Reading Rummy

By Bill Rentschler

I've known Rummy for several decades, ever since he walked into my campaign office and volunteered when I was running for the US Senate from Illinois as a Republican at an improbably young age.

Rummy is Donald Rumsfeld, the hard-nosed, highly visible Secretary of Defense, currently serving his second tour -- 25 years apart -- as major domo of the Pentagon.

Rummy is a longtime friend -- not an intimate -- but I have observed him closely as he ascended the political ladder and became rich in the private sector.

Rummy's rule for his present vital post is that the best defense is an overwhelming offense. He oversees the world's most powerful military force, greater than that of all other nations combined.

He is resolutely committed to increasing its size and strength. He is an unbending hawk who is intrigued by, even addicted to, the most exotic high-tech weapons of war, including some that don't work and many more that will stand idle until we find some reason to employ them, such as our overwhelming attack on badly-overmatched Iraq.

The Department of Defense should rightly be called the Department of Offense. All its missions since World War II have involved offensive actions by the US: Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq in "Desert Storm," Afghanistan, Iraq again, and this uncertain, still-unfolding war on terrorism. The last true defensive action came when we responded with full fury to the sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Rummy and his boss have rattled sabers relentlessly and continuously, as President Bush threatened various degrees of action against his so-called "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- even as it became more apparent that the war we "won" in Afghanistan may be far from over. Bush, Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, likewise a former defense secretary -- the dominant troika -- are war-obsessed and disinclined to seek diplomatic resolution of our differences with the unallied "axis" trio.

Back to Secretary Rumsfeld: From long observation, I would describe him as smart, tough, shrewd, relentlessly ambitious, resolutely sure of himself, a diehard conservative, and disinclined to concede he might on occasion be wrong. For his hawkish posture, Rumsfeld, as the ultimate sage, has the rookie president's ear, and can overpower Bush with his mountain of experience, expertise, and firmly fixed mindset.

Rummy has long hankered for the presidency, and, strangely, his last best chance may be at hand. He is as agile as any political figure I've known. He has a rare ability to emerge unscathed from the tightest spots. As a key Nixon insider, he escaped to a major NATO post barely days before Watergate broke and remained untouched by the scandal.

A fellow Republican who knew Rummy better than I once confided: "If Rummy were trapped on the 9th floor of a burning building, and he leapt out, he'd hit the ground running."

Rumsfeld scored big in the private sector. His influential political patrons and close friends include Dan and Bill Searle, who tapped Rummy to run their faltering family pharmaceutical company, which he did with notable success, and Princeton classmate Ned Jannotta, managing partner of the influential Wm. Blair investment banking firm in Chicago. Until he was tapped for his second stint as secretary of defense, he was serving as a director of the Tribune Company, media colossus of the Midwest, with the Chicago Tribune and now the Los Angeles Times.

It is no surprise that the short-lived Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) should surface at the Pentagon on Rummy's watch, nor is it surprising that he would kill the controversial campaign to dispense "disinformation" as a way to present America's case most favorably to the Arab and wider world, as soon as negative clatter arose from the media, civic and thought leaders, and foreign governments friendly to the US. Rumsfeld is not a liar, but he is a control freak who would want to make certain his version, preferably unedited, would be widely transmitted. Once the negative uproar became apparent, it was in the Rumsfeld mold to snuff out the misguided propaganda initiative.

Now Rummy has become the darling of the media with his glib, quick-witted, sometimes charming, generally tough answers to questions on the Iraq war during his seemingly endless C-SPAN press conferences, at which he skillfully delivered his carefully-crafted pro-war message, which made it seem as if his Pentagon game plan was impeccably brilliant. With Gen. Jay Garner, Rummy's choice to run postwar Iraq, gone after only several weeks for reasons not entirely clear, the brash defense chief may find the going much rougher and his blueprint viewed more skeptically.

His quest for press coverage on his own terms seems insatiable, but some of his remarks are brash and inappropriate. He breezily dismissed Germany's and France's opposition to the war on Iraq by branding them "The Old Europe," notwithstanding the overwhelming opposition of their citizens to our pre-emptive strike. He inflamed hatred for the US by flaunting our military power when he said we could take on and obliterate Iraq and North Korea at the same time. He appears to lust for war and to ridicule all who oppose or see no need for such aggression. He brushed aside with some arrogance those who call for caution.

He shows his bulldog tenacity in his determination, shared by the president, to build a very costly, possibly unworkable missile shield. The updated model of Reagan's Star Wars provides an ongoing, multi-billion dollar payday to the largest military contractors (and contributors) with no assurance whatever it will really protect us against ballistic missile attack, and against warnings by several eminent scientists that it is more fantasy than reality.

My guess -- purely that -- is that Cheney will depart, ostensibly for health reasons, but in truth because his passion for secrecy, Machiavellian maneuvering, and blatant conflict of interest may become a dangerous political liability. Bush might then turn to the trusted, somewhat charismatic Rumsfeld to replace Cheney. A wise and respected political strategist tells me that would be unlikely because Bush would fear being overshadowed by his voracious Cabinet aide.

If Bush, despite still near-stratospheric but declining ratings as commander-in-chief, falters in 2004, as domestic miscues and economic woes mount, as they did for his father in 1992, Rumsfeld would be a logical GOP nominee for president.

Rummy is in great shape at 70. I am convinced he covets one last shot at the White House, which he would be obliged to deny. I wouldn't bet against him. If a few things fall his way, and George W. Bush goes the way of his father in his try for a second term, the opportunistic Rumsfeld might yet get his chance.

Bill Rentschler is a retired newspaper publisher and columnist who recently moved back to his hometown of Hamilton, Ohio.

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