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Bad behavior

Rumsfeld’s last solo

The leaked memo written by Donald Rumsfeld two days before he, er, stepped down turns out to be a final delirious improvisation, one last solo over the changes, one more hot swinging chorus with the band while the staff are sweeping the floor and putting chairs on tables at 4am. It is a masterpiece of Unspeak right from its title: “SUBJECT: Iraq – Illustrative New Courses of Action.” Heaven forbid that SecDef actually recommend something; no, in perfect cover-your-ass terminology, everything in the memo is merely “illustrative”. Rumsfeld is the one-man thinktank, the daring blue-sky imagineer. Here is one piquant paragraph of what follows:

¶ Stop rewarding bad behavior, as was done in Fallujah when they pushed in reconstruction funds, and start rewarding good behavior. Put our reconstruction efforts in those parts of Iraq that are behaving, and invest and create havens of opportunity to reward them for their good behavior. As the old saying goes, “If you want more of something, reward it; if you want less of something, penalize it.” No more reconstruction assistance in areas where there is violence.

Picture, if you will, Iraqis as small children, or perhaps dogs, in whom it is necessary to instil “good behavior”. To train small children or dogs, all that is required is a binary system of reward and punishment. Since they are not fully rational beings, that is the only language they understand.

George Lakoff’s “strict father” model of conservative thinking is pseudo-scientific, sub-psychotherapeutic guff as an attempt to explain politics in general, but it has an apt application in this specific instance. Rumsfeld is indeed floating the idea that the US military act as a strict father, or perhaps a stern dog-trainer, like Barbara Woodhouse. The example of Fallujah is inspiring. Should Iraqis dare to fight back when US forces raze their city, that counts as “bad behavior”, and the city should be left as rubble, pour encourager les autres. (Lawyers will no doubt carp about this, but carping lawyers can always be neutralized by tame ones.)

This could be the rule, Rumsfeld muses, in all “areas where there is violence”. By “violence”, of course, is meant violence committed by Iraqis. Violence committed by US forces, for instance by means of chemical weapons in Fallujah, is not violence, but something like a force of nature, or an instrument of righteous chastisement: God’s switch.

Do you doubt that Rumsfeld really thought of Iraqis as infants, as lesser beings than the mature American men with whom he consorted? The idea is made more explicit a few paragraphs later:

¶ Begin modest withdrawals of U.S. and Coalition forces (start “taking our hand off the bicycle seat”), so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.

Iraqis are indeed kids learning to ride a bike, and the US should gradually stop stabilizing the bike for them. As every parent knows, if your child should happen to fall off his bicycle during training, the correct reaction is to “penalize” the error, perhaps by smacking him around a little and shouting: “Pull your socks up!” Good behaviour and skilled cyclisme will rapidly ensue.

It is reassuring that Rumsfeld had confidence in traditional wisdom, in reliable saws like “the old saying” about rewarding what you want more of and penalizing what you want less of. Unfortunately it was decided a couple of days later that someone wanted less of him. But to the very last, he still had the chops:

¶ Announce that whatever new approach the U.S. decides on, the U.S. is doing so on a trial basis. This will give us the ability to readjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not “lose.”

This is such an ingenious idea of “public diplomacy” that it is only a shame it was not adopted three years earlier. If the US had announced from the start that it was going to war in Iraq “on a trial basis”, history would surely have taken a different course.

  1. 1  Richard  December 5, 2006, 2:50 pm 

    zefrank covered much the same territory in his show yesterday – although he seemed more concerned about the difficulty of riding a bike while pulling your socks up.

  2. 2  Steven  December 5, 2006, 3:02 pm 

    That’s not so difficult, you can pull up one sock at a time while freewheeling for a bit. Done it myself.

    “Much the same territory”? Not really.

  3. 3  Richard  December 6, 2006, 1:36 am 

    you actually looked him up? I’m impressed.

  4. 4  Graham Giblin  December 6, 2006, 9:11 am 

    This is not merely how Rumsfeld sees Iraq and Iraqis. It is how he sees the rest of the world vis a vis himself. It really is quite clear that he thinks of them as children. Who needs to pull up their socks? People who wear shorts, namely children.

    I think the inverted commas around ‘lose’ is worth a lot more discussion, which has been deliciously entered into on the Daily Show, between John Stewart and John Oliver.

    You can find the exchange here on a blog with which I am (shamelessly) not unconnected. (Also elsewhere, including

  5. 5  Graham Giblin  December 6, 2006, 10:18 am 

    I know it’s off-topic, but it is war…

    I think I may have omitted to mention the cricket and my favorite description of the English collapse:

    Like medieval royals with syphilis, they went suddenly mad.

  6. 6  Steven  December 6, 2006, 10:50 am 

    Sure I looked him up: he’s quite funny. Of course the Stewarts and the Colberts do this better than any of us.

    Nice line about the cricket.

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