Politics & Policy

Rumsfeld on the Record

A wide-ranging discussion with the SecDef.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this piece appears in the current National Review.

The Pentagon — Donald Rumsfeld has experienced some rough sledding lately, and I ask him how his spirits are. “Good,” he says. Although, after a shoulder operation, his left arm is in a sling, and “I haven’t been able to play squash for a week.”

Rumsfeld says, “I don’t think there’s ever been a war where a person in my job” — secretary of defense — “was popular. I can’t think of one. It’s a tough business and it’s an ugly business.” Also, “we’ve never fought a war in the 21st century, with the new media,” including intense 24-hour news. “You know, everyone can say what they want and think what they want. And over time — I mean, there have been a couple of folks who have been calling for my resignation since April of ’01, before the war ever started.”

I say that I can’t remember what he was doing then. “Well,” he responds, “obviously not the right thing.”

I have come to see Rumsfeld in his Pentagon office — E Ring — on an overcast morning. Loitering a bit outside his office before the interview begins, I notice a large poster of Uncle Sam: eyes narrowed, scowl on his face, finger jabbed at you. The poster reads, “We’re at War. Are YOU Doing All You Can?” Later, as it happens, Rumsfeld will give me a copy of this same poster (smaller).

Outside the office, I also see a photo of him and President Bush on October 7, 2001. They are standing in front of the gash the plane made in the Pentagon. Bush is quoted: “We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail.” I can’t help noticing that both Bush and Rumsfeld look considerably younger than they do now, five years later — especially Bush.

Under that photo, there are flags of all the countries “providing forces, diplomatic support, and other contributions” to the War on Terror. I think there are about 100 flags in all. There are 192 members of the United Nations. The Pentagon might have been better off putting up the flags of those who are squarely against us.

Also, there’s a model of the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial, and envelopes for donations. And there’s a photo display of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” You don’t see those photos much in the news media — soldiers mingling with kids, and so on. An Iraqi man with a jubilant face thrusts his purple finger in the air. It seems a long time since those days.

In his office, Rumsfeld is wearing a vest with the words “Combating Terrorism” on it. And one of the first things I notice is a portrait above his desk: It’s of Washington. Rumsfeld explains that he has displayed George Marshall and James Forrestal in the past. But he wanted to change to Washington. The portrait comes from a “curio shop,” as Rumsfeld says, in Mt. Vernon. Cost $400. “It’s a fake,” says Rumsfeld — but a good-looking one.


I remind Rumsfeld that, when we last talked — three years ago — I asked him whether the American people would stick with the War on Terror. And he replied, on that occasion, “They stuck with the Cold War.”

“Yeah,” Rumsfeld says now. “Long time. Lot of wavering. A lot of cold feet at the various points along the way. I remember being in Spain and getting a phone call saying I had to come back to testify against the Mansfield Amendment,” which proposed to pull U.S. troops out of Europe. “I was ambassador to NATO at the time — early ’70s. And here you are: The Cold War’s in full flower, and the Soviet Union’s making mischief in Central America and Africa and subjugating Eastern Europe . . .” Yet the proposal was made all the same.

Plus, says Rumsfeld, “Eurocommunism was in vogue.” For example, “the Italians constantly were wondering about putting Communists in their coalition and changing their governments about every 15 minutes.”

So, continues the SecDef, “you look back on it now and say, ‘Oh, my goodness, it was a good, straight, upward path. We all knew all along the Cold War would last a long time. We knew all along it would be tough, but we never wavered and never doubted.’ And we did waver and doubt, and there were plenty of people who got cold feet as they went along.”

Victory, says Rumsfeld, “didn’t just happen.” And “I don’t take it for granted.”


I mention the simple fact that a lot of people think we’re losing in Iraq — including people who wish us well.

Rumsfeld: “Yeah, the people who are there don’t. Our military people don’t feel we’re losing. The people we’re up against don’t feel we’re losing. And they feel they’re having troubles. They’re getting a lot of people killed.” They are also worried about the “adverse reaction” to the killing of many Muslims by Muslims. Look, says Rumsfeld: “If the measure of success or failure depends on how many Muslims they can kill, they can kill a lot of them. It doesn’t take a genius to kill people, and they can do that. But when you read what they’re writing and what they’re saying to each other, they don’t feel they’re winning.”

It doesn’t take a genius to kill people. I regard that as almost aphoristic. An aide to Rumsfeld later tells me that he has also been known to say, “They bomb buildings they can’t build.”

But how about this business of “civil war”? Is what Iraq is experiencing a civil war, or something else?

Rumsfeld says he has “avoided” the term. “It seems to me all it is is leading with a glass jaw, because anyone who wants to can redefine it a different way. So you can go to one dictionary or another dictionary and end up with a definition that” conforms to your bias.

Most Iraqis, says Rumsfeld, don’t view themselves as locked in civil war. “They think there’s sectarian violence. They think people are being assassinated. . . . There’s a struggle to be positioned right, to have greater power in that country, greater authority — political and economic power and authority . . . Some of it’s pure al Qaeda. Some of the bombing of the mosques is clearly trying to incite additional civil strife.

“I don’t know. You define civil war the way you like, and then you can put that template down on the situation at any given moment and you’ll have your answer as to whether or not you think it is. It certainly is not a pretty picture. It’s a tough picture. It’s difficult.”


Naturally, I raise the question of force levels. A debate has been going on for a long time: Rumsfeld, and the president, say that they listen to the commanders on the ground and give them all they need. The administration’s critics say, “Yeah, but the commanders won’t tell them what they really think; they think they have to tell them what they want to hear.”

Rumsfeld: “It’s kind of insulting to the senior military people in this government to suggest that they’re incapable of saying what they believe. I have trouble believing that’s the case. In fact, it’s belied by the facts. We’ve had instances — very recently — where they came and said they needed additional troops and we gave them additional troops.

“What you’ve got is — you have a big country, the size of California. You have U.S. and Coalition forces around in different parts of it, and you have U.S. military embedded with the Iraqi security forces that are around the different parts of the country. At any given time, some major, some captain, or some lieutenant colonel is going to be in a situation where he wishes he had more troops. I mean, that’s inevitable. And that’s an allocation issue, then, for the senior military leadership out there. They have to decide how many they need overall and then where they ought to be and what kinds they ought to be . . .

“It’s not something that can be micromanaged from Washington. It can’t be micromanaged from the editorial boards of some of your favorite publications, as much as people would like to be able to do that. I know I can’t. I’m not smart enough to know where they ought to be located and how many there ought to be. So what you do is, you roll the dice and you pick the best people you can find in the military to take those jobs, and then you insist that they tell you the truth with the bark off, and they do.

“I mean, I wouldn’t have delayed the 172nd Stryker Brigade when they were due home and sent them into Baghdad because Casey asked for more troops if I hadn’t been willing . . . It wasn’t a very popular thing to do. I then went out and met with 800 spouses of this group, and that’s not your first choice.

“You know, we’ve fluctuated between — I guess, at the high, 150,000, and we’re currently 148,000, and we’ve been down to 117,000. It’s depended on what the commanders have at any given moment said they needed.” And “I think it is really insulting for people to suggest that the three- and four-star military officers in our service don’t have enough steel up their backs to ask for what they want and to know what they want.

“Now, people can make a mistake and be wrong. I mean, I can be wrong. They can be wrong. But I’ve got a lot of respect for John Abizaid and for George Casey and for Pete Chiarelli, and these are the three senior people in that chain. They meet with the chairman of the Chiefs frequently, they meet with the chiefs of staff, all the Joint Chiefs, regularly. And the Joint Chiefs agree with them. So now you’ve got, not just the three senior ones, but the chairman and the vice chairman, and the commandant of the Marine Corps, and the chief of Naval Operations, and the chief of staff of the Air Force all agreeing with them. And they then make their recommendations to me, and I make a recommendation to the president, and the president makes a decision.

“But it’s an art, not a science. I mean, there’s no magic book that you can go to and say, ‘Gee, here’s the right number.’”

Later, Rumsfeld says that the many problems in Iraq “are ultimately going to be worked out by the Iraqi people, not by us, and they’re going to be worked out over time. And it ain’t gonna be pretty between now and then. But they’re making progress.”


I make a quick shift to Iran, asking, in effect, whether the president will do anything about the mullahs and their nuclear program before he leaves office in January ’09. Rumsfeld says, “That’s not something I’d want to speculate on. It’s on a diplomatic track and he’s working it hard. And he recognizes the dangers to the world for Iran to have weapons of mass destruction. He recognizes the difficulty of deterring a country that works that intimately with terrorist organizations and has the ability to pass capabilities down to terrorist networks, and avoid the problem of being seen as doing it directly — or partially avoid the problem that can accrue to a country if they did it directly.”

A little more on the criticism Rumsfeld faces: He realizes that the war, “obviously,” “causes people concern.” And then there’s Rumsfeld’s effort to “transform this institution,” meaning the Defense Department: That “creates instantaneous hostility on the part of the Iron Triangle around this town — the bureaucracy, the defense industry, and the Congress. So, it’s just almost an automatic that, if you do this, that’s going to happen. And I think what you need to do is just to put your head down, do what you believe is right, and stay at it.”

I want to ask him about Israel. Once, Rumsfeld said something highly unusual, and thrilling to many — he referred to “the so-called occupied territories.” Does he still hold to that? He grins and says, “You know, I’m not supposed to get into foreign policy.”


So I ask him about the term “Islamic fascists.” Does he think that’s a good enough description for the enemy we’re facing?

“Oh, goodness. No, I don’t.” But “I think that I’ve got too many important things to do with my life to sit around thinking that I am the expert on semantics, that I should be the one defining everything. I have had trouble with almost every characterization we’ve used,” or that has been used by others, “because they’re not perfect.” None is a true and complete fit.

One problem with the term “War on Terror,” says Rumsfeld, is that it “leads one to believe” that “it’s a war in a traditional, conventional sense. And it’s not in any way conventional. It’s as asymmetric and irregular as anything could be. We’re not massing large armies, navies, and air forces. We’re not going to end it with a signing ceremony on the USS Missouri.”

And “terror is not really the problem. Terror, in one sense, is the weapon of choice of a small cluster of violent extremists who use that, not for the purpose of killing you, but for the purpose of terrorizing you; that is to say, to alter your behavior so that you’ll do what it is they want done in the world as opposed to what it is that free people feel like doing when they get up in the morning.

“And so you can take almost any characterization — I mean, what’s a guerrilla war? what’s a revolution? what’s a civil war? — and history doesn’t have perfect, identifiable models for each of those things, and therefore, once I use a phrase or adopt a phrase or question a phrase, then the press runs with it and plays with it for about six weeks. And it reminds me of that old — I think it was Teddy Roosevelt who said, ‘If you’re in a bind, create a diversion.’”

The Terror War, says Rumsfeld, is “going to be long, much more like the Cold War than World War I or II in terms of length.” And it’s going to be won, “as much as by anything,” by “people within that faith,” Islam, “who don’t want to see their religion hijacked and who are not violent extremists and who do not get up in the morning and think that beheading people and forcing everyone else to be exactly like they want them to be is the preferred way of life.

“And our job is to try to create an environment where they can prevail. And the fact that it is the first war of the 21st century makes it a particularly hard one to fight because people aren’t comfortable with it.”


The conversation now shifts to politics. Rumsfeld was first elected to Congress in 1962 (and he stayed for three terms). You often hear that politics is more acrimonious today than it used to be. Is that nostalgia, or is there validity to it?

Rumsfeld answers, “I came here in ’57 and worked on the Hill out of the Navy. And Eisenhower was president. And it was a different kind of an environment, clearly. There were scandals,” but nothing earth-shattering. “And then Kennedy came in — President Kennedy — and he had a nice, light touch and a good sense of humor. He was killed.

“The Johnson era with the Vietnam War was just a terribly difficult time in this town. Buses circled around the White House like the barriers are now. Couldn’t go give a speech someplace. I mean, he was just captive. It was a terribly difficult time.”

When Rumsfeld was secretary of defense the first time — under Ford, 1975-77 — the Berrigan brothers — Daniel and Philip, those famous activists — “were digging graves on my front lawn. The kids couldn’t go to school.” They were unable to pass through the demonstrators.

“So, I mean, it’s different. The big change in the House of Representatives, that I can see, is that gerrymandering has gotten to the point where there are very few contested seats. [We’ll see, come November!] And when that’s the case, either side, left or right, ends up owning the vast majority of the seats, and you don’t have people who have to compete in the middle, which is where a president or a senator tends to have to compete. And it’s a different environment in that regard. You have fewer coalitions, fewer people working things out between parties or between different viewpoints.”

Rumsfeld says that he has had “a great many friends who are Democrats and liberals, as opposed to me, a conservative Republican.” I ask him to name some of those friends. He cites Hubert Humphrey, William Proxmire, and John Dingell (who is still in Congress today). In fact, Rumsfeld and Hugh Scott — the Republican senator from Pennsylvania — followed Humphrey around in 1968, acting as the “truth squad.” And Humphrey would come over and talk to them, nice as could be.

Another difference between Rumsfeld’s day in Congress and now? Members tended to come to Washington “and stay during the session. Today they tend to commute. Airlines fly them back and forth. I think we received one paid round trip a year, when I was a congressman. Now it’s unlimited. I think they can go back any time they want.”


I recall that, in our last conversation — 2003 — Rumsfeld made the point that he returned to the Pentagon, in January ’01, to effect this institutional transformation. Is that going on, while the rest of us are (properly) focused on the war? “Oh, absolutely,” says Rumsfeld. “Yeah, we’re getting an enormous amount done.”

I ask whether it’s helpful, in any way, that the world at large is so diverted. Rumsfeld: “I wouldn’t say that. But the sense of urgency that one feels because we are in this struggle does provide impetus to transforming the department. I mean, for us here, every day’s like September 12th. I mean, that may not be true of the whole country, but it sure as heck is true of the people here, that we get up in the morning and recognize that people are in danger, that the American people are in danger, and that our task is to do what we can to see that we move this institution in ways that will help protect the American people.”

And how about SDI? Rumsfeld is a big SDI-er, from way back — one of the first. He was in the Reagan White House, with Dr. Teller, when the president made his first big speech. (That was in March 1983.) And when Rumsfeld returned as defense secretary, SDI was supposed to be huge on his agenda.

Is that program proceeding apace?

Oh, yes, absolutely. And Rumsfeld reminds me how “theological” the debate used to be — not just on the part of SDI opponents, but also on the part of proponents: Some of us insisted on space-based defenses, others insisted on sea-based. “Everyone was arguing with everybody.”

But Rumsfeld et al. made a few decisions. “We decided, first of all, we’re not going to call it ‘national missile defense’ anymore; we’re going to call it ‘missile defense,’ because [the previous term] divides us from our allies. We don’t want to create a shield for ourselves and the devil take the hindmost. In fact, we need locations elsewhere around the world, on land and sea, for sensors and interceptors. So let’s drop the ‘national’ and just call it ‘missile defense.’

“We then said — everyone’s saying you can’t do anything until you can do everything, and in life I’ve never found that to be the case. To me, first you crawl, then you walk, then you run. And so let’s get on with it. Let’s stick something in the ground and not pretend that it’s perfect,” and if people say, “It hasn’t been fully tested,” so what? “We hadn’t fully tested JDAMs. We hadn’t fully tested the Predator or the Global Hawk, and we stuck them into operation without fully testing them because they were there. And they’ve gotten better since.” Same with missile defense: “I mean, we’re evolving it as we go along.”

What about recent events? “When the North Koreans were proposing their Taepo Dong II launch, we went ahead and activated our defense system. . . . [We] took it off of its developmental role and put it on an operational role, on an interim basis. And now it’s back on a developmental role, where we’re testing and doing various things and adding a new sensor. We just added radar in Japan at the end of last month. And we’re going to keep layering and strengthening the capability” of this system, “and it will have an ability to protect us from small numbers of rogue missiles,” over time.

No, “it doesn’t have the capability to deal with a large barrage from a major power.” But “on the other hand, a major power is deterred reasonably by the deterrent capability we have.”

In sum, “I feel like we’ve gotten a lot done and made good progress, and I’m pleased with it.”


At the end of our conversation, I turn back to Iraq: Is the war winnable, or is this more like pain management?

Rumsfeld: “It is certainly not going to be winnable on our timetable. It’s going to be winnable over time by the Iraqi people. I mean, the Philippines, they worked their way through a long period. Algeria worked its way through a very long period, where they had people beheading people on the streets and the like. And the Iraqi people, ultimately, will be the ones that will, over time, create an environment that is simply not hospitable to the kind of violence that’s occurring in Iraq today. And our task is to get them in a position where they’re capable of defending and governing and managing that country . . . And we’re making darn good headway,” with over 300,000 Iraqi security forces, “a good fraction of them” DoD-trained.

A final question: I ask Rumsfeld whether he is a one-Iraq man, because some people talk about splitting the country into three. Says Rumsfeld,

“Yeah, I’ve read that. There are people who have always fancied that, and they argue it from the beginning, that the line on the map wasn’t divine wisdom, necessarily. I’m one of those people who from the beginning have said, ‘Look, there’s going to be an Iraqi solution, not an American solution, to Iraq.’ And I think that it’s a heck of a lot easier to write that or opine that” — Rumsfeld is referring to the three-state solution — “than it is to do it, because of the commingling of races and ethnic groups and families . . .

“I think it’s also probably healthy to have a single country there, given Iran’s posture. And I think it’s also probably desirable to have a country there that is an Arab country that has a large Shia population. I think that that’s over time not a bad thing, and I think they’ve got a wonderful opportunity. I mean, they’ve got wealth, they’ve got oil, they’ve got water, and they’ve got intelligent people. They’ve had a tough period of decades with a ruthless dictator that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people, but they’re tough people. And I think the odds are better that they’ll make it together than apart.”

Rumsfeld has already given me a poster — that Uncle Sam poster — and, before I leave, he gives me something else: the famous satellite photo of the Korean peninsula, taken at night. The South, of course, is all lit up; and the North is almost completely dark. Rumsfeld points out that the peninsula is inhabited by the same people — Koreans — with basically the same natural resources. What has made the difference? Freedom versus totalitarianism.

Rumsfeld has always pressed this point, and presumably always will.

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