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Donald Rumsfeld: “There is no question but that we’re losing” the war on terror.

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Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld joined me to begin today’s program.  The audio and transcript should be listened to or read in their entirety, but the takeaway is the headline:  We are losing the war on terror.




HH: On this day of continuing international turmoil, I am pleased to welcome back to the program the Honorable Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense on two tours, and also former chief of staff in the White House, the author most recently of Rumsfeld’s Rules and before that of Known And Unknown, his memoir of his tenure as a public servant spanning many, many decades. Mr. Secretary, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you.

DR: Thank you, Hugh, good to be with you.

HH: Given all that is public right now, all the public information, do you think the return of American combat troops to Iraq in large numbers is going to be necessary in the next few years?

DR: Well, I think it’s too soon to tell. I think it’s very clear that what we’re doing is not enough, and that it is going to take some ground forces, and that it is better to do what you’re going to do sooner rather than later. To the extent that you wait and let them recruit and build up and get more finances and get better organized and do what the government’s doing now, telling them what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do, it seems to me all it does is compound the problem, make it worse for the future.

HH: Well, that sounds, then, Mr. Secretary, like a yes, even though you said it might be too early to tell. That sounds like, in your mind, you think we have to go back again.

DR: I think it is a shame the way it’s been handled in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I mean, I have never believed that the United States should or could serve as policemen for the world, nor do I believe that we’re capable of nation building. I do think that we are making a terrible mistake by pulling back, telling the enemy what we plan to do and don’t plan to do, leaving a vacuum, and allowing that vacuum to be filled by people that are hostile to the United States and hostile to our values.

HH: Can anybody else do the job of defeating the Islamic State besides the United States using significant numbers of ground troops?

DR: Well, the way I look at it, this is much more like the Cold War than it is World War I or World War II or Korea. It is something that is going to take all elements of national power through successive administrations of both political parties, undoubtedly, with a lot of cooperation from our friends and allies around the world. And ultimately, it’s going to take some action by the moderate Muslims in the world, the overwhelming majority of them, to do their part. And I must say, I think the Egyptian leader has done a terrific job saying what he said and doing what he’s doing. I think the king of Jordan is under pressure. He’s got a country flooded with Syrian refugees, and he is now stepping up the bombing and the military action. And I think it’s going to take that kind of leadership. But our country has backed off. And leading from behind for the United States doesn’t work.

HH: But ultimately, to use your word “ultimately,” is it going to take American troops?

DR: Well, I think so. You know, at what time? I know I’m not there, and I’m not in a position to judge that, but I think that it’s very clear what he’s been doing is not working. He has been unsuccessful in gathering other countries to cooperate and assist. He has made a terrible mistake by telegraphing in advance everything he thinks he’s going to do or not do. And he’s simplified it. He’s demystified the problem for the other side. And it’s going to take U.S. leadership to be sure. In what form that takes, it depends in part on when he gets going and when he decides that this is a serious problem.

HH: Mr. Secretary, in February, 2002, you gave a press conference, probably your most famous press conference, in which you said there are “known known,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” That category is actually very useful with regards to the Islamic State, and with regards to Iran. So I’d like to go through it. What are the “known knowns,” in your opinion, about the Islamic State?

DR: Well, first of all, it’s not a state. It is an attack on the very concept of the nation state, the thing that stabilizes the world today. And the world needs to understand that, because the imposition of a caliphate across state lines, national lines, which of course is the first thing they wanted to do in Iraq and Syria, they abolished the borderline, and they established the caliphate. So it’s not a state. Second, it is Islamic. That is not to say that it’s a majority of the Muslims in the world. It obviously isn’t. It’s a very radical jihadist element in it. And the idea that ISIS or ISIL is to limit it, I think is nonsensical, because these people, these radical jihadists exist in a lot of countries, and they’re being recruited from a lot of countries. So I think isolating it to Syria or Iraq or any, even Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula is probably misleading.

HH: What are the “known unknowns” about the Islamic State, or whatever we call ISIS/ISIL or AQAP, whatever we call it? What are the known unknowns about it?

DR: Well, in one of the “known unknowns,” or I guess you’d say one of the “known things that we seem not to want to know” is that it is ideological, and it has to be dealt with much more like communism was dealt with, and it is going to take a, as I said in one of my press conferences, it’ll be a long, hard slog. It’s not one of those things that’s going to end with a signing ceremony aboard the USS Missouri. It is, we know that, but I think people don’t want to admit it. And the other thing is it takes perseverance. I mean, the Cold War took decades. And I’m afraid, you know, Lenin said the purpose of terrorism is not to kill people. It’s to terrorize them. It’s to alter their behavior. And the role of terror is to intimidate and get people to alter their behavior. Well, if we are unwilling got alter our behavior, then I think we have to recognize that you can’t defend everywhere. A terrorist can attack at any time, any place, using any technique, and it’s physically impossible to defend at every moment of the day or night in every location against every conceivable technique. And that means you have to go on the offense. If you try to defend everywhere, you defend nowhere. And so these are things that people seem not to want to come to grips with.

HH: That’s a fourth category.

DR: It is.

HH: That’s the “known knowns that we don’t want to know.” That’s very interesting. Let me go to the “unknown unkonwns,” because this is the scariest thing. It goes to capability and spread and acceleration. What’s the worst case scenario, Donald Rumsfeld?

DR: Well, back in 19…the mid-80s, when I was President Reagan’s Middle East envoy and was spending a lot of time in that part of the world, in Lebanon and Yemen and different countries over there, I remember one time I added it up, and there were something like 37 terrorist acts in 13 different countries, I believe, in a 30 day period, so the point being that terrorism is not new. It works. And the effect of it over a period of time is going to be that today, weapons are vastly more lethal, number one. That means that the killing effect, the lethality of a terrorist, is geometrically greater today than it was back in those days when they could drive a truck loaded with explosives into a barracks and kill 200 people. Today, there was a dark winter study some years ago, the late 90s by a bunch of Clinton administration people who were out of office, and they analyzed that smallpox put in three locations in the United States where you had major airports would result in close to a million deaths in the first year. Now the lethality of that is enormous. The third thing that’s different, and we seem not to, we know it but we don’t know it, and that is the effect of social media. The jihadists can use all the technology that has been developed in the West, and organize and recruit and fundraise. And as we go into the coming decade, they’ll be able to use cyberattacks in ways that will be harmful. So there are, it’s a different world today. We’re out of the industrial age. We’re into the information age. And that advantages terrorist just as it advantages us. But the lethality’s greater and the ability to use social media is effective.

HH: Let me switch, then, Secretary Rumsfeld, to Iran and whether or not we…would you trust them on any deal they negotiate with this President? And is this President being naïve about the Tehran mullahs?

DR: Well, I can’t speak to him, because I don’t know quite where he is on all of this at the moment, other than that he seems to be more hopeful than I would be. But the reality is the Iranians have done nothing thus far that would reassure the world, the UN, the nuclear inspectors or our government that they’re reliable. They’ve persisted, they’ve continued, and they have what looks to me to be stringing the administration along on this. I think we’re going to hear probably a much more accurate and realistic view of where the Iranians are when Prime Minister Netanyahu comes and speaks before the Congress.

HH: Now the President has asked Congress for a new authorization for the use of military force. A) do you think the Congress should give him one? And B) if it does, ought it to include the authority, if necessary, to strike at Iran’s nuclear capability?

DR: Well number one, I think it’s perfectly understandable that any president would want to get a fresher authority. Number two, I think that the resolution as drafted in the White House and sent to the Congress is defective. I think it’s a mistake to limit it to two years. I think it’s a mistake to limit it in terms of the military use, techniques that the United States might or might not…

HH: I think it was three years, wasn’t it? I think it was three years, yeah.

DR: Yeah, it was three years.

HH: Yeah.

DR: Did I say two?

HH: Yes.

DR: No, I apologize. No, it’s three years. I think that’s a mistake, because this problem is not going to be over in three years. Now what they ought to do on Iran, I think, is a matter of knowing where the Iranians are today, and I’m not involved with classified information that would give me an ability to make a judgment on that. But I think that Netanyahu probably is going to have a very accurate and important message that should be listened to by the world. And I should add, I think the relationship between the United States and Israel is really unfortunate, and that through successive presidents of both political parties, we’ve recognized the importance of Israel as a democratic state, as an ally of ours, as a country that’s small and surrounded by people that want to shove it into the sea and deny its right to exist. And why we would be treating, and as rude and unpleasant and difficult as this administration would be to that country, I think, is beyond comprehension.

HH: But there are upsides and downsides to including in an AUMF Iran. You don’t have to commit to doing it, but the downside would be it would throw a damper on the relationship. The upside is it would throw uncertainty into the relationship. Do you think on the whole it would make sense to include the authority as a standby if necessary?

DR: Well, I don’t think it’s necessary. I mean, the President’s got that now.

HH: Okay. Now let me ask you about your most famous memo, which is the October 16th, 2003 snowflake, in which you declare we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Is there any doubt in your mind, Mr. Secretary, that we’re losing?

DR: I can’t justify my comment numerically, but there is no question but that we’re losing. And the reason we’re losing is because of the lack of leadership. That’s the only reason. We have stepped back. We’ve said to the world that we’re going to manage our economy like Greece or Europe, and that’s a failed model. That means that we’re telling the world we’re not going to be, as a country, what we’ve been in past decades. Second, we, the Defense investment in the United States has gone from 10% of GDP a year under Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, and today, it’s less than 4%. And they’ve sequestered, have a sequestration that tells the world that the United States’ economic situation, or attitudinally, is unwilling to make the kinds of investments that Eisenhower would talk about as peace through strength, where we would be unambiguously a deterrent, a dissuasion just by our existence, and not by our actions, but by our, the very fact of that capability. It seems to me that that is the biggest danger. We’re telling Putin, in effect, that well, we don’t like what he’s doing in Ukraine, but oh, golly, we’ll try to figure out a way that maybe he won’t do that. Europe is so dependent on Russian energy and oil that they are really pretty much out of the game at the present time with respect to Ukraine. And Ukraine’s enormously important. Well, if you do what you’re doing on your economy, you do what you’re doing with respect to terrorism and ISIS and being ineffective, and then you do what you’re doing with respect Ukraine, well, I think the world is going to say gee, we could do pretty much what we would want in the Baltics, for example, or in Central Asia, or in the Spratly Islands, where the Chinese might want to increase the level of pressure there against their neighbors.

HH: A last question. That’s a dire situation, and I know I’m pressing your time here, Mr. Secretary, but I do want to get a comment from you. Your old colleague in the war on terror, Rudy Giuliani, is in a lot of controversy because he said the President does not love America. What’s your reaction to his statement and to the kerfuffle around him?

DR: Well, he’s a good man, and he’s certainly entitled to his views. I never studied psychology or you know, that kind of stuff. I can’t say whether somebody loves something or doesn’t love something. But clearly, his behavior is that he feels that the United States has in the past, and is today, behaves in a way that is unhelpful. And he blames us, our country, for some of the circumstances in the world that are adverse to the world’s interest. Now if one wants to characterize that as not loving the country, I don’t know. I wouldn’t, myself, but I would say that he clearly, when he goes out and makes an apology tour, and when he has the press conferences he has, and says what he says, that we should get off our high horse, and he pretends that these are random acts, and he calls the Fort Hood a workplace violence, he’s clearly in a state of serious denial. I mean, he can’t be, if anyone in the world looking at what’s going on knows that the way he is describing it is not accurate.

HH: Secretary Rumsfeld, as always, bracing and great to speak with you. Thanks for spending time with us today, Donald Rumsfeld, twice the Secretary of Defense to the United States, and for five decades, in the service to the United States. Thank you.

End of interview.


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