Interview with Donald Rumsfeld 'Do I Have any Regrets? Of Course I Do'

In a SPIEGEL interview, former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 78, discusses the unclear goals for the international deployment in Libya, "terribly damaging" crimes committed by the US Army "kill team" in Afghanistan, inevitable comparisons to Abu Ghraib and the mistakes he made in the Bush administration.


SPIEGEL: Mister Secretary, you are famous for your long list of "Rumsfeld rules" -- little pearls of wisdom you have accumulated over decades in government. Do you happen to have a rule that gives advice on foreign invasions?

Rumsfeld: Actually, I do. When you begin an invasion, a rule is "the mission should determine the coalition, not the other way around." You should not first assemble a coalition with many different views and then try to determine the mission. That leads to a lack of clarity as to the mission.

SPIEGEL: Is that the case with the current NATO invasion in Libya?

Rumsfeld: I think you can make that case. The United States did not articulate, to my knowledge, a clear mission. We started putting together a coalition, and then the coalition fashioned the mission. The coalition members cite humanitarian concerns, but as long as there is ambiguity about whether or not (Moammar) Gadhafi is going to stay or leave, there will be still more people killed. So from a purely humanitarian standpoint, that ambiguity is harmful -- and it can in fact be lethal. If you are part of Gadhafi's government or his military and diplomatic corps, you want to know what is going to happen if you want to support the rebels. As long as it is not clear that our intent is for Gadhafi to be removed from power, people are going to hold back. The longer they hold back, the greater the likelihood that more people will be killed.

SPIEGEL: Your successor, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, has even stated that Libya is not of vital interest to the United States. Would you agree?

Rumsfeld: I am not going to comment on his statement. But if I look at the really important questions in that region, I see Iran, where there is a strong desire for a freer society and where people are repressed by a small group of ayatollahs. I see Syria, where we can see a similar desire of the people to be free. These two countries fund Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations and are hurting our efforts in Afghanistan and have been extremely harmful in Iraq. Then I also see large, important countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But the United States is doing things now in Libya.

SPIEGEL: Is Obama's promise of an American short-term engagement with no ground troops realistic?

Rumsfeld: It is hard for anyone out of government to comment on details like that. There is overt action, and then there is covert action. We have no knowledge of what we or the coalition countries may be doing along that line. The press always wants to know how many people will be killed or how much it will cost, but the answers to those questions are not knowable.

SPIEGEL: But it is precisely that kind of information which the American people would like to know. US surveys show that support for the Libya invasion is low. Obama has now transferred command to NATO, but is the alliance even capable of handling it?

Rumsfeld: Time will tell. NATO member states vary dramatically in their capability and in their political steadfastness.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the US is now part of a broad coalition, a stark difference to the Iraq invasion that you were also, in part, responsible for.

Rumsfeld: That is not the case. The reality is that Obama has some 15 countries in the current Libya coalition. President Bush put together close to 50 countries for the Afghan coalition, some 40 countries for the Iraqi coalition, more than 90 countries for the Proliferation Security Initiative and over 90 countries in the Global War on Terror, and yet as your question suggested, he was called a "unilateralist."

SPIEGEL: You were never known as a big believer in Europe's military or its foreign policy. As Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, you disparaged troublesome allies like Germany and France as "Old Europe."

Rumsfeld: I do not regret that comment. When I served as US Ambassador to NATO in the 1970s, the center of gravity in Europe was France and Germany. There were 15 countries in NATO, one of which, France, was only a partial member. In 2003, at the time I made my "Old Europe" comment, the center of gravity in NATO and Europe had long since shifted to the East. With the former Warsaw Pact countries joining NATO, the alliance has a different mix today. Some people were sensitive about my comment because they thought it was a pejorative way of highlighting demographic realities. Apparently they felt it pointed a white light at a weakness in Europe -- an aging population. Europe has come some distance since World War II in becoming Europe.

SPIEGEL: But you surely could not envision a common European foreign policy, could you? Take the example of Libya -- Germany abstained in the United Nations Security Council, while other nations like France and Britain have taken the lead on the invasion.

Rumsfeld: Oh, my goodness. I am going to leave the future of Europe to the Europeans.

SPIEGEL: Were you surprised that Germany didn't join the Libya coalition?

Rumsfeld: No.

SPIEGEL: Because you can no longer be surprised by Germany?

Rumsfeld: At 78 years old, I am not surprised at much anymore. Germany has taken divergent positions before, so has France, so has England, so has the US.

SPIEGEL: After the German abstention at the UN, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle commented that Germany doesn't always have to stand on the side of its traditional allies. Berlin can look for new partners all over the world. Is this the end of the Westbindung (a term referring to Germany's foreign policy of aligning itself deeply with Western Europe and the Western World) that has been the bedrock of German foreign policy since World War II?

Rumsfeld: I did not read the tea leaves that way. I listened to it, and I said, Well, that is not new.

SPIEGEL: That sounds exceptionally gracious. During his address to the American people on Libya at the end of March, Obama pointed to the Iraq war. He said that regime change there took eight years, cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives as well as nearly a trillion dollars, and that is something the US cannot afford to repeat. Looking back, was the Iraq invasion too costly?

Rumsfeld: History will make that judgment. It is hard to put a price on some things. What is the value of having prevented nuclear weapons from getting into the hands of a dictator like Saddam Hussein -- or of Gadhafi, who was convinced to give up his nuclear program a few years ago because he did not want to end up like Saddam? What is the value of having millions of people in Iraq not having a repressive regime? What is the value of having the Iraqi regime not shooting at UK and US aircraft almost every day? What is the value of the Iraqis having a free press? What is the value of the foreign minister of Iraq going to Paris, calling for an end of the Gadhafi regime and citing Iraq as a model, as an example, that in fact a freer political system can exist in that part of the world? If there are people who yearn for the days when Saddam Hussein was in power, then I am not among them.

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