Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld leaves office Friday, Dec. 15 after six turbulent years of rebuilding the military for a post-Cold War era, while simultaneously overseeing service members he calls, “the best led, the best equipped, the best trained, the most capable … in the world.” As we met in his office on the 65th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was reflective about the past and worried about the future.
Rumsfeld regrets using the phrase “the war on terror”: “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 (like) a soap opera. It isn’t going to happen that way.”
It’s not a war on terror, he adds, because “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.”
Rumsfeld believes much of the public still does not understand the intensity of the struggle. He says he hasn’t read the entire Iraq Study Group Report, just the summary and news accounts, but has this take on the conflict: “I personally believe that the consequences of allowing the situation in Iraq to be turned over to terrorists would be so severe … 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.”
Many commentators have tried to compare this war with World War II, or Vietnam. Rumsfeld, however, prefers the Cold War comparison because, like the Cold War “which lasted 50 years, you couldn’t say (in the middle of it) whether you were winning or losing. There aren’t straight and smooth paths. There are bumpy roads. It’s difficult. The enemy has a brain. They’re constantly making adjustments.”
About opposition, Rumsfeld recalled a time, “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.”
Rumsfeld’s implication is clear: the same leftists who opposed U.S. strategy in standing against communism now stand in opposition to America’s position against Islamofascism. If they were wrong about communism, might they also be wrong about today’s enemy?
Rumsfeld reflected upon World War II, which, as a boy, he remembers as a time when the entire country got behind the effort. To critics, who have called for more troops in Iraq, he says, “(Such people) are often thinking World War II and the (former Defense Secretary Caspar) 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.”
His greatest concern is that the public is not sufficiently prepared mentally for another domestic terror attack. He says there are “two centers of gravity. One is in Iraq and the region; the other is here.” The “here” to him centers on the way the media report the story and focus mainly on opposition to administration policies and not on the objectives of the enemy, who he describes this way: “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 (and) 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,” he says. “That is a very complicated thing to do. It doesn’t happen fast. It means you have to invest the time, effort and ability.”
Rumsfeld seems to agree with the Iraq Study Group’s conclusion that Iraqis and their government must ultimately run their own country. He likens it to an adult holding a child’s bicycle seat for fear the child will fall: “You know if you don’t (eventually) let go, you’ll end up with a 40-year-old who can’t ride a bike. Now that’s not a happy prospect.”
He’ll consider writing a book about his experiences over many years in Washington and adds this about today’s volunteer military: “…when the uniform personnel look back five, 10, 15 years from now, 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.”
That legacy has yet to be determined. As with the Cold War, the end won’t come on the watch of those presidents and defense secretaries who fought it. Donald Rumsfeld, a cold and hot warrior, understands the enemy. His principled stand against them will be proved right.