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Rumsfeld on Obama and Romney, Iran and Israel, Syra and Russia

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I taped an interview with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last hour which will air in the first hour of my radio show today. The transcript will be posted here as soon as it is available, and the audio after 6:30 PM EST, which may be used with attribution.

We cover the president’s personal oversight of the drone warfare, leaks from the White House, whether Israel can trust the U.S. in its looming confrontation with Iran, defense cuts and the president’s “flexibility” pledge to the Russians.


HH: Secretary Rumsfeld, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you back.

DR: Thank you, good to be with you.

HH: Now Known And Unknown is out in paperback, it came out last week. More than a half million dollars in proceeds from the hardcover edition went to military charities. How did you pick those, Mr. Secretary?

DR: Well, we have a foundation where we’ve been working with various military charities, and we move around from time to time. We keep track of who’s on the boards of directors, and who’s paying attention to them to make sure that they not only start out good, but stay good.

HH: Well, that’s very admirable, and I hope we sell a lot of paperback copies to increase the number of royalties that get to those charities. Thank you for doing that. Let me start with, on the hard news side, last week a story came out that the President had launched the cyber attack on Iran, and the week before, that he was personally conducting the drone targeting. What did you make of those two stories, Mr. Secretary?

DR: Well, I suppose if the story had come out that President Bush was sitting in the Oval Office picking out people to be killed, that there would be a hue and cry like you’ve never heard in the elite media in this country. I personally recall back when Lyndon Johnson was picking targets, and I wasn’t very, I didn’t feel very good about that then, and I don’t feel very good about it now. It seems to me that what a president does, a leader, is to establish policy, work with a congress and other countries, and then provide that policy to the Department of Defense and Department of State for national security matters, and fashion an approach that’s then implemented by people who know something about it. [# More #]

HH: Can anything good come from the leaking of those two stories, and the details of the attack that killed Osama bin Laden?

DR: Well, only if they’re leaking untruths. In other words, the people in the Pentagon and the CIA have to be grinding their teeth watching this hemorrhaging of information out of the White House about how we manage our intelligence, how we Special Operations Forces operate. I just can’t imagine doing that. I think it puts people’s lives at risk.

HH: Do you believe that it was an attempt to show the President being tough during politically difficult times for him, to talk about attacking Iran and killing Taliban leaders? Was it just image management?

DR: You know, I’m no psychiatrist. I can’t imagine why people do things like that. If you know, and you have people around you who are experienced, then they tell you that the more the enemy knows about how we do things, how we gather intelligence, how we Special Operations Forces function, if you know that those things are important to be kept private, and that to the extent more and more of that is disgorged and hemorrhaged out among the general public, greater the likelihood that our forces, when they try to do something in the future, will be defeated and prevented, or people will die.

HH: As you assess, Secretary Rumsfeld, all that is going on vis–vis Iran right now, especially this story about the fact that we deployed the computer program against them, do you believe there will be a confrontation involving force between either Israel or the United States with Iran in the near future?

DR: Do I believe there’ll be what, a confrontation?

HH: Right, force. A war or near war, either from Israel or the United States, bombing or other action against Iran.

DR: Yeah, I think the possibility of the United States doing something is probably relatively low. I think the possibility of Israel feeling at some point that they have to do something, if the Iranians say that Israel should be incinerated and has no right to exist on the face of the Earth as a state, and they develop, and it looks as though they have developed a nuclear weapon, I don’t see how a responsible Israeli government can do anything other than what they did when they came to that conclusion with respect to Iraq some years back, and went in and took out the Iraqi nuclear facility, and with respect to Syria when they went in and took out the Syrian nuclear facility.

HH: Can a responsible American government do anything other than support an Israeli government to the max in that action?

DR: Well, you know, dating all the way back to President Truman, which we were one of the early countries, if not the first, to recognize Israel as a state and its right to exist as a nation, we’ve generally had administrations, successive administrations of both political parties, that have understood that Israel was a very small country, a small population, small geographically, and surrounded by forces that are hostile to it, and that it’s the only democratic nation in that part of the world, generally, depending on how you define the word. And certainly, Iraq would have to be called a democracy today, so I think it’s one of the very few. I’ll put it that way. However, if you look at the current administration’s relationship with Israel, I think anyone looking at it from the outside, at least, and I’m not on the inside, but from the outside, has to say that they have been given pretty short shrift, and that it looks as though, if I were an Israeli leader, I think I’d have trouble coordinating with the United States government about something like that for fear it would be leaked.

HH: Well, that is a very alarming situation. Do you think they’re justified in that alarm based upon what you know, and the treatment that the President has accorded Prime Minister Netanyahu?

DR: Do I think who’s justified…

HH: The Israelis, that they would be justified in fearing a leak.

DR: Oh, my goodness, yes. Absolutely. If you, I mean, the last thing in the world you want to do is put your air forces in jeopardy by having it telegraphed that that’s something you’re doing. And if you tried to coordinate with this administration, I would think that there is at least a reasonable chance that it would leak out. So I would anticipate that a responsible Israeli government, given the relationship, would very likely have to make a decision on their own, and proceed.

HH: Now Mr. Secretary, you just mentioned Iraq. I want to do there. There was a big story, Iraq of course is at the center of Known And Unknown. A great deal of Known And Unknown concerns Iraq. Yesterday, there was a story on the front page of the New York Times about the rebirth of the Iraqi oil industry, and how it is creating great wealth and progress in Iraq. It’s providing the West with leverage over Iran. It’s holding down the international price of oil. All these good things, and the Times dated the recovery of the Iraq oil industry to 2009. And so what did you make of that story?

DR: Oh, you know, clearly the New York Times is the administration’s favorite newspaper.

HH: Clearly.

DR: (laughing)

HH: But when the invasion of Iraq happened, a lot of the left said that you and the Vice President, and of course the President, were doing it for the oil, and that you were in the service of oil interests. And here, we’re not there, and their oil industry is thriving. It was the worst run conspiracy if you and the Vice President and the President were running a conspiracy ever, because we haven’t got the oil, and it’s lowering the price of the Texas oilman’s profits.

DR: No, exactly right. No, the people in Iraq have a government that’s evolving. It’s operating under a constitution they wrote. It’s a difficult situation for them. It’s an immature government. It’s still evolving. They’ve got tough neighbors. The Iranians are providing weapons and trouble and mischief to various insurgent groups in Iraq, but they’ve got new books in their schools, Saddam Hussein is gone, who killed hundreds of thousands of people in his own country. He used chemical weapons against his own people and his neighbors, and the country is trying to find its way towards a freer political and a freer economic system. They’ve got a stock market, the lights are on, the electricity is functioning. They’re making some progress. It isn’t easy, it’s tough. But it was tough for us. We went through a God-awful Civil War, and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. We had slaves into the 1800s. Women didn’t vote until the 1900s. So sitting back across a great ocean, and fly-specking exactly how well they’re doing, it seems to me, is easy to do, but it doesn’t reflect the difficulty of going from a brutal, vicious dictator to a freer political and a freer economic system. And thank goodness their oil industry is booming.

HH: Let’s stay on Iraq for a second. Part of Known And Unknown deals with the Abu Ghraib scandal, and since President Obama’s team has taken over, there have been a couple of similar scandals with Marines taking pictures with dead Afghans and desecrating corpses, but those were very, very regrettable instances, and the United States has apologized. A) Was it right for the United States to apologize, and B) did the media treat Abu Ghraib the same as they treated these scandals, in your view?

DR: Well, nobody was killed at Abu Ghraib by the United States military. They were abused, and it was unfortunate, and it was wrong. And we said so, that they shouldn’t have done it, and the people who did it have been prosecuted and punished. Some of the things that have occurred subsequently have, a number of people have been killed. So they’re of a different order, to be sure. And there’s no question but that the media handles it in a way that’s totally different.

HH: And how would you characterize the difference?

DR: Well, it was, well, I’ll give you an example of a difference. There was a big story in I think Newsweek that someone had flushed a Koran down the toilet at Guantanamo, and there were riots in three cities in three countries, and people were killed. And it turned out there never was a Koran flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo and the news magazine eventually said well, to the extent our story was not accurate, we’re sorry. Of course, the people who are dead couldn’t hear the sorry. I think that the, what we are living with is a circumstance where the media is clearly working hard to praise things that this administration does, and to criticize things that a prior administration has done.

HH: I want to talk now about what the current administration is doing or not doing in Syria, Mr. Secretary. First of all, do you regret that when Iraq was invaded, there was some talk of pushing that invasion into Syria. Do you regret that we did not move forward at that time against the Assad regime?

DR: Oh, no. You know, you can only have so many peas on your knife, and we had a lot going on. Now is Assad a brutal leader? You bet. Look at the people that are being killed in Syria. Are they working closely with Iran and with Russia? They are. Are they making damage in Lebanon? Yes. Did they flood Iraq with a lot of terrorists that came though the Damascus airport into Iraq to cause difficulties for the Iraqi government? Yes, that’s true. Do they support Hamas and Hezbollah? Yes. Would the world be better off without them? I think probably. It depends on what’s going to replace them. But you know, his father killed, I suppose, 10,000 people in Hama not too long ago.

HH: Yeah, so would you expect, would you urge, would you welcome military action against Syria either from its neighbors or the West?

DR: Well, it seems to me that if you look across the spectrum, the first thing you do is nothing, the next thing you do is to get some, withdraw your diplomats, and they’ve done that. The next thing you do is you try to get some other countries to help. And clearly, they’re being frustrated by Iran and Russia, who are not going to help. The next thing you do is to get some covert action going and see if you can get a good visibility as to who the various factions are that might replace Assad, because the world would be a better place without Assad, but we would prefer not to have it go to some Islamist that’s going to be even closer with Iran, if that’s humanly possible. The next step would be to do some air power, and try to assist dissident factions, if you can find dissident factions you want to support. And then the last choice would be ground troops, which given the current budget situation and the current behavior pattern of this administration, I think is certainly not likely, and it would be absolutely the last choice.

HH: Let’s turn to the budget situation, Mr. Secretary. The President is calling for reductions in the standing troops of about 20,000 Marines, more than 100,000 soldiers in the Army. The F-22’s been cut, the F-35 has been diminished, the ships are not being built. What do you make of what is going on under President Obama and the readiness of the United States military?

DR: When I came to Washington in Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, we were spending 10% of gross domestic product on Defense. Today, we’re spending 4-5% on Defense. Any idea that the deficit, which is horrendous, or the debt, which is horrendous, the trillions of dollars is a result of Defense spending is just wrong. You could abolish the Defense Department, and you still couldn’t balance the budget and deal with the debt that’s been incurred by this administration. I think that we as a country have tended to do this after every major conflict. At the end of World War II, and the end of the Cold War, the last two years of the George Herbert Walker Bush, and the eight years of Clinton, they drew down the intelligence community, they drew down on Defense. And as a result, when George W. Bush came into the presidency, he was faced with the bathtub that was left. It was empty. And it took time and effort to build those capabilities, to increase the numbers of UAVs, to increase our Special Operations Forces, to transform the Department of Defense to fit the 21st Century, and we’ve made good progress. But we’re about ready to do the same thing we’ve done after the Cold War, and that is cut back and think well, everyone should share, because the debt is serious, which let there be no doubt, the debt is serious. But it wasn’t caused by Defense. It was caused by entitlements. And the world is a better place if the United States behaves responsibly from an economic standpoint, and invests properly in Defense to dissuade and deter other people from doing things that are harmful to free people and free institutions.

HH: Specifically, Mr. Secretary, do you think the Marines can function with 20,000 fewer of them?

DR: I think that if they go forward and cut an additional half a trillion dollars, beyond the half a trillion they’ve already agreed to, that we will create a more dangerous world, whether it’s because of the Marines or the shipbuilding budget, or the Army, the drawbacks on our intelligence capability. You know, it’s easy to cut something. You can stop something. Starting it and creating it, and developing those capabilities, that takes years. And we as a country, in my view, can simply not afford to become isolationist, and think we can withdraw and be safer because of it. We won’t. We will be less safe.

HH: Let me play for you and the audience, Secretary Rumsfeld, an exchange between the President and former president of Russia, Medvedev, which is fairly famous, but I want to play it to set the audience up for your comment on it. Here’s that exchange:

BHO: This is my last election. And after my election, I’ll have more flexibility.

DM: I understand. I’ll transmit this information to Vladimir.

HH: What did you interpret that exchange to mean, Secretary Rumsfeld?

DR: Well, I wasn’t there, but I listened to it several times, and I don’t see how it can be interpreted as anything other than telling a foreign leader, from a country that is notably unhelpful to us with respect to North Korea, unhelpful to us with respect to Iran and their nuclear program, unhelpful to us with respect to trying to get Syria to behave in a more responsible way and stop butchering people, it’s telling a leader of that country look, I’ve got an election, I can’t make concessions to you now. Think what the concessions on missile defense have done. It’s accomplished nothing. Think what the reset button has done. It’s accomplished nothing. There’s a word that describes people who keep trying to do the same thing and getting the same outcome, but keep hoping for a different outcome. And I think the last three and a half years, we’ve seen a president who has been constantly attempting to befriend people by diminishing us, and that he hasn’t quite figured out that it doesn’t work.

HH: You’ve been involved in government for a long time, Mr. Secretary. Is President Obama the weakest president of your lifetime?

DR: He may very well be. I suppose the other one that stands out is President Jimmy Carter as a person who had a somewhat different attitude about America and its role in the world, and felt that we needed to kind of be in decline and withdrawal, and not contribute to the peace and stability that exists in the world.

HH: What do you think is President Obama’s attitude about America?

DR: I don’t, from everything I’ve heard, it seems to me he’s more in a mode of apologizing for our country rather than recognizing the exceptionalism that our country has represented, where he’s modeling our economy after Europe, which is a failed model. The last thing we need to do is behave like Greece. I remember Mrs. Thatcher once said the trouble with socialism is eventually, you run out of other people’s money.

HH: And a last question, what do you make of Mitt Romney’s qualifications to be president?

DR: Well, I must say, I do feel that a person who’s been in an executive position has an advantage. A lot of legislators run for the presidency and for governor positions, and I think someone who has that background of having to be an executive would come into that office with a head start. I would add that I think that it is, I’m told, I’ve read articles, I assume they’re correct, to the effect that today in the White House, we have the smallest percentage of people who have any background in business whatsoever. And I think that people who think that this country is about government are wrong. I think this country is about the private sector. It’s about risk taking and investment and initiative, and industriousness and the values that built this country. And I think someone who’s been in business, as Governor Romney has, brings to it that nice mixture of executive experience and government as well as a business background, which is a stark contrast to a community organizer, and a person who served in the United States Senate for about fifteen minutes.

HH: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, congratulations on the publication of the paperback edition of Known And Unknown, look forward to having you back again.

DR: Thank you. I hope people will go take a look at, my website. There have been 44 million hits on it.

HH: I’m going there now. Mr. Secretary, thank you.

DR: Okay, thank you.

End of interview.



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