Rumsfeld documentaire: ooit was hij de darling van de Amerikaanse media

Maandag 7 juli zond de vpro Errol Morris’ documentaire ‘The unknown known’ uit, een lang interview met Donald Rumsfeld, de voormalige Amerikaanse minister van defensie die verantwoordelijk was voor de bezetting van Irak. We zien een zelfgenoegzame politicus die geestelijk gestoord lijkt, een minister die, zoals Morris zelf dit jaar in een interview met Esquire zei, ‘geen verschil kan maken tussen feit en fantasie’. De doc is uit 2013, Rumsfeld nam of kreeg ontslag eind 2006, dus het was toch blijkbaar allemaal te lang geleden om Morris in herinnering te brengen dat Rumsfeld ooit de darling van de Amerikaanse media was. Zoals blogger Bill Berkozwitz in 2008 schreef:

‘Once he was the “it” guy; everything he said was treated as the gospel truth. He took on celebrity-like status: The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board member, Claudia Rosett, described his press briefings on the war in Afghanistan as “the best new show on television.” CNN called him a “virtual rock star” and the Fox News Channel described him as “a babe magnet for the 70-year old set”. President George W. Bush dubbed him a “matinee idol”.’

Kan zijn dat Rumsfeld hetzelfde talent had om de media te bedienen als eerder senator Joe McCarthy tijdens zijn kruistocht tegen het communisme – dat was een van de eerste spin doctors in de VS – maar zijn populariteit betekende niet dat Rumsfeld de media even hard terugbeminde. Op persconferenties (en in deze doc) beantwoordde hij concrete vragen met filosofisch geleuter of vroeg zich hardop af hoe hij onder deze of gene vraag kon uitkomen. Tijdens een conferentie over cyberoorlogsvoering in 2008 speechte Rumsfeld:

‘Private media doesn’t get up in the morning and say what can we do to promote the values and ideas that the free Western nations believe in? It gets up in the morning and says they’re going to try to make money by selling whatever they sell… They’ve got their job, and they have to do that, and that’s what they do. It doesn’t mean we have to infringe on the role of the free press, they can go do what they do, and that’s fine. Well, it’s not fine, but it’s what it is, let’s put it that way.’

Ik zou niet willen beweren dat alle media ‘de waarden en ideeën’ van het vrije westen promoten maar dat kranten bij voldoende belangstelling een sprookje van Grimm als waar gebeurd op de voorpagina zouden zetten, gaat me te ver. De titel van de documentaire verwijst naar een beroemd stukje poëzie van Rumsfeld. Er is nog een gedichtje waarmee hij mediaconsumenten tegen manipulatie waarschuwde tijdens een persconferentie in 2003:

Happenings

You’re going to be told lots of things.

You get told things every day that don’t happen.

It doesn’t seem to bother people, they don’tù

It’s printed in the press.

The world thinks all these things happen.

They never happened.

Everyone’s so eager to get the story

Before in fact the story’s there

That the world is constantly being fed

Things that haven’t happened.

All I can tell you is,

It hasn’t happened.

It’s going to happen.

Ik was van 2003 tot 2010 in Irak en mij is Rumsfeld altijd bijgebleven als een minister die volkomen de controle over het Pentagon kwijt was, dat niet openlijk en ook niet aan zichzelf kon toegeven en dat besef bestreed met zijn eindeloze reeks memo’s – zo’n twintigduizend schat hij zelf – en post-its. Hij was degene die aanvankelijk zei dat het Amerikaanse leger na de invasie hoogstens zo’n drie maanden zou blijven. In die tijd begreep ik niet wat hem zo geliefd maakte bij bepaalde Amerikaanse journalisten. Na het zien van Errol Morris’ documentaire denk ik dat sommige meer van pseudo-intellectueel spektakel houden (ik moest hierbij ook aan Bolkestein denken) dan van de gore feiten van een oorlog verzamelen en vooral begrijpen hoe commercieel juist die geworden is. Rumsfeld toont in de documentaire geen enkel berouw en dat was ook niet te verwachten (zie onder mijn column uit 2008). Maar herkennen journalisten sindsdien wel ministers die het spoor totaal bijster zijn?

——————-

First published in July 2008

 

Where is….

Donald Rumsfeld?

In April last year German prosecutors refused to bring to court Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Minister who led the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Like all other news about Rumsfeld after his resignation by the end of 2006, it was just a small dispatch in some western newspapers, in this case because hardly anybody expected the judges to decide otherwise.

The lawyers of a group of Iraqis who allegedly were tortured in the prison of Abu Ghraib, are trying their luck with European laws allowing governments to set up tribunals for war criminals of whatever nationality. One of the lawyers declared they will continue to try, taking the case of former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet as their eminent example. Pinochet was brought to justice more than twenty years after ordering the torture and assassination of some opponents of his regime.

Unlike Pinochet, who ordered his doctor to tell prosecutors that he was too old and mentally disturbed to appear in court, the 76 years old Rumsfeld didn’t react publicly to the judges’ decision. In fact we haven’t heard much of Rumsfeld since he resigned, after the election defeat of the Republicans in the American Congress – blamed on Rumsfeld’s conduct of the war in Iraq. But is he really lying low?

Rumsfeld has told reporters that he is busy nowadays in his private foundation, the Donald Henry Rumsfeld Foundation, where the former minister and top manager of several US companies has parked part of his millions.

This foundation has supported other Republican, conservative foundations or government-affiliated think-tanks and universities, such as the Leadership Institute, Freedom House, the Rand Graduate Institute and the Mansfield Foundation, the last one “promoting understanding and cooperation among the nations and peoples of Asia and the United States”.

One wouldn’t expect Rumsfeld to campaign those days (summer 2008 – ed.) for the Republicans’ presidential candidate John McCain. Senator McCain has been over the past years one of the harshest critics of Rumsfeld, who will go down, according to him, “as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history”.

But even if McCain had been a loyal admirer of Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld is not a man of handing out leaflets on America’s streets. He has spent more than thirty years of his life in the elite’s corridors of power, especially those in the White House. He has worked with four presidents: Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush, and quite a few people believe he is a great military strategist and political intellectual who just fails to get his views accepted by slow-thinking generals and other selfish groups in American society – although Rumsfeld has an eloquent way of saying things. During the Afghanistan and Iraq wars he became famous for his poetry in press briefings. Who doesn’t remember the play of words in his widely quoted poem “The Unknown”:

As we know,

There are known knowns.

There are things we know we know.

We also know

There are known unknowns.

That is to say

We know there are some things

We do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns,

The ones we don’t know

We don’t know.

(from his February 12, 2002 news briefing)

This penchant for intellectual inquiry and pop psychology probably landed Rumsfeld last year September an academic job as visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, a thinktank of Stanford University, which, by the way, has been following developments in the Iraqi media as no other academic organization. It published for example an excellent collection of translated Iraqi terrorist texts, called “In Their Own Words”.

In the Hoover Institution, that Rumsfeld already knows well from his time as a board member there, the former Defence Minister will join scholars specialised in terrorism and help develop new thinking about what Washington has to do longterm after 9/11.

A few months later and exactly one year after his resignation, Rumsfeld was honored again and received the “Statesmanship Award” at the famous Churchill Dinner of the Claremont Foundation. He held a long speech in which he praised of course Britain’s famous war leader and greatest statesman, Winston Churchill, who between daily liters of wine and fat cigars was ready to tell voters unpleasant thruths. Rumsfeld choose to tell the public that free nations will loose the next “cyber war” waged by terrrorists on the internet and satellite television – if they don’t reorganize their armies and learn how to respond to extremist propaganda.

This subject finally brought Rumsfeld back into the limelight, if only for a few hours, in January this year, when he talked to reporters during a conference on “network centric warfare”. He suggested that the American government should create a new information agency, a kind of Ministry of Counter-Propaganda, and use internet, iPods, email, sms, satellite television and whatever new communication technology to beat “Osama Bin Laden’s media committees” and other Muslim terrorists on their own turf. “We need to engage and not simply be passive and allow that battle of competition of ideas,” he said.

After launching this idea, I really believe that we will soon hear more from Rumsfeld. He once complained that everything in the US government “needs three years to be developed, proposed, approved and implemented”, so he himself will certainly be faster.

Secondly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he would appoint himself chairman of a private company or foundation specialising in media warfare and anti-terrorism. Rumsfeld, like senator McCarthy long before him, has a way to deal with journalists. He might now be impopular but once he was the darling of America’s media. As blogger Bill Berkozwitz wrote:

Once he was the “it” guy; everything he said was treated as the gospel truth. He took on celebrity-like status: The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board member, Claudia Rosett, described his press briefings on the war in Afghanistan as “the best new show on television.” CNN called him a “virtual rock star” and the Fox News Channel described him as “a babe magnet for the 70-year old set”. President George W. Bush dubbed him a “matinee idol”.

Despite all this praise, Rumsfeld seems never to have liked the media. Another memorable piece of his press conference poetry goes like this:

Happenings

You’re going to be told lots of things.

You get told things every day that don’t happen.

It doesn’t seem to bother people, they don’t—

It’s printed in the press.

The world thinks all these things happen.

They never happened.

Everyone’s so eager to get the story

Before in fact the story’s there

That the world is constantly being fed

Things that haven’t happened.

All I can tell you is,

It hasn’t happened.

It’s going to happen.

(from his February 28, 2003, news briefing)

In the conference on network centric warfare he said: “Private media doesn’t get up in the morning and say what can we do to promote the values and ideas that the free Western nations believe in? It gets up in the morning and says they’re going to try to make money by selling whatever they sell… They’ve got their job, and they have to do that, and that’s what they do… It doesn’t mean we have to infringe on the role of the free press, they can go do what they do, and that’s fine. Well, it’s not fine, but it’s what it is, let’s put it that way.”

Thirdly, he also seems to have an obsession with government counter-propaganda. Back in 2001, the Pentagon under his leadership created the Office of Strategic Influence, which was closed down just a few months later after its existence became public. Rightly or wrongly, the Pentagon was accused of creating a propaganda office.

Two years later he asked his advisors in a memo that was leaked: “Should we create a private foundation to entice radical (islamist) madrassas to a more moderate course?” Then, he and others signed for the creation of Al-Hurra, a satellite channel to combat – or rival? – Al-Jazeera’s influence, the once innovative pan-Arab channel in Qatar. Al-Hurra is expanding its reach from Iraq and the Arab world into Europe’s Arab neighborhoods nowadays. I read somewhere that this inefficient way of hindering recruitment of new terrorists in the EU will cost three billion dollar.

In Iraq the Pentagon is financing many media through lavish advertising (without asking any pro-American stands in return!) – and probably in Pakistan too, where suddenly dozens of commercial television channels have sprang up that challenged president Musharraf and other non-liberal Muslims. Rumsfeld in his time also made the Pentagon cooperate with Hollywood producers. God knows what else he did.

It is safe to conclude that Rumsfeld never gives up. He is unrepentant. He knows he might be the friend we never knew we had – but that’s for history to decide.

(This article has been first published in English and Arabic in the independent Iraqi daily newspaper Alsabah aljadeed in July 2008 in a series called “Where is…”)

 

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