have spent the last six years exploring two generations’ worth of events and decisions that brought us here. I have written a long history of the Pentagon called ”House of War,” which will be published in May. But contrary to what Rumsfeld hopes, such a ”bigger picture” in no way exonerates him or the Bush administration for its grave failures. The disaster in Iraq both recapitulates American mistakes of the past and worsens them immeasurably.

Let’s begin with Rumsfeld himself. In 1975, he was Gerald Ford’s secretary of defense when the USS Mayaguez was seized off Cambodia by the newly empowered Khmer Rouge, whose ascendance followed the destabilizing US ”incursion.” The American crew of 38 was captured.

Rumsfeld shaped the response — which was to ignore diplomacy, begin bombing a Cambodian port city, and dispatch a large force of Marines to rescue the crew. Bad moves based on bad intelligence. While untold Cambodian civilians were bombed, 40 American rescuers were killed in an attack on an island where the crew was thought to be held. In fact, the American sailors had already been released unharmed and set adrift on a Thai fishing vessel. The Mayaguez affair was a dress rehearsal for Rumsfeld’s war in Iraq.

The Iraq war breaks with American tradition by being explicitly defined as ”preventive,” but in other ways it fulfills the core tradition — the eschewing of diplomacy in favor of war preparation, and wars, whose real purpose is to feed the insatiable appetite of the economic, political, and cultural behemoth on the Potomac. The Pentagon is 63 years old: Key moments in its lifetime cry out to be freshly understood.

Why, after the disappearance of America’s Cold War enemy in the early 1990s, did Washington maintain its huge Cold War military? In what sense, for that matter, did the United States ”win” the Cold War, when its structures were overwhelmingly dismantled by the other side?

By what right did the United States come out of the energy crisis of the 1970s proclaiming, with the Carter Doctrine, its intention to use military force to protect access to Persian Gulf oil? Jimmy Carter, too, is a progenitor of the war in Iraq.

In reviewing an arms race that led, across 40 years, to the accumulation of more than 100,000 nuclear weapons, when will the United States reckon with the truth that Washington held the initiative at almost every stage of that escalation, with Moscow forever struggling to catch up? What does it say about America that the United States led the way up this mountain of horror, with Moscow, under Mikhail Gorbachev, leading the way down?

What is revealed by the ”retirement syndrome,” in Robert Jay Lifton’s phrase — the consistent phenomenon of men whose careers shaped the national security state, only to denounce its assumptions as they left power? This is true not only of legions of generals and admirals, but of statesmen like Henry L. Stimson and George Kennan, civilian hawks like Robert S. McNamara and Paul Nitze, and presidents like Dwight D. Eisenhower, who famously decried the ”military-industrial complex” he had just created.

What does it say that, as pressures periodically built to rein in Pentagon budgets and influence, new threats and enemies were conveniently discovered, ”rescuing” the Pentagon, as Dean Acheson said of the North Korean invasion of South Korea? Ho Chi Minh, Manuel Noriega, and Saddam Hussein were such rescuers, and so was Osama bin Laden. Now comes Iran.

How did the impulse to demonize the enemy in Moscow paralyze American strategic and political thinking? This psychological imprisonment was so complete that the demonizing mindset carried over into the new century, when dreaded ”communism” was replaced by ”terrorism.” George W. Bush did not invent this myopia.

Iraq shows how self-destructive were the responses of Americans and their government to the crisis of Sept. 11, 2001. They were not new, but flowed along a channel through which powerful currents had been running for 60 years.

The point of history’s bigger picture, however, is to see that, as human choices shaped this terrible outcome, human choices can change it.

James Carroll, a regular columnist for the Boston Globe, is the author of the National Book Award-winning American Requiem, Constantine’s Sword, a history of Christian anti-Semitism, and the forthcoming House of War, about the growing power of the Pentagon.

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