Will Kissinger Screw Rumsfeld?

The 9/11 commission creates an opportunity for revenge.

Kissinger can direct his scheming toward Rumseld now
Kissinger can direct his scheming toward Rumseld now

Various people have explained why Henry Kissinger is a bad choice to run an investigation into what went wrong on Sept. 11. He’s a liar. He’s an apologist for corrupt regimes. Through his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, he has a commercial interest in not shaking things up. (In a Slate column, Christopher Hitchens hit all these notes, and more.) Kissinger’s defenders, of whom the most surprising is the longtime Kissinger critic William Safire, are not terribly convincing when they argue that Kissinger will do a good job because he is a better man than many give him credit for. (Safire’s new line is that although Kissinger used to be a bad man, he’s evolved into a good man.) But Chatterbox thinks it’s still possible that Kissinger may—emphasize may—prove a smart choice to run the commission precisely because he’s the same Machiavellian schemer he always was. The 9/11 committee carries great potential to become a vehicle for Kissinger’s revenge against his bitterest bureaucratic foe.

That would be Donald Rumsfeld. Almost everybody has forgotten the story of how Rumsfeld kneecapped Kissinger when he was Gerald Ford’s defense secretary, but Jason Vest documented it last year in the American Prospect:

As the 1976 election approached, a Kissinger ally was not the best thing to be. Ford was running scared from archconservative Ronald Reagan and his supporters, who held that two of the Ford administration’s higher profiles—Kissinger and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller—were too liberal. … Rumsfeld began to chip away at Kissinger’s access and public image. Some of Kissinger’s partisans in the press corps found Rumsfeld’s campaign against the K so heavy-handed they virtually outed him as Kissinger’s nemesis, by making Rummy’s identity as a Kissinger-bashing source obvious. … In early December 1975, Ford and Kissinger embarked on a Pacific Rim swing. Afterward, Kissinger was going to head to Moscow, hoping to conclude negotiations for SALT II. En route to Jakarta from Hong Kong, however, Rumsfeld cabled Air Force One, rebuking Kissinger for even considering a Moscow trip without consulting Rumsfeld and others. Kissinger’s Russia sojourn was nixed. Then, on December 6, columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported that a number of Ford advisers were “outraged” at Kissinger’s “drafting top secret proposals for major concessions to Moscow.” The column implied that only one man could save the republic from the betrayal of giving away the nuclear farm: Donald Rumsfeld.

According to Vest, Kissinger now claims he has buried the hatchet with Rumsfeld. But Kissinger never struck Chatterbox as a let-bygones-be-bygones kind of guy. Now that he’s chairman of the 9/11 commission, Kissinger will have the opportunity to assess the level of scrutiny the Pentagon gave during the first nine months of the Bush administration to a possible attack by al-Qaida. This theme has gone largely unexplored during the past year, while the screw-ups of the FBI and the CIA have been studied in some depth. It’s not hard to imagine Kissinger deciding that Rumsfeld ought to have diverted some of the attention he lavished prior to 9/11 on missile defense (which would have been useless to defend the World Trade Center) and bureaucratic reform within the Pentagon (a dead letter since 9/11) to going after a terrorist organization that was well known to be bent on killing Americans.

Kissinger may be encouraged to follow this path by CIA director George Tenet, who for some time has been fighting a nasty turf war with the Pentagon. The two agencies bickered over who should run the war in Afghanistan, and the CIA largely won out. According to Bob Woodward’s new book, Bush at War, Rumsfeld resented this. More recently, in assessing the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Pentagon (or rather, Rumsfeld and his hawkish deputy Paul Wolfowitz) have won out. According to an article by Robert Dreyfuss in the Dec. 16 American Prospect, the CIA (which is more skeptical about the threat) resents this. Rumsfeld is currently preoccupied with creating an intelligence office at the Pentagon that could further displace the CIA. But if Kissinger can establish that Rumsfeld is already mismanaging the vast intelligence resources he presides over—the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, etc.—Rummy’s chance to shove Tenet aside may disappear.

This is all absurdly speculative, of course, and it’s far from clear that the public interest would really be served should Kissinger and Tenet gang up against Rumsfeld. (We don’t want to whitewash the CIA’s pre-9/11 failures.) Still, the revenge factor, and its possible benefits for the common weal, deserve consideration.

[Update, Dec. 3: Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger biography, published in 1992, contains useful additional material about Kissinger’s loathing of Rumsfeld. The feud apparently dates back to 1974, when Rumsfeld was President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff. Rumsfeld felt that Kissinger was seizing too much of the spotlight from the Oval Office. To counteract that, Rumsfeld and press secretary Ron Nessen let it be known that Ford had expanded the circle of people who advised him on foreign policy. “Kissinger fumed, railed at Nessen and Rumsfeld, then threatened to resign,” writes Isaacson. Later, Rumsfeld persuaded Ford that Ford, not Kissinger, should conduct press briefings at a NATO summit in Brussels and that Kissinger should be excluded from the photo sessions. Kissinger blew up again. On the flight home, Kissinger told Ford speechwriter Robert Hartmann that it was “perfectly clear” who had been doing him in. “We have ways of dealing with those clowns,” Kissinger said. Actually, he didn’t. But now he does.]