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Editor’s note: Below is the transcript of Donald Rumsfeld’s conversation with David Horowitz at the Freedom Center’s Wednesday Morning Club held at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles on March 16, 2011. The conversation is preceded by an introduction of Rumsfeld by Horowitz. The text has been edited for publication.
David Horowitz’s Introduction:
It is an honor and a privilege to introduce our guest, a man whose service to our nation and the cause of freedom began nearly 60 years ago. In 1954, Donald Rumsfeld, newly graduated from Princeton, joined the Navy as an aviator. On leaving active service three years later, he became a Congressional staffer and in 1962, won a seat in Congress. During his third term, he was named by then-President Nixon to be Director of the United States Office of Economic Opportunity and Assistant to the President with Cabinet rank. In 1973, he was made U.S. Ambassador to NATO.
The following year, Nixon was forced to resign in the wake of the Watergate investigations, which were led by Ted Kennedy and the anti-Vietnam Democrats in an effort to derail the war. Rumsfeld was called back to Washington to serve as the head of Gerald Ford’s transition team, who then selected him to be White House Chief of Staff and then appointed him to be the youngest Secretary of Defense in the nation’s history.
When Jimmy Carter succeeded Ford, Rumsfeld retired to private life as CEO and then Chairman of G.D. Searle, a worldwide pharmaceutical, which he headed for 20 years. In January 2001, he was called back from retirement by George Bush, who appointed him Secretary of Defense, this time as the oldest, and in my view, the wisest and most effective executive ever to hold that position.
In reading his biography, Known and Unknown, I was struck by how fortunate this country is to have such a public servant, a loyal, brilliant and fundamentally decent individual devoted to preserving our freedoms. These freedoms are now under relentless assault. As a consequence, for this dedication and service Secretary Rumsfeld has been reviled by America’s enemies both abroad and at home. In 2006, he was forced to retire in the middle of a critical war in the face of ferocious attacks from the enemies of that war, both on the radical fringe and inside the Democratic Party, which has increasingly come under the influence of that fringe.
I want to share a small but significant incident from his book, which shows how this man looked out for his country when he was in office. In the spring of 2003, a lawsuit was filed in a Belgian court targeting General Tommy Franks, the liberator of Iraq, as a war criminal. If this practice was allowed to continue, any U.S. serviceman or woman passing through Belgium could be brought up on similar charges.
When he learned of the legal motion against Franks, Secretary Rumsfeld accosted the Belgian Minister of Defense, who was a leftist, and told him the Belgian law that allowed such suits had to be changed. When the minister resisted, Rumsfeld reminded him that the headquarters of NATO could be moved to another country. If the law were not changed, Rumsfeld said, the money the Belgians were hoping to get from the United States for new headquarters would evaporate. Within two months of this tête-à-tête, the Belgian law was repealed.
One of the most poignant passages in this book deals with the incident at the Abu Ghraib Prison over which Donald Rumsfeld handed in his resignation, not once, but twice. Rumsfeld had no responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib, yet he was made the target of the outrage it provoked because that outrage was really a surrogate for opposition to the war itself.
By any standards of prison abuse, let alone the abuses that were the norm in Iraq before American troops arrived, what happened at Abu Ghraib was an insignificant and minor episode, but when the New York Times, the Washington Post and other left-wing media got hold of the photographs of these abuses, they turned Abu Ghraib into an international scandal, resulting in immeasurable damage to America’s cause in Iraq and around the world. It was to stave off these attacks and protect America’s men and women in arms that Secretary Rumsfeld offered himself as a sacrificial lamb. Fortunately, the President refused his offer.
The fact remains that the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos served absolutely no purpose other than to damage America’s cause and strengthen her enemies. The investigation into the abuses had already been undertaken by Secretary Rumsfeld and the Pentagon before the media ever got hold of the photographs. Other photographs which the government did not release showed the guards abusing each other in similar pornographic fashion. This was irrefutable proof that the problem was caused by a small group of squalid prison guards and was not the result of policy made at the highest levels of government, but this was exactly what the opposition — including leaders of the Democratic Party who knew better — charged.
Senator Ted Kennedy led the attack, saying, “Saddam’s torture chambers have been reopened under new management, U.S. management.” And the weakest reed in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, surrendered to the anti-American frenzy by comparing Abu Ghraib to the massacre at My Lai.
I bring up this unpleasant history to remind you of the atmosphere in which Donald Rumsfeld served his country and served it so well. He served in an era that began with the Vietnam War and during which our country has become so divided as to be almost two nations. Our universities and media and increasing majorities in the Democratic Party are no longer just critical of this or that American policy, but are opposed to American purposes and in particular, to America’s world role as a defender of freedom against the totalitarian forces who raid against us.
Even in his retirement, this distinguished public servant has been treated in a manner not unlike that of our servicemen who were spat on when they returned from Vietnam. The New York Times’ reviewer dismissed Known and Unknown as a self-serving book, but what she really meant by this is that it is a book, like its author, who continues to serve his country and the cause of freedom.
Here is what the same reviewer wrote of another book, which attacked the Bush administration: “Just as disturbing — just as disturbing — as al Qaeda’s plans and capabilities are the descriptions in this book of the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror and its willful determination to go to war in Iraq.”
What have we come to in this country when the nation’s paper of record compares the plans of al Qaeda fanatics to wage a holy war on the West and blow us all up with a decision to go to war against a monstrous tyrant, a decision that was ratified by both houses of Congress and the leaders of both political parties, and its purpose was to enforce a violated truce in 17 UN Security Council resolution?
There has never been a time in the history of America, which has required so much moral courage of its leaders to serve our country. Never before in our history has a major political party turned against a war it supported within three months of the onset, and then conducted a scorched earth offensive against its own commander-in-chief and its troops in the field.
Donald Rumsfeld served as the commander of our armed forces in what became, in effect, a two-front war. The foe on the home front controlled the media and the opposition party and set out to destroy the characters and careers of our leaders by any means necessary. Unlike some of his colleagues, Donald Rumsfeld did not wither under this enemy fire or allow the opposition to deflect him from the cause. He stood tall in defending our freedom and taking care of our men and women in arms.
In this book, he has again defended them and us, and for this, we should all be grateful.
Conversation Between Donald Rumsfeld and David Horowitz
Horowitz: Donald Rumsfeld, all your life, you’ve been a man of practical affairs. So how does it feel to write a book?
Rumsfeld: It’s my first book. It only took four years. David writes four books a year. It was a long gestation period. I debated whether to do a short book in a year from memory or use my archive, and I decided to use the archive and I hope some folks here will go to Rumsfeld.com and take a look at the documentation that supports the book because we spent a lot of time developing it and arranging it in a way that we think is accessible and helpful to serious people seriously interested in these matters.
Horowitz: I think —
Rumsfeld: May I say something else —
Horowitz: Go ahead.
Rumsfeld: I’d like to just thank you for all you do and I’ve been able to follow you and been impressed with how prolific you are and how courageous you are. And I’m very pleased to be able to come here and to say so in front of this very fine group of people, and thank all of you for being here.
Horowitz: Thank you.
Rumsfeld: And one other thing — it’s his meeting and I’m a guest, but I do have to say just something about what’s going on in Japan. I spent a lot of time working with the Japanese over the decades and helped found the U.S.-Japan Parliamentary Exchange, and it is such a terrible tragedy there, the earthquakes and the tsunami. And I know that people here, as I am, are thinking about them and hoping that things sort through in a better way than some of the press seems to suggest might be the case.
Horowitz: This is a very interesting book. I don’t know if there’s another public figure who spent so many years at the highest echelons of the United States government, not to mention in such trying times as the last 40 years have been. One of the things I learned about you, you grew up in Chicago. In reading your book, I thought to myself, there couldn’t be two people from such different roots. You came from a German-American family. Your father enlisted in the Second World War and was a businessman all his life. I come from a family of New York Jewish Communists.
And then, there appeared on the page this incredible bond between us — that, as kids, we both listened to Captain Midnight and the Lone Ranger and drew some of our core values from those shows — quite amazing. This is really the story of America, people from such diverse backgrounds becoming part of one national fabric.
Rumsfeld: David is a lot younger than I am, I’ll tell you.
Horowitz: Oh, not so younger. I’d like you to talk just a little bit about your first congressional campaign and the principles that you ran on, so that people get an idea of who you were politically before you became Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld: Well, I was 29 years old and the district was open. The incumbent congresswomen was retiring and I decided to jump into it because she and her husband had controlled that district for 40 years or for 30 years, I guess. I had to sit down and prepare some brochures and decide what I would put on them and I had little yellow cards with my face on it and the Republican Primary on a certain date in April, and then I put down the principles that I felt people should know I would be favoring.
And they involved the following items. One was a strong national defense; another was a responsible fiscal policy and another was effective civil rights measures. And of course, this was well before — in 1961, when I wrote this — well before the era of Martin Luther King and the civil rights activities and the legislation in the 1960s. And I read them when I was getting ready to put the book together and it struck me that I still liked all of those words.
Horowitz: That’s kind of rare in politics.
Rumsfeld: Unlike you.
Horowitz: Yes, that’s right. [Laughter]. You even suggested at one point that James Forman, the black civil rights leader, run as a Republican, which was very prescient then. We are now beginning to see black Republicans like Colonel Allen West.
Horowitz: And that’s a breath of fresh air for the Republican Party.
You open your book with Lebanon. You were sent as a special emissary after Hezbollah — which was really a cat’s paw for Iran — blew up our Marine barracks. This chapter is out of chronological order and obviously placed there because you felt very strongly that there was a lesson to be learned from this, that people need to know.
Rumsfeld: I did, and I hope that many of you will have a chance to read it, because it did affect me dramatically. President Reagan asked me to become Middle East Envoy shortly after 241 Marines were killed at the barracks alone. They weren’t all Marines; there were some Navy corpsmen, three or four Navy corpsmen. And during that period, I traveled throughout the region and really came up close to terrorism and the problems of terrorism, which at that time, was not something that was on the minds of the American people or the Congress or even the executive branch to any great extent.
I remember afterwards giving a speech to the Army Association and talking about the problem of terrorism and how different it was from conventional war, and coincidentally, George Shultz did something similar about a week later. He was Secretary of State at the time and he and I had been working together on the problems of terrorism. It seemed to me to be a logical way to start the book because it threaded its way through the book, and needless to say, continued through to the George W. Bush administration with a fury.
I actually started the book dedicating it to Joyce.
Horowitz: That’s true.
Horowitz: That’s true. You two have been together since…. — could we have Joyce stand up?
Rumsfeld: Joyce, do you want to stand up here?
We met as freshmen in high school at the age of 14, and we’ve been married 56 years.
People say “How in the world could you stay married to that guy for 56 years?” She says “He travels a lot.” [Laughter]. I thought it was funny too, but she meant it. [Laughter].
Horowitz: You said two things about Lebanon in the book. First, that weakness is provocative, which is a recurring theme and a current one. I don’t think we’ve ever had such weak leadership internationally. We’ll get to that. But you also said that Lebanon was the beginning of the modern war waged by radical Islamists against the United States and the West.
Rumsfeld: When the phrase “war on terror” came up, I was uncomfortable with it. War reminds one of World War I, World War II, with a beginning, an end, and a “war on terror” implies that you’re against terror. And of course, terror is a technique; it’s purpose is not to kill people, but to terrorize people. It’s to alter their behavior. And I saw what we were engaged in against radical Islamists as something that was more akin to the Cold War, which meant you had to engage in a competition of ideas, and it would take all the elements of national power, not simply the Department of Defense. Bullets are not going to win this war against radical Islamists.
I can remember writing a memo on this subject sometime in — I think it was ‘03 and I said: We have a reasonably good fix on the number of terrorists, if you will, radicals, that we are capturing or killing, but we don’t have any fix to speak of as to the rate at which young people are being brought into these radical madrassas and being trained to strap explosives on their bodies and go into markets and kill people, innocent men, women and children. So you don’t have metrics to know how well you’re doing.
We didn’t really have metrics in the Cold War either and that was a competition of ideas between communism and free systems — free political systems and free economic systems. In my view, we are not even yet today engaging in that competition of ideas in an effective way.
Horowitz: This is a very rich book. There are just so many parts that we could spend the day on and I want to give people a chance to aask questions. So I’m going to cut to Iraq, which I know people want to hear about. But as a context for Iraq, I’d like to start with Vietnam. You were in the White House when we had to retreat from Vietnam. And your take on that is, of course, that it has affected a lot of what followed.
Rumsfeld: I was. I was the Chief of Staff to President Gerald Ford at the time the Vietnam War came to its ending and it was a situation where the center of gravity of the war had shifted from Southeast Asia to the United States, meaning that the deciding elements and activities and decision points were basically in Washington and in our country, rather than on the battlefield.
We all remember the Tet Offensive. The way it was characterized in the United States was that it was an enormous defeat for the U.S. military, and of course, it was not. It was dramatic because it took place in so many locations and it did reflect an attitude and an intent on the part of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, but in terms of a military effort, it was not a big success, and indeed, our military managed it exceedingly well.
We were arriving at a similar point with respect to Iraq, I should say, when President George W. Bush had the good sense and courage to take a bold action, and galvanize attitudes here in the United States and also, I should add, in Iraq. But Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, announced that, in fact, the war was lost. He said publicly, “The Iraq War is lost,” and so you could see where things were going and that is basically what happened with the Vietnam War. It was decided here in the United States that it was “over and lost,” quote unquote.
Horowitz: You know, one of the things you describe in your book is how President Ford appealed to the Democrats who controlled the Congress and whose ranks were now dominated by the Watergate class — to help the Cambodian regime and the South Vietnamese defend themselves. We no longer had troops there. Ford was just asking that we give them the military supplies that Russia and China were giving the Communists — and the request was turned down.
Rumsfeld: Exactly. And he was a wonderful, kind, decent human being, Gerald Ford, and loved the Congress and he loved the members of the Congress. It was one of the few times that I saw him absolutely furious with the Congress for refusing to provide the relatively small sums of money to assist the other neighboring countries in Southeast Asia to try to survive and prevail against the Communists who were putting enormous pressure on them. He was absolutely furious about it.
Horowitz: This is the historical moment where the congressional Democratic Party begins to reflect the attitudes of the political left who wanted us to lose the war and who were basically happy to see the Communists win without maybe fully realizing what that would mean.
That’s why I think Vietnam sets the frame for understanding what happened in Iraq. You have been attacked for allegedly sending too few troops to Iraq. You developed a flexible, light military force that took down the Saddam regime in six weeks. It was a lightning war and yet, you’ve been subjected to attack both by Democrats and neo-conservatives for not providing, quote, “enough troops.” I think this is one of the really unfair attacks on you. It conflates winning the war, toppling Saddam, with occupying Iraq.
Rumsfeld: Quite different things, yes. When he was still Governor of Texas and running for the presidency, George W. Bush spoke at the Citadel and said he thought it was time to move the Department of Defense to move into the 21st Century, into the Information Age. And he was right. When he asked me to go back into the Pentagon, that is what he wanted. He wanted to see our forces engaged in transforming themselves to fit the information age and the 21st century.
During his presidency, we made enormous progress in this regard. We repositioned our forces around the world. Rather than being kind of a leftover, where they were at the end of the Cold War, we dramatically increased the number of unmanned aerial vehicles; we dramatically increased our Special Forces and their equipment and their authorities and capabilities.
Even more important, we moved from a heavy division orientation, which had been our history — proud divisions with banners and history books and songs — down to brigade combat teams that were highly mobile and lethal and capable, which is what is indeed enabling us to do what we can do today.
When after 9/11, we were making the decisions as to how to go forward, we chose to work with the Afghan militias, the forces there, the so-called warlords, and were able to do it very effectively. We married the CIA with the Special Forces, went in there with a relatively few number of conventional military people, made heavy use of Air Force and Navy air power using ground controllers.
The Northern Alliance in Afghanistan had been trying for four or five years to defeat the Taliban, who were serving as host to al-Qaeda, and they had made practically no progress. Within a matter of weeks we had taken Kabul, our Special Forces and the Northern Alliance troops, y had taken Kabul and shoved the Taliban out and then finished the job in a matter of weeks.
By the same token, in Iraq, as you point out, our forces went in. General Franks was the combatant commander. He had a plan under which he could have brought in something like 450,000 U.S. forces depending on how many were needed. But he had off-ramps and to the extent he decided they were not needed, he made those recommendations. And all of us agreed with him; I did; the Joint Chiefs did and the President did and the National Security Council.
We ended up with 150,000-170,000 troops defeating Saddam Hussein. Our campaign succeeded very rapidly. Saddam had a conscript army, made up of mostly Shias, and then he had thousands of Sunni generals. Very in large measure, when his troops saw what was happening – his army in effect disbanded itself.
The problem came later. Saddam let 100,000 prisoners out of his prisons in short order. He called for a jihad and jihadists, and terrorists, streamed in from Iran and Syria and neighboring countries, and he then began — his people began something called the Party of Return, which was the pride of the Sunnis up north to try to return them to control of the country. That combination led to the insurgency, which is a quite different thing than the major combat operations which ended in a relatively short period of time for which we had ample troops.
The task of nation-building is something that I am somewhat uncomfortable with. I believe that culture is important and I believe history is important, and I look at our country — and I’m giving you a very long answer to this, and I apologize — but you look at our country and we still had slaves into the 1800s. We didn’t arrive at the point we are now in 15 minutes. Women didn’t vote into the 1900s. We had a horrible Civil War.
To get from where we were to where we are today, with our free political and free economic institutions, and with the opportunities that people have in this country was not easy. That’s the reason people all over the world get in lines at our embassies to try to get visas to come here. Because of the opportunities that exist here.
It’s an amazing country, but we didn’t start like this. This is a quite different place from where we began. My view is that’s true of other countries too and we don’t have a template for success. Our particular template at any given time has varied over the two hundred years or so of our existence — the short time that we’ve existed. I literally have lived a third of our country’s history. Think of it. What a young country! What an old man! [Laughter].
I think others have to build their own countries. They’re the ones who have to pull it together and make it be something that fits their culture and their circumstance, their neighborhood. We have different neighbors than they do; we have different circumstances.
I wrote a paper that’s on my website called “Guidelines for Using Military Force,” and it says very simply “Have a healthy respect for the things we aren’t capable of doing.” And there are things we’re not capable of doing.
I used an analogy in the book, where you are trying to teach a youngster how to ride a bike and you put your hand on the back of the seat — and we’ve all done this — and you run down the street and they wobble and you think, oh, my goodness, are they going to make it? And then you go to four fingers and then you go to three fingers and then you go two to fingers and then you’ve got one finger. And then you let go, and sometimes they fall and skin their knee, but if you don’t let go, you’re going to end up with a 40-year-old that can’t ride a bike. [Laughter]. And yet, you have to, at some point, let go and then they’ll pick it up and go on.
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