iF: What is the single most important thing the U.S. could do at present to secure our country and our allies?
DR: One Rumsfeld Rule is, “Weakness is provocative. Time and again weakness has invited adventures that strength might well have deterred.” I would add that the perception of weakness is likewise provocative. The Obama administration’s failure to provide adequate force protection at the diplomatic facilities in Benghazi is an example.
Throughout my adult life the United States has formed the ribcage of the international system. From the security of international waterways to nuclear non-proliferation the United States fills a vital and indispensable role. American policymakers should resist the temptation to turn inward and pretend the problems of the world do not exist or that they will not affect us.
Further, in this era when we face the threat of radical Islamism we simply cannot disengage from the world. Terrorists only have to be successful once to cause mass devastation, whereas those defending against it must be successful every time and in every place. The only way to successfully defend against terrorism is to put pressure on them where they are, and make everything they do—communicating, recruiting, and raising funds—more difficult.
iF: The 1979 Iranian Revolution marked the beginning of the modern era of American policy in the Middle East/Southwest Asia. Through the Iran-Iraq war, the First Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya—along with American political support for the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia—our influence has waxed and waned. What lessons can the U.S. take from those experiences to apply to Syria and the continuing social and religious upheaval across that part of the world?
DR: As President Reagan’s Middle East Envoy in the 1980s my responsibilities included meeting with many of the heads of state in the region, such as Hafez al-Assad, Bashar Assad’s father. Though Secretary Clinton once remarked that she thought of Assad as a reformer, the reality is that this is a tough region with tough leaders. One of my “Rules” in Rumsfeld’s Rules is by Winston Churchill. He said, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry,” suggesting that every day dictators wake up thinking first and foremost about how to hold on to their power and remain in office.
One of the challenges the United States must face when considering the so-called “Arab Spring” is that, in many cases, the most well-organized and disciplined opposition groups are made up of radical Islamists. We saw this in Egypt. Here’s a country that had a mass uprising from all sectors of society—students, business leaders, Coptic Christians, liberals, and radical Islamists—frustrated with the slow speed of progress and development in their country. The opposition movements succeeded in their aim to depose Hosni Mubarak. Shortly after, some in the West and the UN called for very early parliamentary and presidential elections. The result was that the Muslim Brotherhood emerged largely victorious at the polls. They had been planning and organizing for such an opportunity since the 1920s, whereas the more liberal Egyptians were only just getting their bearings and were unprepared for the election.
iF: The U.S.-China relationship is at the heart of American strategic thinking. Do you see U.S.-Chinese relations stumbling over North Korea?
DR: It is unlikely that Pyongyang could retain its grip over the population or have the industrial and technological capacity to develop nuclear weapons were it not for the financial, food, oil, and military support provided by Beijing. It’s worth remembering that China has problems of its own to deal with. The country’s One Child Policy has created an enormous demographic imbalance, the implications of which are difficult to predict. Even more potentially destabilizing is the enormous economic inequity between the industrialized coastal regions of the country and the impoverished interior.
From a geostrategic standpoint, the U.S. has many important allies in the region and we must be ever mindful that America is a Pacific nation as much as it is an Atlantic nation.
iF: Perhaps your best-known aphorism is about “known and unknown unknowns,” acknowledging that the national security establishment is working with less than all the facts. Given today’s financial constraints, how can a defense budget be constructed to protect ourselves, our interests and our allies without breaking the bank?
DR: Each administration has available to them the military capabilities passed on to them by their predecessors. It takes time to fund, train, and equip a military force that is capable and lethal. The Special Forces used to hunt and kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011 had been put in place only after an enormous investment in the Special Forces community in the George W. Bush administration.
When we consider defense spending it is important to put it into perspective and remember that the United States today only spends less than 4% of Gross Domestic Product on defense. In the Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson years it was upwards of 10%. The trend, historically, has been for the Congress to cut defense spending after every conflict. This has the consequence of forcing our country to ramp it back up again when another crisis occurs.
Of course, one Rumsfeld Rule, a Latin proverb, is “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” To the extent the United States invests in defense and maintains a fighting force, the likelihood a country will challenge America in a costly and bloody war is decreased. Is there waste in the Pentagon? Yes, there is, as in every large bureaucracy. But each year the Congress shoves billions of dollars of costs on the Department that it does not want or need.
iF: “Plan backwards as well as forward. Set objectives and trace back to see how to achieve them. You may find that no path can get you there. Plan forward to see where your steps will take you, which may not be clear or intuitive.” Is there a military or training mission for the United States in Syria?
DR: The people in countries with freer political and freer economic systems are considerably better off. In determining U.S. policy with respect to a specific situation it is useful to determine what exactly you hope to accomplish. And in a political-military framework the options include limited CIA involvement and material assistance, aerial and intelligence support, and, only last, deploying troops.
With respect to Syria, it is important for the administration to learn from the mistakes in Libya and Egypt. Like those countries, the opposition in Syria includes liberals, students, the working class, and radical Islamists. The question is the type of government that would replace the Assad government. It would be unfortunate were there to be a repeat of the early Egyptian election and a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood. The task is to determine what opposition faction would be most compatible with American interests.
iF: You wrote in your memoir that sometimes policy is a matter of “finding the least bad decision.” Former CIA director General Michael Hayden recently called a “well organized” preemptive U.S. strike on Iran the “least worst” option. How do you see American options regarding Iran; is pre-emption becoming the “least worst” option?
DR: Since the Revolution in 1979 the Iranian government has consistently exhibited vitriolic hostility towards U.S. allies in the region, its neighbors, and the United States. The sanctions have seemed to slow the progress of the Iranian nuclear program but in a totalitarian regime, when supplies are restricted, the last people hit are those in the military and government. It is the civilians who are the first to be adversely affected. When one considers the implications of an Iran equipped with nuclear weapons, what that would do to the balance of power in the region and the security of our allies, especially Israel, and the likelihood of nuclear proliferation in the region, we have to recognize that allowing Iran to press forward with its nuclear program is an unacceptable option.
iF: If President Obama invites you to the White House and asks for the most important “Rumsfeld Rules,” what would they be?
DR: The most relevant Rule with respect to President Obama would be, “If you are lost: climb, conserve, and confess.” This came from the U.S. Navy SNJ Flight Manual when I was in flight training in Pensacola, Florida. The meaning is that if you’re lost, climb to gain altitude, assess your position, and, importantly, announce that you are lost. This administration is lost and they need to face it. They’re embroiled in too many scandals to count—from the IRS, to the AP phone scandal, to Benghazi. The President should call the responsible parties together, find out the truth, and then tell the American people the truth, and get about fixing the problem.
A second rule I would recommend to the President is, “Trust leaves on horseback but returns on foot.” In the United States, the President leads by consent, not command. To the extent the American people see contradictory reports and conflicting, sometimes untrue, stories coming from the administration it erodes the trust people have in their government.
The United States is a special country and the American people have sound inner gyroscopes. I have now lived more than one third of our country’s history. We often think we are in dire times now, and we are, but I can recall Washington, D.C., after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. when large portions of the Northeast were burning, when the bridges into the city were locked down by the National Guard. We live today in difficult times, but I am confident that with the right leadership the American people will be able to fashion a strong and secure future.
iF: Thank you very much.