TRANSCRIPT OF RUMSFELD INTERVIEW
‘I worry we are in a gathering storm’
Tribune Media Services
Donald Rumsfeld, in his first interview since announcing in early November his resignation as secretary of defense, discussed his conduct of the Iraq war and other world defense issues with syndicated political columnist Cal Thomas. Rumsfeld’s last day in office is Friday. His successor, Robert Gates, is scheduled to be sworn is as the new defense secretary on Monday.
Cal Thomas: We meet on the 65th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. People compare wars – Vietnam to Iraq – but there were lessons that came out of World War II. If you were to compare the public’s attitude during World War II and the public’s attitude over Iraq, how would they compare?
Donald Rumsfeld: It’s dramatic. In World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor was stunning, but it followed a long series of [events] in Europe, and even in Asia, that were not stunning to the American people. The threat that was anticipated on the West Coast was real and palpable. The mobilization of the country, and declaring war, moved us to the next step. The large number of people who went to serve from almost every community in the nation was an example of the extent to which people were engaged.
I can remember having a victory garden. I can remember buying war bonds for $18.75. If you held them long enough, they’d be worth $25. You could buy them in coupons until you had a whole [book]; I remember collecting paper, collecting old rubber, collecting hangers and metal to be recycled into war materials. We were all engaged.
Furthermore, the movie industry was mobilized to support the war. They [filmmakers] wanted us to win, which was an important factor. The situation today, the success that has been achieved in not having another attack on this country in the last five years, has allowed the perception of a threat to diminish, even though the threat has clearly not diminished and, indeed, is real and lethal and dangerous to the safety of the American people.
The fact that it’s the first war of the 21st century and notably different from World War I and World War II is also a problem in the sense that it is unfamiliar ground. There are not big armies, navies and air forces contesting against each other with visible results and unambiguous outcomes. We have, without question, the finest military on the face of the Earth and, indeed, in the history of the world. We can’t lose a battle. And we haven’t, and we won’t.
But the military, given the nature of this conflict, can’t win alone. There is no way the military can prevail, because what we are engaged in, in a very real sense, is a battle of ideas [and] a struggle within the Muslim faith between the overwhelming majority of mainstream Muslims and a relatively small minority of violent extremists who have access to all the modern technology – off-the-shelf stuff, very lethal weapons, increasingly lethal and dangerous weapons – and all the technologies of wire transfers and e-mail and the Internet to communicate with each other. So the absence of a good, clear, readily understandable and, indeed, visible war, through photographs and images, creates a notably different environment.
Second, all of the changes in the media in the 21st century, not only is this the first war of the 21st century from a military and technology standpoint; it’s also the first war of the 21st century in terms of the media realities – 24-hour news and bloggers and digital cameras – all the things that can be used and manipulated by the other side, which they do very skillfully.
CT: You’ve read the Iraq Study Group report.
DR: I haven’t. I’ve read reports of it and gone through the executive summary.
CT: From what you’ve read, what is the good, the bad and the ridiculous in the ISG report?
DR: All I’m going to say about it is what the president said. He has cooperated with it; he has met with them [the ISG] and received their recommendations. Every six to eight weeks, he meets with a cluster of people. He has listened to the advice and counsel he gets from Generals Abizaid and Casey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the period immediately ahead, he will be making some judgments.
It’s fair to say that he is faced – the country is faced – with a situation in which, because of the nature of the struggle and the fact that it is not well-understood by the American people, the president has the task of managing and maintaining sufficient support for the things he believes are necessary for our country’s safety. He has to take into account the reality that only if we persevere do we have an opportunity to succeed. The penalties and consequences of failure are so dire for the country that he has to recognize the center of gravity of this struggle, [which,] while to some extent is in the Middle East, is [also], in a very real sense, here in the United States of America. He has to take that into account in reviewing and considering the variety of proposals and suggestions he has received.
We have been working with the military and the joint chiefs and the Central Command. Some time back, I drafted a memo that took into account a variety of suggestions offered by various people inside the [Defense] Department and elsewhere, and I asked General Pace to use it as a discussion piece with the chiefs, which he has done as a way of stimulating their thinking. They have been interacting and plan to report to the president in two [meetings].
I personally believe that the consequences of allowing the situation in Iraq to be turned over to terrorists would be so severe – not simply because of Iraq’s oil, water, wealth and geographic position, population size and history – but also because Iraq would become a haven to plan attacks on the moderate countries in the region and the United States. [It would diminish] the ability of the United States to provide protection for the American people.
CT: Dr. [Robert] Gates, in his confirmation hearings, answered Sen. Carl Levin’s question, “˜Are we winning in Iraq?’ with a “˜No.’ Later on he added, “˜We’re not losing, either.’ This question seems to fit into the template feeding the withdrawal syndrome.
DR: I didn’t see his testimony and don’t want to comment on it at all, but if you ask me my view, it is that the military can’t lose, but the military can’t win alone. It requires political solutions. They’ve got to have reconciliation. They simply have to take a series of steps that they’ve not yet sufficiently taken. Set aside World War I and set aside World War II. Think more of the Cold War.
At any given moment during the Cold War, which lasted 50 years, you couldn’t say if you were winning or losing. The Civil War, as well. There aren’t straight and smooth paths. There are bumpy roads. It’s difficult. The enemy has a brain. They’re constantly making adjustments. Think of the faces of the Cold War when Euro-communism was in vogue, and people were demonstrating by the millions against the United States, not against the Soviet Union. And yet, over time, people found the will – both political parties and Western European countries – to persist in a way that ultimately led to victory.
The circumstance we are in today is more like that than it is like World War II. People are going to have to get more familiar with that idea. It’s not a happy prospect. There are people in the world who are determined to destabilize modern Muslim regimes and re-establish a caliphate across the globe, and anyone who wants to know about it can go on the Internet and read their own words and what their intent is. They’re deadly. They’re not going to surrender. They’re going to have to be captured or killed. They’re going to have to be dissuaded; people are going to have to be dissuaded from supporting them, from financing them and assisting in their recruitment, providing havens for them.
We’re in an environment where we have to fight and win a war where the enemy is in countries we are not at war with. That is a very complicated thing to do. It doesn’t happen fast. It means you have to invest the time, effort and ability. We don’t have the institutions, we don’t have the organization, and we haven’t had the training, as a society, to rapidly develop the skill sets so that the countries that are cooperative with us develop the capacity to develop their own real estate, which they don’t have.
CT: With what you know now, what might you have done differently in Iraq?
DR: I don’t think I would have called it the war on terror. I don’t mean to be critical of those who have. Certainly, I have used the phrase frequently. Why do I say that? Because the word war conjures up World War II more than it does the Cold War. It creates a level of expectation of victory and an ending within 30 or 60 minutes of a soap opera. It isn’t going to happen that way. Furthermore, it is not a “˜war on terror.’ Terror is a weapon of choice for extremists who are trying to destabilize regimes and, [through] a small group of clerics, impose their dark vision on all the people they can control. So “˜war on terror’ is a problem for me.
I’ve worked to reduce the extent to which that is used and increased the extent to which we understand it more as a long war, or a struggle, or a conflict, not against terrorism but against a relatively small number of terribly dangerous and violent extremists. I say violent extremists because an extremist who goes off in a closet is extreme, but he’s not bothering people. An extremist who has those views and insists on imposing them on free people strikes at the heart of who free people are. There are people who want to be able to get up in the morning and go where they want, do what they want, and that is exactly the opposite of the vision of violent extremists.
People who argue for more troops are often thinking World War II and the Weinberger Doctrine, which is valid in a conflict between armies, navies and air forces. The problem with it, in the context of a struggle against extremists, is that the greater your presence, the more it plays into extremist lies that you’re there to take their oil, to occupy their nation, stay and not leave; that you’re against Islam, as opposed to being against violent extremists.
People who argue for more, more, more, as I would in a conventional conflict, fail to recognize that it can have exactly the opposite effect. It can increase recruiting for extremists. It can increase financing for extremists. It can make more persuasive the lies of the extremists that we are there for the oil and water and want to take over their country. There is no guidebook, no map that says to General Abizaid or General Casey what they should recommend to the secretary of defense or the president as to numbers. It is a fact, whether or not it flies in the face of the popular media, that the level of forces we have had going into Iraq, and every month thereafter, are the number of troops the commanding generals have recommended. I have not increased them or decreased them over the objections of any general who is in a position of authority with respect to that decision.
Is it the right number? I don’t know. Do I have a heckuva lot of confidence in those two folks? Yes. Do I think it’s probably right? You bet, or I would have overruled it, or made a different recommendation to the president. But they have to walk that line; they have to find that balance.
There are two centers of gravity. One is in Iraq and the region; the other is here. The more troops you have, the greater the risk that you will be seen as an occupier and that you will feed an insurgency. The more troops you have – particularly American troops, who are so darn good at what they do – the more they will do things and the more dependent the Iraqis will become and the less independent they will become. If there’s a ditch to be dug, an American does not want to sit down and teach an Iraqi how to dig the ditch. He’ll go dig the dadburn ditch. But that is not what the task is. The task is to get the Iraqis to dig the ditches.
On the one hand, you don’t want to feed the insurgency, and on the other, you don’t want to create dependency. So at some point, you’ve got to take your hand off the bicycle seat. You’ve got the bicycle going down the street. You’re pushing and holding it up, and you go from four fingers to three fingers to two, and you know if you let go, they might fall. You also know if you don’t let go, you’ll end up with a 40-year-old who can’t ride a bike. Now that’s not a happy prospect.
Simultaneously, you have the problem here at home. The more troops you have there, the more force protection you need, the more food you need, the more water you need, the more convoys you need, the more airplanes you need, the more people get killed, the more targets there are. If part of the center of gravity is back here in the United States and they constantly see more Americans getting killed, they ask, “˜Where are the victories?’ “˜Where’s the land warfare victory?’ “˜Where’s the sea victory?’ “˜Where’s the air victory?’ “˜Where’s the body count?’ “˜How many of these people are we killing?’ “˜How many are we capturing?’ “˜How do we know if we’re winning or losing?’ The more people you put in, the more you’re going to get killed.
The argument has been unimpressive, not terribly thoughtful [or] multidimensional and a bit narrow in this regard. Do I know that the right number is there? No. Do I think it is? Yes. Is there anyone who is smart enough to prove it is or isn’t? No.
CT: Where are we on missile defense? We have rogue nations like North Korea and now Iran threatening with possible nuclear missiles.
DR: When we came in , the president wanted to proceed with missile defense. Even the proponents didn’t agree with each other. Some wanted land; some wanted sea. And the opponents were viscerally against it. It was called national missile defense, so our allies were against it. To the extent we were successful in defending ourselves, they felt they would no longer be protected. So we had many meetings. We ended up calling it missile defense and not national missile defense, and our goal was not to separate ourselves from our allies and friends.
Second, it meant the concept of a perfect shield, which is the way President Reagan’s proposals were characterized by people who wanted to be dismissive. We decided to say that the reality is that this was in an early stage. We wanted to do the developmental work to see what was possible and what made sense and what kinds of capabilities might be developed. That required getting out of the ballistic missile treaty, which the president stepped up and did, to his great credit. That permitted us to do the necessary research and development. We have been proceeding to do that.
I’ve always believed the way you get something is not by sitting around trying to develop it full-blown before you put it out there, but you test it, use it, play with it, evolve it, and that’s what we’ve been doing. We have evolved to the point where we have an initial missile capability to shoot down a missile from a rogue state. We’ve not had to do it yet, but we are prepared to. Each month that goes by, additional elements add to that capability; whether it’s an additional radar here, or a sensor there, an additional interceptor, or a ship that can help triangulate and add information, or whether it’s the development of information about the capabilities of others … all of that adds to a growing body of knowledge that gives us increasing confidence we will continue to evolve this capability at a pace we believe is appropriate to the threat.
You’d like things faster, I suppose, but the North Koreans put that Taepodong-2 [missile] on there, and it didn’t work. What we have to do is recognize there is a threat to our country and there will be a growing treat to our country and we have to invest and evolve this capability, as we have been doing. We’re now discussing things with European countries as to ways we could add radars and interceptors and various sensors that would improve the capability to intercept an Iranian rogue missile.
CT: What are you most proud of in this, your latest, service in Washington, and what is your biggest disappointment?
[Rumsfeld’s aide produced a stack of papers, in which Rumsfeld outlined his career high points, which included the liberation of 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq, which led to elections in Afghanistan and Iraq; capturing or killing the senior leadership of America’s enemies; the shaping of forces for asymmetric warfare and humanitarian efforts, such as assistance for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita; the modernization of forces; organizational transformation; and moving toward a more agile institution.]
DR: We’ve achieved a number of accomplishments and a number of initiatives. We face risks down the road from things like cyber attacks, given our high degree of vulnerability. Given our free way of life, we face risks from chemical, biological as well as nuclear devices.
CT: Biggest disappointment?
DR: It’s the inability to help the free people of the world to understand that this new century and the struggle we’re engaged in is real, is terribly dangerous to their safety, and regrettably, it is not going to be as easily seen in terms of pitched battles.
CT: Will it take another 9-11 to make people wake up?
DR: There are people who have written that this administration is a victim of its success, due to the fact that there hasn’t been another attack inside the United States. I remember shortly after Sept. 11, I met with the Sultan of Oman in a tent. It must have been 150 degrees. We were perspiring through every piece of clothing we had on. He said this terrible thing that’s happened might be a blessing in disguise. It may be the thing that will wake up the world to the danger these extremists pose, before those people get their hands on chemical or biological or nuclear weapons where they could kill many multiples of what they were able to kill on Sept. 11.
This was a man sitting in a tent in the desert with that perspective and understanding of the dangers of extremists. It did for a short while, but then that threat diminished in their minds, whereas it not only has not diminished in reality – it has grown because of the advances in technologies. Look at the Johns Hopkins exercise with smallpox called Dark Winter. It was put in three airports in America. Something between 800,000 and 1 million people “˜died’ in some number of months, or a year, from a disease people are no longer vaccinated against. So there are things that can be done. There’s a tendency for a lot of people to be dismissive of this and to ridicule it.
Churchill’s phrase about the gathering storm – there was a storm gathering, but there were people in Europe who didn’t believe it and who didn’t take the periodic storm clouds and the squalls as a real threat. They thought they were transitory and, of course, paid an enormous penalty in treasure and life for their failure to understand the nature of that threat. I worry we are in a gathering storm and we do not, as a society, accept it. Many of the elites of our society, the key opinion leaders, are unwilling or unable to accept what an awful lot of people believe to be the case. The penalty for being wrong can be enormous.
CT: General MacArthur said, “˜Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.’ What about old secretaries of defense? A book?
DR: I don’t know. I haven’t given any thought to it. There are a lot of people who think I should write a book, and I may very well. Life’s been good, and we feel very, very fortunate to have been able to be here and to be involved in something as important as this. It’s been an enormously challenging time for the country. I feel so fortunate to have had this very intimate relationship with these amazing people in uniform – the young men and women who volunteer – who represent the best-led, the best-equipped, the best-trained, the most capable military in the world. They’re motivated. They’re proud. The people who are dismissive of them don’t understand what’s going on in our society.
These are terrific people, and they are doing a superb job. The fact that it’s tough, the fact that it’s long, the fact that it’s hard, the fact that it can be ugly at times should take nothing away from what they’re doing. They’re doing everything a military can do.
Healthcare for Iraqis and Afghanis and prisons for criminals is not the job of the military; all of those things are the tasks of other elements of our government and coalition partners, and they take time. I read where someone was saying this is longer than World War II. Germany didn’t even have a government until 1949, as I recall. And you were dealing with a very different environment in Western Europe than you are here. So the progress that’s been made in these countries, when the uniform personnel look back five, 10 or 15 years from now, they’re going to know that they helped liberate 50 million people. That is a big thing. It is historic. They’re going to know they’ve given these folks an opportunity to succeed in an environment that is not a repressive political system but a free political system.
Is it easy to get from where they were to that? No, it’s hard. It’s darn hard. But is it worth it? You bet. People said the Japanese could never have a democracy. It didn’t fit their culture, they said. Well, the Japanese are doing pretty well with the second-biggest economy on Earth. I feel these folks can be darn proud of what they’ve done and what they’re doing. Fortunately, the history won’t be written by the local reporters who are looking for bad news to report because it’s newsworthy. It will be written by history over time and with perspective.