The SecDef cult.

By

Neoconservative doyenne Midge Decter was dining one night on a
terrace overlooking Central Park with a friend--"a handsome,
elegant, and well- connected member of the city's cultural and
artistic community"--and the topic of Donald Rumsfeld came up.
Decter recounts the way her dining companion suddenly melted: "`Oh,
Rumsfeld,' she practically cooed, `I just love the man! To tell you
the truth, I have his picture hanging in my dressing room.'"As you can probably guess, this account is not a recent one. It
comes from Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait, Decter's 2003 love letter
to the defense secretary. Alas, the years that have followed the
publication of that tome have not been kind to its subject. As the
war in Iraq has descended into quagmire, no one's reputation has
plunged as deeply as Rumsfeld's. Every new account of the war that
comes out--Cobra II, Fiasco, State of Denial--offers up a new
stream of ghastly anecdotes: Rumsfeld refused to contemplate any
postwar plan and intimidated his subordinates into silencing their
qualms; he resisted providing necessary and available troops to
keep order in the postwar period; he wouldn't acknowledge the
insurgency until it was too late. Rumsfeld emerges as a figure of
diabolical incompetence, a bungler of world-historic proportions.
According to Fiasco author and Washington Post defense correspondent
Thomas Ricks, Rumsfeld was responsible for "perhaps the worst war
plan in American history." Even the defense secretary's natural
allies have turned against him. "Rumsfeld and [General Tommy]
Franks stifled the free exchange of ideas," wrote conservative
columnist David Brooks. "They dismissed concerns about the
insurgents and threatened to fire the one general, William Wallace,
who dared to state the obvious in public." In The Weekly Standard,
Frederick Kagan was even harsher, arguing that "in no previous
American war has the chief of the military administration refused
to focus on the war at hand."

State of Denial, Bob Woodward's latest, has delivered the coup de
grace. This scathing indictment, coming as it does from a pillar of
Washington- establishment thinking and a former court stenographer
of the Bush administration, represents the final indignity. The
verdict now seems clear. The Iraq war is Rumsfeld's Folly. Future
generations will use his name as a synonym for "Maginot," or
perhaps "Hindenberg" or "Titanic."

In light of all this, it seems hard to believe that, just a few
years ago, Rumsfeld was hailed as a visionary war leader. Among
conservatives, in particular, he was treated to the sort of
over-the-top hero worship that the right customarily bestows upon
its standard bearers in flush political times. And so it seems as
good a time as any to reexamine the wave of Rumsfeld hagiography
that was in vogue for about two years following September 11, 2001.
These documents offer a prime window into the pathologies of
conservative thought in the Bush era. To be a loyal conservative
during the last half-dozen years, you had to convince yourself to
accept a series of propositions that ran the gamut from somewhat
implausible to completely absurd. As those propositions collapse,
one by one, conservatives are reacting much the same way as
communists did following the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are the
frantic efforts to rescue conservative orthodoxy by defining the
party's leaders as apostates who deviated from the true faith. And
there are the dazed true believers coming to grips with certain
realities--Katherine Harris is a not a paragon of wisdom and
fair-mindedness, after all; the administration's fiscal policies
may not be completely sound; President Bush is not quite the
visionary war leader we made him out to be; and so on. Only by
revisiting the conservative propaganda in light of history's
verdict can we see how delusional the movement had become. And on
perhaps no topic were conservatives quite as delusional as on the
leadership genius of Donald Rumsfeld.

To plunge back into the conservative idealization of Rumsfeld, given
what we know today, is a bizarre experience. You enter an
upside-down world in which the defense secretary is a thoughtful,
fair-minded, eminently reasonable man who has been vindicated by
history--and his critics utterly repudiated. The pioneering
specimen of the genre was a National Review cover story from
December 31, 2001, by Jay Nordlinger, cover-lined "the stud: don
rumsfeld, america's new pin-up," with a cartoon portraying the
defense secretary as Betty Grable in her iconic World War II image.
The central premise of the article was that Rumsfeld epitomized
manliness and virility. (This turned out to be a recurring theme in
the Rumsfeld iconography.)

Nordlinger's article consisted mostly of the sort of unprovable,
impressionistic personal assessments that are the usual grist of the
conservative character industry. As one Rumsfeld friend was quoted
as saying, "People look for a different kind of person to run
Washington--as far away from the Clinton type as you can get."
(This was largely a continuation of a conservative theme that
President Clinton had surrounded himself with wusses--
"pear-shaped" men, as conservative author Gary Aldrich described
them, or, as Bob Dole put it in his 1996 presidential nomination
acceptance speech, "the elite who never grew up, never did anything
real, never sacrificed.")

Nordlinger's cover story also featured a series of more specific
descriptions of Rumsfeld that do not seem terribly prescient in
light of subsequent events. For example, Nordlinger gushed that
Rumsfeld "must be the most uneuphemistic person alive. He is
totally immune, and allergic, to `spin. '" This, of the man who
would go on to describe the disintegration of order in postwar Iraq
as "untidy" and portray hunger strikers in GuantAnamo Bay as being
on a "diet." Nordlinger's article also graciously noted that,
despite their man being proven absolutely correct on absolutely
everything, "Rumsfeld staffers take pains not to say `I told you
so.'" (Today, presumably, Rumsfeld's allies find it easier not to
gloat.)

A recurrent theme among the Rumsfeld hagiographers was that their
hero was a brilliant executive, arriving at the correct decision
time and again through his peerless command of the bureaucratic
process. This image was reflected in the 2002 bestseller The
Rumsfeld Way. The author, Jeffrey Krames, has written a similar
paean to iconic CEO Jack Welch, and his Rumsfeld book followed the
conventions of executive porn, turning Rumsfeld's career into
leadership dictums that can be applied to the corporate world. He
was firm yet flexible, thorough yet decisive, ruthless yet moral,
and so on. Each chapter concluded with a series of bullet-point
takeaway lessons from Rumsfeld's career. Thus the reader learned
that Rumsfeld's management style was governed by such principles as
"Never underestimate the importance of listening," "Underpromise
and overdeliver," "Decentralize," and "Avoid false forecasts."

This same awed deference to Rumsfeld's managerial genius is a
primary theme in Decter's book. "[O]ne of Rumsfeld's special
talents," she notes at one point, is creating "a process where
everyone is learning and everyone is contributing. " Tell that to
Brigadier General Mark Scheid, who told the Newport News Daily
Press that, in the run-up to the war, Rumsfeld threatened to fire
the next subordinate who pestered him about the need to plan for a
possible occupation.

When it was first published in 2003, Decter's ode to Rumsfeld was
notable primarily for the schoolgirlish approach it took toward the
author's sex appeal, replete with multiple cheesecake photos of a
muscular young Rumsfeld in various athletic poses. Again, the
contrast with Clinton was a central theme. "[T]here were few women
and even fewer men who would with any sincerity have awarded
Clinton the status of sex hero, let alone--O happy invention!--
`studmuffin,'" she wrote at one point. "That designation would have
to await the arrival of a high-achieving, clear-headed, earnest,
no-nonsense, Midwestern family man nearly seventy years old." Here
Decter had pioneered a new literary form: the foreign policy tract
as Teen Beat mash note.

In retrospect, though, the quasi-salacious hero worship stands out
less than Decter's wholehearted endorsement of Rumsfeld's
hallucinatory worldview. In Decter's telling, Rumsfeld had the
brilliant foresight to transform the military into a lighter,
smaller force. ("[W]ho could honestly doubt the brilliance of the
military plan [in Iraq]?" she asked, in what was at the time
intended to be a rhetorical question.) Alas, as she explained, his
masterful strategy aroused the envy of lesser minds around him. As
she put it, "[t]hose whose resistance he had successfully put down
would set out to exact their revenge by attacking his plan for the
conduct of the approaching war in Iraq." For instance, she noted
incredulously, "Ralph Peters complained that there were still not
enough troops in Iraq to do what was necessary. They might have won
the war handily ... but now there were not enough boots on the
ground to establish the rule of law." Decter presented this
objection as self-evidently wrong.

Decter's book was published in 2003, and most of it was likely
written before the launch of the Iraq war. There was, however, a
very short section toward the end where she dealt with the sobering
months that followed the fall of Baghdad. This section was notable,
because it suddenly ceased to mention Rumsfeld at all. Up until
this moment in her story, Decter had portrayed the defense
secretary as a virtuoso figure driving history through the sheer
force of personality. In her section describing the failure of
democracy to emerge in Iraq, by contrast, the protagonists became
unnamed "policymakers" and "war planners." To wit, "it was also
clear that the Americans would not be able to leave Iraq as quickly
as certain policymakers seem to have expected," or, "In short, Iraq
socially, politically and culturally was a mess whose depth neither
the war planners nor the diplomats seemed to have reckoned on."

After this brief absence, though, Rumsfeld returned to the story in
triumph. Decter concluded the book by gazing into the future:

The popular `discovery' of Donald H. Rumsfeld spells the return of
the ideal of the Middle American family man. ... In the long run,
this change may well be more important to the fortunes of his
country than the changes he will have wrought in its armed forces.

It seems certain that the picture of Rumsfeld hanging on the
dressing-room wall of my fashionable dinner companion during that
warm New York evening will not be taken down from there anytime
soon.

Last week, I called Decter to see how she felt her analysis had held
up over the past three years. I suggested that perhaps the generals
calling for troops may have had a point. She demurred--"I don't
know, I'm no expert"-- betraying a humility conspicuously absent in
the book. And what about the Manhattan friend with the Rumsfeld
picture: Did she think it was still up on the wall? "Probably it
is," she answered, "but I don't really know."

Anyone care to hazard a guess?

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