Rumsfeld Interview 'A Leader Should Be Careful about Drawing Red Lines'

Donald Rumsfeld is no stranger to intervening abroad. In an interview with SPIEGEL, the former US secretary of defense explains why Obama was right to delay military action in Syria and why the president must be wary of Russian President Putin.

SPIEGEL: You recently published a book called "Rumsfeld's Rules," which contains pearls of wisdom you collected during your five decades of public service and passed on to co-workers and employees. One rule says: "The perfect battle is the one that does not have to be fought." So, President Barack Obama did the right thing by calling off a military strike in Syria?

Rumsfeld: Yes, he did do the right thing. When I look at his current predicament -- Russian President Vladimir Putin lecturing President Obama on American exceptionalism and offering his plan for supervision of Syria's chemical weapons -- I think also of another rule, which says: "Never assume the other fellow will not do something you wouldn't do." Mr. Putin is very clever, and President Obama will need to keep that in mind.

SPIEGEL: You mean to say Obama is naive to believe that putting Syrian chemical weapons under United Nations supervision can be a solution?

Rumsfeld: We don't yet know the details or who would do the supervising, but my recollection is that the Soviets or the Russians gave Syria most of their weapons arsenal. And it is not clear to me that Russia itself has fully complied with all their obligations with respect to chemical weapons. Therefore, a question could be: Might it possibly amount to putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop?

SPIEGEL: By accepting Putin's offer, Obama could move away from an unpopular and ill-advised military strike. What is bad about that?

Rumsfeld: I think moving away from his proposed military action could be a good thing. President Obama accepted the Putin proposal because there were no good options left. I suspect the president wishes he had not gotten to this point. I think he might have been better off if he had helped some of the non-radical elements among the Syrian rebels early on, not with US troops, but with weapons, intelligence and humanitarian support. Without doing that, the factions that seem to be prevailing, at least to this date, are the ones that are the best organized, the most disciplined, the toughest, and the best financed -- some of which are radical Islamists, even though the Islamists most likely do not represent a majority in that country.

SPIEGEL: Aside from a military strike, are there any good options left when it comes to Syria?

Rumsfeld: I do not know. I was not able to see President Obama's speech on Syria on Tuesday, but it sounded from the press reports that he was of two minds, and that his speech reflected that.

SPIEGEL: Obama has tried to engage in public debate rather than rush into a war. Was it the right decision to ask Congress for permission?

Rumsfeld: Yes it was. Most US presidents since World War II have led military actions without a declaration of war by Congress, though most, if not all, have properly consulted and sought support from Congress. That is the wise thing to do. The president, however, found himself in a difficult position because he brought his proposal before Congress at a time when support of the House of Representatives seemed unlikely and the majority in our country was opposed to his military proposal, according to the polls.

SPIEGEL: So if we understand correctly, you are saying that it was not smart of the president to ask Congress in the first place?

Rumsfeld: That is not what I said. My point is that it is not a wise move if you lack a vision with sufficient clarity to gain majority support in the country and the Congress. As President of the United States, it is unwise to go to Congress to ask for support for the use of force and to be defeated. I believe such an action by the Congress would have been unprecedented. And if a president can't gain support in the US Congress, we should not be surprised that gaining support from the nations of the world would be just as difficult.

SPIEGEL: But a democratically elected president cannot simply govern against the will of his own people. And the American public has made it unmistakably clear that they are tired of wars.

Rumsfeld: That is true. Every country should be tired of going to war. War is a terrible thing, but that is the reason why a leader should be careful about drawing red lines. If I had been in Congress, as much as I would be inclined naturally to be supportive of a president, any president, I would have voted no, had the issue come to a vote.

SPIEGEL: Even if you were to look at the pictures and videos from Syria apparently showing men, women and even children dying as a result of the use of chemical weapons?

Rumsfeld: Of course it is terrible that hundreds of Syrians have died, including hundreds of children, reportedly as a result of the use of chemical weapons. But it is also terrible that more than 100,000 Syrians have died as a result of the use of other weapons -- rockets, guns, bombs and artillery.

SPIEGEL: As Obama said in his speech, it is part of "America's exceptionalism" that the oldest democracy in the world does not just sit on the sidelines and watch when a dictator gasses children.

Rumsfeld: I would suggest that it is an equal responsibility for other nations, such as Germany, France or England and others with capabilities.

SPIEGEL: Why did Obama have such big problems gaining the support of other countries for a military strike?

Rumsfeld: I believe the reason he has had difficulty gaining support both in the US and from other countries is because he has not explained what he hopes to do, what the mission would be and what he hopes to accomplish. To gain support in our Congress and from other nations requires clarity, an acceptable mission and an explicit outcome.

SPIEGEL: You cannot be serious. George W. Bush, who you served as Secretary of Defense, may have been clear about what he wanted, but most Americans now see the wars he started as being misguided. That would seem to be the real reason that the willingness in the US and the rest of the world to go to war is so low.

Rumsfeld: Such sentiments among Americans are hardly a new phenomenon. After World War I, for example, there was widespread war weariness and opposition to the US getting involved in World War II. Americans were reluctant and didn't want to go to war again in Europe. Similarly, there was no appetite for the Korean War in the United States, or the Vietnam War.

SPIEGEL: From the American perspective, World War II was a noble engagement that paid off in the long run. The same can hardly be said of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld: To be sure, the outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq are uncertain. But, if you look closely, schools are open, they have a free press, have drafted a constitution and have had free elections. Afghanistan was torn after years of occupation by the Soviets, a long civil war and the vicious reign of the Taliban. Today, the people there at least have a chance for a better life. So too in Iraq, with the Butcher of Baghdad gone, a man who used chemical weapons against his own people, as well as his neighbors.

SPIEGEL: That sounds almost cynical given the thousands of people who lost their lives and billions of dollars those wars cost. And we still cannot be sure that these countries have a better future. But the US is now leaving them to their own devices.

Rumsfeld: Call it what you will, but my view is that we aren't a country that can go into another nation and do nation building. That's up to the people in those countries. There are people in the United States who think we do have the ability to nation build. I personally do not. We can help, to be sure, but they will need to do it in their own way.

SPIEGEL: If you go into a country like Iraq and change a regime to democratize the region, is it not your duty to assist in the rebuilding of the nation?

Rumsfeld: We can certainly help, but the purpose of the war in Iraq was regime change, not nation building. I worried about the word "democracy." Elections don't make a democracy. Adolf Hitler was initially elected. More recently, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was democratically elected. Neither resulted in democracies.

SPIEGEL: You seem to have a selective memory. The biggest problem was not which word was used, but that the Iraq war was started under false premises. And this is clearly the reason why Obama is having trouble gaining support for a military strike in Syria at the moment.

Rumsfeld: You can state and restate your opinions, but our current president cannot blame the Bush administration for every unfavorable situation that exists. Every president when he is elected has to live with the pluses and minuses his predecessor leaves, which includes benefits as well as burdens.

SPIEGEL: And what exactly are the advantages that Obama has as a successor to George W. Bush?

Rumsfeld: Your question suggests there are none. I would suggest he has had the advantage of the structures put in place to deal with terrorism in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. These are the capabilities President Obama is using today to fight terrorists, almost without change. Is he disadvantaged because of expenses and experiences that occurred before he was elected? Sure, as I've said, every president inherits both the benefits and the burdens left by their predecessors. A president can't go back in time. The question is how he manages going forward.

SPIEGEL: If it is so important to take responsibility, why don't you accept that Obama is limited in what he can do in Syria due to what the Bush Administration did in Iraq? He cannot convince Americans and international partners about the necessity to strike militarily in Syria because America's credibility was massively damaged when it went to war in Iraq under a false premise, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Rumsfeld: The intelligence existed. It was looked at by President George W. Bush. He found it persuasive. Secretary of State Colin Powell looked at the intelligence and found it persuasive, as he indicated in his speech to the world at the UN -- so, too, did Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, as well as Senator Jay Rockefeller, all members of the other political party. Other nations, including the British government, looked at the same intelligence and came to a similar conclusion. Secretary Colin Powell, for example, was highly experienced dealing with intelligence. He did not lie. He told the world what he believed was true.

SPIEGEL: Because they were not told what seems obvious in retrospect: The information on weapons of mass destruction was perhaps not fabricated, but it was cherry-picked.

Rumsfeld: I can understand when people nowadays say it turned out this information was not correct. But at the time, the president, Secretary Powell, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and experts in many countries all found it persuasive. I don't believe Colin Powell cherry-picked the intelligence as you allege.

SPIEGEL: Do you understand why the Europeans are so outraged over NSA spying?

Rumsfeld: My impression is there are a lot of people, Republicans and Democrats in the US, as well as people overseas, who are concerned about the NSA programs. Should people be concerned about their privacy? You bet.

SPIEGEL: Are you?

Rumsfeld: Of course. Nobody wants to think that everything they do or say is under surveillance.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that those programs are necessary for national security?

Rumsfeld: I've been out of government since 2006. I don't know anything about the details of the programs or their value.

SPIEGEL: If Obama really fails on Syria, is his presidency basically over? You yourself recently said he was the weakest president in your "adult lifetime."

Rumsfeld: No. He has three more years as president. His presidency is not just about Syria. The president has to provide leadership to gain support. It's not too late. He will need to lead. It is worth reminding us all that being president is a tough job for anybody, and particularly so in the information age. Prior US presidents had more time to think things through. Things happen much faster today. There's such a glut of information. Anything a president says or does is picked up on the Internet or the 24/7 news media and criticized almost instantly. Someone told me the other day that at his press conference at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, the President said "uh" 121 times. Clearly, he was trying to think through what he wanted to say. It is best if leaders have the time to do that before a press conference begins. Leaders persuade through their words and as such their words need to be measured and well chosen. It is a tough job.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Secretary, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Marc Hujer and Gregor Peter Schmitz

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danm 09/16/2013
1. optional
I found the disrespectful, badgering style of the interviewer to be distasteful. I cannot imagine a world where he would have treated a leftwing American such as John Kerry in a similar manner. And his repeated assertion that Obama's failure in Syria was the fault of George W Bush is utterly laughable. DS loses crediblity as an organization when it gives a platform to such a brazen leftwing apologist. I expected better from you guys.
peskyvera 09/16/2013
2. optional
Rumsfeld hasn't caused enough misery??? Be wary of Putin? I am more worried about Obama and the company he keeps. Obama's time left as president should be about looking after his own country and people - not destroying and killing others.
ummeli 09/16/2013
3. Why do we care?
He claims the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan are "uncertain"? There's nothing uncertain for the hundreds of thousands who were needlessly killed. Why should anyone care about Rumsfeld's opinion? He's a war criminal.
chuchu3151 09/16/2013
4. optional
danm: I don't think we read the same history books. Bush was responsible for thousands upon thousands of deaths in Iraq etc. all because of lies! and he swallowed it? Shown how intelligent he is to be lied to and then send young American men to kill others. He should be held accountable with Blair for atrocities against humanity! The interviewer was NOT forceful enough, there are many more questions he could have asked and accusations to be made.
Jim in MD 09/16/2013
5. Selective Attention
Despite Peter Gregor Schmitz' reflexive anti-Americanism, this was a good interview. Rumsfeld happens to be right this time. The Senate and much of the House were pushing the president for a military strike. Gallup's polls show division but no clear war-weariness on the part of Americans. The losses in Iraq were an order of magnitude less than Vietnam and Afghanistan and order of magnitude less than Iraq. Those wars probably have shaken up the Middle East and helped present an opening for people in the region to participate in their governance. Given Peter Gregor Schmitz' reflexive anti-Americanism in this journal, I wonder where are statistics on how American occupation of Afghanistan compares to Soviet? Where are statistics or historical proofs of war weariness in America? Whence his leftist opinions sold as a high-minded European analysis of facts on the ground?
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