On Tuesday, I was pleased to have an opportunity to interview former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about his new book Known and Unknown: A Memoir.
Donald Rumsfeld is an incredibly accomplished man. He has been in the Navy, he’s been a congressman, he’s been a CEO, and he’s served twice as Secretary of Defense. He was our youngest Secretary of Defense when he served in the Gerald Ford Administration and he became the oldest Secretary of Defense when he served in the Bush Administration. He also has a knack for churning out fantastic quotes.
Given that Donald Rumsfeld had such an extraordinary career and was so involved in our foreign policy decision-making during a crucial point in our nation’s history, right after 9/11, being able to ask him a few questions was a terrific opportunity.
What follows is the transcript of our conversation, edited slightly for the sake of grammar and readability. Enjoy!
To begin with, George Bush explicitly said in the run up to the war that he hoped that a democratic regime in Iraq would inspire the people of other nations in the region to move towards freedom. Today we’re seeing people rise up in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and other countries in the region. Do you think that’s a result of what we did in Iraq and how do you think we should be dealing with this rapidly changing environment in the Middle East?
Of course, it’s a difficult thing to know with certainty, but it’s not surprising to me that a number of people are suggesting what you’ve just suggested. Namely that…Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly Iraq (are) an example for other countries in the region. You know people look at it and think, “Well, Iraq’s imperfect,” and that’s true.
If you look at the United States of America and trace our history, it’s been a bumpy road. We had slaves into the 1800s. We had a vicious Civil War with so many people killed and women didn’t vote until the 1900s. So we didn’t arrive this way. We started out quite differently and we’ve evolved and that’s what’s taking place in the case of Iraq.
If you think of the people in that region, a large, young population with major unemployment, and they look around the world, what do they see? Increasingly in the information age and the 21st Century, they’re seeing through Twitter and Facebook how other people live, and it’s no accident that people all across the globe are lined up at the U.S. Embassy trying to come to the United States of America. The reason is because there are so many opportunities here and there aren’t opportunities in countries that have dictatorial systems and command economies. The people in those countries aren’t doing well and so they’re reaching out and trying to find something different.
The risk, of course, is that you’ll have it happen like in Lebanon, where you have the Cedar Revolution, and then you end up with Hezbollah, a terrorist organization running the country. Then in Iran, you end up with a popular revolution and you end up with a handful of Ayatollahs dominating the country in a repressive way – and that’s possible in Egypt. I mean you could end up with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is a terrorist organization, taking over because they are better organized. Even though they’re a very small minority, they’re better organized, disciplined, and ambitious.
One criticism we’ve frequently heard about the war in Afghanistan is that we’ve allowed Osama bin Laden to get away because we didn’t have enough troops on the ground. What are your thoughts on that? If we had more people there, would we have caught him?
Oh, I don’t think so – who knows, you know? The Department of Defense isn’t organized to do manhunts. If you look at the FBI Most Wanted list, some of those people are on there for ages because it’s hard.
Now, it would be nice to have captured or killed Osama bin Laden, but what’s really important is that thanks to the structures that President Bush’s Administration put in place, we’ve not had a successful attack on the United States of America in close to a decade and that’s an amazing accomplishment that no one would have begun to speculate that it could be done.
How is it done? Well, even though Osama bin Laden was not captured or killed, the way it was done is that the conscious decision was made that we can’t simply defend. A terrorist can attack at any time, at any place, using any technique. It’s physically impossible to defend at every moment of the day or night in every location against every conceivable technique of attack. So we had to put pressure on the terrorists wherever they were and make everything they do more difficult.
So the Bush Administration put together a 90 nation coalition that traded intelligence, that worked together and tracked bank accounts and made everything that terrorists tried to do considerably more difficult. It made it harder for them to communicate with each other, to move from place to place, to raise money, to recruit, to train. It made it more difficult for them to find countries that were hospitable to terrorist organizations because host countries knew that they would be targets as well.
So, there are people who speculate we might have caught him with more troops. We might not have — and certainly there was a major effort to catch him. Our Air Force and Navy forces bombed the Tora Bora area until the rubble was bouncing. We had Special Forces tracking him there — and without success thus far.
As someone who’s supported the war from beginning all the way to the present, there’s one thing I found particularly disappointing and puzzling. In the run up to the war, the Bush Administration really didn’t do much to prepare the public for the idea that we’d be spending blood and treasure fighting an insurgency there for years to come. How did that come to be the case?