Watching Diane Sawyer of ABC News help former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld promote his memoir, Known and Unknown, gives one a definite feeling of, as Yogi Berra put it, “déjà vu all over again.” Listening to Rumsfeld field Sawyer’s softball questions, delivered in a deferential tone normally reserved for sympathetic conversations with senior U.S. military officers or members of the Knesset, reanimates all the lies the Bush administration told a weak and complicit American media to sell the Iraq war.
Sawyer fails to ask the hard questions Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Department of Defense ought to provoke: did the Iraq war produce strategic benefits commensurate with its cost, and was it legal under international law? The Sawyer’s interview, in fact, enables Rumsfeld to minimize his role in the successful scheme to market the 2003 Iraq war to the American public. That effort, it will be recalled, relied on disseminating bogus intelligence about the Iraqi regime’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and its equally nonexistent relations with al-Qaeda, charges known to be false, or at best highly suspect, even as they were being made.
When Sawyer reminds Rumsfeld of his statement during the war that “We know where [the WMDs] are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat,” Rumsfeld replies that he should have qualified his statement by saying that suspected WMDs were located there. Rumsfeld implies that this was but a small oversight, a minor error. His misstatement, however, was in fact part of a larger pattern of lies and deception. Rumsfeld spoke frequently with rich corroborative details about Iraqi chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. Here are two examples:
“Iraq poses a threat to the security of our people, and to the stability of the world. … Saddam Hussein possesses chemical and biological weapons … including VX, sarin, mustard gas, anthrax, botulism, and possibly smallpox, and he has an active program to develop nuclear weapons.” (Speech to reserve officers, Jan. 20, 2003)
“[Saddam Hussein] claims to have no chemical or biological weapons, yet we know he continues to hide biological weapons, moving them to different locations as often as every 12-24 hours and placing them in residential neighborhoods.” (Defense Department briefing, March 11, 2003)
After Iraq was occupied Rumsfeld even claimed that mobile biological weapons labs had been found:
“[T]hey have, in fact captured and have in custody two of the mobile trailers that Secretary Powell talked about at the U.N. as being biological weapons laboratories. We have people who are telling that they worked in these vehicles. And they look at panels and say, ‘That was my work station in that panel, and that’s what it’s for.’” (Defense Department Briefing, May 29, 2003)
Secretary Rumsfeld may have thought he was adding a measure of verisimilitude to his account when he talked about people who worked in the bio-weapons vans. Looking back, however, he sounds like Koko, the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, embellishing his report of Nanki-Poo’s imaginary beheading : “I seized him by his little pigtail, as on his knees fell he; as he squirmed and struggled, and gurgled and guggled, I drew my snickersnee.” Soon Rumsfeld’s charade would come to an end and he would have plenty of explaining to do when no WMDs appeared. His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, summed up their position succinctly: “We need to find this stuff, or people are going to be asking questions.” Rumsfeld’s bio-weapons trailers, by the way, turned out to be mobile hydrogen generators for weather balloons.
Rumsfeld has consistently refused to accept any responsibility for the false and misleading accusations that served to promote the Iraq war. In his conversation with Diane Sawyer he simply said that “the intelligence was certainly wrong.” But Rumsfeld did not mention that one of his subordinates, Pentagon number three man Doug Feith, had the job of manufacturing “alternative intelligence” to make the case for military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime. The process consisted of repackaging charges against Iraq that had already been dismissed by the CIA or other intelligence organizations or “stove-piping” dubious material from questionable organizations like Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress directly to the highest levels of the Bush administration.
One of Feith’s claims, repeated by Vice President Dick Cheney, placed 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta at a meeting with Iraqi intelligence in Prague in June 2001, although Atta was actually living in Virginia Beach at the time. And Rumsfeld himself testified to a Saddam/al-Qaeda connection, claiming at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Atlanta in late September 2002 that the charge was “bulletproof.”
It is important to bear in mind that while Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration were circulating false or highly misleading information linking Iraq to al-Qaeda and active WMD programs, much of the U.S. intelligence apparatus expressed contrary views. For example, in July 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency stated that “compelling evidence demonstrating direct cooperation between the government of Iraq and al-Qaeda has not been established.” Concerning Iraq’s importation of aluminum tubes, allegedly for nuclear centrifuges, an accusation much beloved by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon at the New York Times, the U.S. Department of Energy, the primary arbiter of matters nuclear within the U.S. government, stated that the tubes were not suitable for centrifuges and were most likely purchased to manufacture short-range artillery rockets. Similarly, the U.S. Air Force opined that Saddam’s alleged bacteria-spraying drones, which the administration hyped at every opportunity, could perhaps be used for aerial reconnaissance, but were essentially model airplanes on steroids, entirely lacking the ability to carry significant payloads.
Even before the United States launched the invasion of Iraq, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) accused Rumsfeld of “knowing deception or unfathomable incompetence” for using the tale that Saddam was seeking uranium from Niger. Waxman’s letter of March 17, 2003, said that “no argument for attacking Iraq is as compelling as the possibility of Saddam Hussein’s brandishing nuclear bombs. … For several months now, this evidence has been a central part of the U.S. case against Iraq. It has now been conceded that this evidence was a forgery….”
During Sawyer’s interview, Rumsfeld claimed, “I wanted to avoid war, and so did the president.” Can anyone believe this assertion? Iraq had long been a target of the neocons. The 9/11 attacks provided a pretext that they hastened to utilize. Recall, for instance, that in February 1998 Rumsfeld, along with a number of leading neocons, addressed a letter to then President Clinton advocating “a comprehensive political and military strategy to bring down Saddam.” The letter pressed the Clinton administration, among other things, to: “Recognize a provisional government of Iraq based on the peoples and leaders of the Iraqi National Congress,” “Restore and enhance the safe havens in Northern Iraq to allow the provisional government to extend its authority there,” “Launch a systematic air campaign,” and “Position U.S. ground force equipment … so that we have the capacity to protect and assist anti-Saddam forces.”
Gen. Anthony Zinni, Centcom commander, was dismissive of neocon plans to establish a base in Iraqi Kurdistan using anti-Saddam dissidents and declared bluntly that a “Bay of Goats” fiasco similar to John Kennedy’s disastrous invasion of Cuba would be the likely result. In any event, had Rumsfeld and the Bush administration genuinely sought to avoid war in Iraq they would have let the U.N. inspection teams conclude their search for weapons of mass destruction.
Rumsfeld told Diane Sawyer that after almost eight years of war and occupation, a trillion dollars spent, thousands of American casualties, and hundreds of thousands Iraqi dead, “the world is a better place with Saddam Hussein gone.” Sawyer did not press Rumsfeld as to whether the expenditure of American blood and treasure had improved the strategic position of the U.S. One could argue that the Iraq war has been a geopolitical disaster. The removal of the secular Ba’ath Party and Saddam’s dictatorship has empowered pro-Iranian Shia religious groups and parties and has moved Iraq much closer to its former enemy.
Iraq itself has changed tremendously. Two million Iraqis are internally displaced, and another 2 million, largely from the middle and professional classes, are now refugees in Jordan and Syria. Continuing violence within Iraq does not encourage them to return. Iraqi Kurdistan has become a semi-independent region. How neighboring states with Kurdish minorities would react to a unilateral Kurdish declaration of independence and the breakup of Iraq is an open issue. What will happen in Iraq after American forces are withdrawn at the end of this year is another question that awaits an answer.
What of Diane Sawyer’s unasked question? Was the Iraq war legal under international law? Count one of the Nuremberg International War Crimes Indictment charged the German political and military leadership with conspiring to start a war of aggression; count two charged them with plotting, planning, and launching that war. Was Poland a threat to Germany? Iraq to the United States? Well, only losers stand trial; winners get to write their memoirs. Nevertheless, Americans judging Rumsfeld in the court of public opinion ought to remember the judgment of the Nuremberg Tribunal: “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”