If the “new world order” is giving way to chaos, it is in no small measure because of the crashing geopolitical insensitivity of the neocons andWashington power elite
[dropcap]A [/dropcap]famous line of the Scottish poet Robert Burns expressed the wish that “some power” would grant blinkered human beings the “gift to see ourselves as others see us.”
In recent times, the absence of this gift has been nowhere more starkly apparent than among those who have formulated the foreign policy of the United States.
In his remarkable new film, The Unknown Known, the American director, Errol Morris, paints a portrait of Donald Rumsfeld which confirms what many perhaps always suspected: That the former US Secretary of Defense inhabits a world of his own, or one shared only by the likes of ex-US President George W. Bush.
Morris’ film is framed round an extensive interview with Rumsfeld in which he reviews his career as a veteran of the US political establishment. A Republican ideologue who first came to prominence in the 1970s in the disgraced administration of President Richard Nixon, Rumsfeld was fixated with national security and America’s role as global gendarme long before he joined the Bush administration in 2001 and planned the invasions of Afghanistan and of Iraq.
What the film underlines is the bullish unilateralism of Rumsfeld’s mindset, his constitutional inability to conceive how anybody not palpably evil could fail to share his view of things.
In an earlier film, The Fog of War (2003), Morris evoked Rumsfeld’s soul-searching forerunner, Robert McNamara, who, as Pentagon chief in the 1960s, presided over the debacle of the US intervention in Vietnam.
That film’s power lay in its depiction of an American strategist whose conscience became tormented not just about the consequences of US military action in Vietnam but about war itself.
Troubled by what the US did in Vietnam, McNamara was no less troubled by the wholesale US firebombing of Japanese cities in 1945. It was, he ruefully observed, only because at the end of the Second World War America enjoyed “victor’s justice” that it escaped being charged with war crimes.
Morris wrings no such admission of guilt from Donald Rumsfeld, though Rumsfeld is quick to point out that he twice offered his resignation over revelations that the US military perpetrated torture in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib gaol.
The sometime Defense Secretary remains his characteristically genial self as he defends his actions to Errol Morris and expatiates on the peculiar linguistic formulations, the riddling references to “known knowns” and “known unknowns” etc, with which he diverted the world in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003. Whether these were ever much more than verbal hocus pocus is not the least of the questions raised by a film whose subject often comes across as a sort of macabre comedian.
Rumsfeld claims he was endeavoring to clarify threats to the US that were identifiable, as distinct from ones that might elude the imagination. Yet if he has tried hard to think the unthinkable, he has plainly made not the smallest effort to imagine the catastrophic human consequences of his own military strategy, the incalculable misery visited by high-tech US firepower on vast numbers of innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Stuff happens” was Rumsfeld’s notorious insouciant response when looting broke out in Baghdad in 2003. And when the news media reported the anarchy that was sweeping post-war Iraq his riposte was that they were wallowing in pessimism when they ought to have been celebrating the fact that the US had freed Iraq from tyranny.
Least of all perhaps has Rumsfeld imagined the damage his brand of Realpolitik has done to the moral credibility of the United States, the country which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, rejoiced in the advent of a “new world order.”
As the invasion of Iraq loomed, many warned that with its cavalier attitude toward the international law which it purported to venerate, the US risked resurrecting the gangsterism of the 1930s, the fascist presumption that “might is right.”
If the “new world order” is giving way to chaos, it is in no small measure because of the crashing geopolitical insensitivity of Rumsfeld and the Washington power elite, the zero empathy and contempt for principle with which they conducted US foreign policy at the outset of the 21st century.
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