Donald Rumsfeld served as the United States Secretary of Defense to Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George W. Bush. Prior to his appointments in those administrations, he served three terms in the House of Representatives then as an assistant to President Richard Nixon.
How was the military restructured and why?
Well, when I came into the Pentagon in 2001, we had moved into the 21st century, but we’d also moved into the information age. And Governor Bush, running for president, had given a speech or two at the Citadel to point out the things he believed needed to be done to have the military ready and set for the 21st century. I set about that task, and there were a great many reforms that were needed. We needed to change the personnel system so that we were able to bring people in and move people around with a great deal more flexibility than had been the case previously.
Our forces around the world were still basically positioned where they were at the end of the Cold War. For example, we had aircraft in Iceland that were there for the purpose of tracking Soviet bombers. But of course, the Soviet Union hadn’t existed for a decade. We were spending 233 million dollars a year to maintain that capability, which really wasn’t appropriate.
That’s true of a lot of the way air forces were around the world. What we needed to do was rebalance them and make adjustments to the changes that had taken place in the preceding decades. And we also needed to recognize that we faced, our country faced as a nation, threats from not simply conventional forces – big armies, big navies, big air forces – as we did during the days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union facing us; but quite different threats – terrorists threats, asymmetrical threats.
And so we set about the business of increasing our special operations forces. We increased their numbers by about fifty percent; we increased their authority; we improved their equipment; and we changed the kinds of work they did by assigning some of the lower tier things that special operation forces used to do to conventional forces, therefore making available and freeing up the special operations force to do the difficult tasks that they do. That capability that exists today is enormously important to our country.
We also needed to improve our intelligence gathering capability. There had been a draw down at the end of the Cold War, just as there had been a draw down at the end of WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. We had a pattern of doing that. And then we had to strengthen it again in the year 2001, by seeing that we made the right kinds of investments to improve our intelligence gathering capabilities.
How did our defense priorities change after 9/11?
Our defense priorities changed in the sense that we had to be able to go anywhere in the world rapidly, and we had to have our forces in place in countries and locations in the United States where we would not have difficulty moving them. That is to say, if it required that we get approval of a host government where our forces happened to be or it required that they had to go to their parliament to get approval for the United States to use U.S. forces elsewhere than the countries where they were residing, that wasn’t helpful to us.
The United States of America pays for a military, the taxpayers of America pay for a military, to further the interests of the United States. And we can’t afford to have a military for the protection of this country, a separate military to protect that country, and a third military to protect the United States. We have to have the flexibility to move those forces anywhere we want, and in some cases we didn’t and we needed to make that kind of adjustment as well.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, what are some of the lessons learned?
Well, that’s one thing the military does very well. They have a pattern of doing post-conflict analysis and a lessons learned exercise. The various commands do that. Indeed, they start doing it almost at the beginning of a conflict. What will happen is there will be a very careful review by the U.S. armed forces. They will look at each aspect of what took place and come to some conclusions about how they can do a better job.
There’s an old adage that this war is not like the last war. This war is not like the next war. This war is like this war. The point being that they’re all different. The enemy has a brain; the enemy adapts and adjusts to whatever the United States does.
I think the important thing to think about is that throughout my adult life, and I’ve lived a long time, the United States of America has contributed to a more stable and peaceful world. We’ve provided leadership. We’ve helped strengthen the rib cage in the globe, and we’ve done so by having strengths and recognizing the truth. I guess Dwight Eisenhower said it when he talked about peace through strength, that weakness is provocative. And if there’s a vacuum, somebody will fill that vacuum. It will either be the United States or some country other than the United States; and the odds will be a country that does not think like we do, does not have our interests first in their mind as we do, and that the world will be a less safe and less stable place if we do not provide that kind of leadership.
The new U.S. defense posture is known as the Pivot to Asia. What’s your take on that? Do you think that’s the right strategy?
When I think about the strategies – obviously one has to review them periodically– in the Bush administration, we did shift our weight away from Europe, to a certain extent we lightened up there, and shifted it towards Asia. We also invested a good deal of time and effort developing relationships with other countries. In India, for example, we’ve significantly improved our military to military relationships. Here’s a country that is already the second most populous country, and it’s important that the United States periodically review that.
One has to be careful about announcing that kind a pivot, if you will. You’ll recall the recent administration announced that they were resetting their relationship with Russia. Well, the reset button didn’t work, and it seems to me that what we need to do is to take the steps we need to take. I think be careful about announcing them as though it’s this instead of that.
Because in life, it’s not that. Generally it’s an incremental change; generally it’s an adjustment. And to the extent one leaves the impression that you’ve shifted from doing this and you’re now going to do that, you probably don’t gain the advantages that would accrue if it was seen as what is really was; which was, over a period of time, making some adjustments to make sure we’re fitting into the world the way the world is, because the world is not static. It keeps adjusting and making changes.
What has been the NATO mission in Afghanistan? Has it succeeded?
The answer is that the NATO mission is a reflection of the reality that the problems in Afghanistan are a difficulty, a threat if you will, not just to the United States and not just to some neighbors, but to free nations around the world. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan became a hospitable place for al-Qaeda. They hosted al-Qaeda; they were intimate with al-Qaeda. And, of course, the Taliban was using soccer stadiums there to cut off people’s heads, instead of play soccer. They prevented women from going out alone without a male member of their family and prevented them from going to school. Only three nations in the world recognized Pakistan under the Taliban. It was a drug haven and an exporter of drugs throughout Europe.
Now, what was the mission of NATO in Afghanistan? And what it was, really, was a group of free nations who decided that it was important to participate in a coalition to help to provide a better chance for the Afghan people; to put themselves on a path that was not hostile to much of the rest of the world as it was under the Taliban and al-Qaeda. If you think about it, NATO was organized and created to protect the NATO treaty area. Well, Afghanistan is a long way from the NATO treaty area.
And I think what it points out is the truth that the world has changed. The problems that the NATO nations face changed, individually and collectively. Our problems are really outside of the NATO treaty area; whether it’s piracy, drug trafficking, or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Those are things that the NATO nations have to be concerned about, and they are problems that are largely external. This suggests to me that it would make sense for the NATO nations to think about the future and the fact that things outside, problems outside of the NATO treaty area, will very likely be requiring their attention and their involvement.
If you look down from Mars on Earth, the bulk of the nations with free political systems and free economic systems that are close friends and allies of the United States and Canada are in Western Europe. And what they’re going to have to do is to recognize that it obviously remains important to defend the NATO treaty area.
However, it is equally important to recognize the threats that are external to the NATO treaty area. And maybe develop, not membership arrangements, but relationships of one type or another with other free thinking countries, free political systems, and other free economic systems; countries like Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and some other nations outside of the NATO orbit at the present time. Certainly there are nations that used to be under Soviet dominance and today are free republics. Those countries are where we have Partnership for Peace relationships with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
And I think that increasing those linkages and those relationships would enable the free countries of NATO to, in fact, extend their influence and their ability as a collection of nations to contribute to a more peaceful and a more stable world.
Should missile defense be one of those priorities?
Well, I think so. I think if one looks at the increasing number of countries that have ballistic missiles and ballistic missiles of a range, that can threaten an increasing number of countries. And if one looks at the problems – the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the marrying of the delivery capability with the weapons – we have to acknowledge the fact that, in the 21st century, the lethality of weapons are vastly greater than they were in the last century.
It is an amazing accomplishment that the world could of had nuclear weapons now for sixty years, sixty five years, and not having them been fired in anger since 1945. That is an amazing thing. I don’t think in the history of the world that there was a time when there have been significant weapons of that type, of any type, that have not been used for sixty years. So that’s a good record. It doesn’t mean that it will be always that way. It seems to me that we have to keep that in mind.
Where does NATO rank in our toolkit to achieve U.S foreign policy objectives?
Well, it ranks high. It’s clearly the most successful military alliance probably in the history of the world, certainly in my lifetime. If you think of all the things the United Nations can’t do because of vetoes by Russia, China or somebody else; it takes near unanimity for the United Nations to do anything. Therefore, you look around the world, you say, “Who can do something?” Well, bilaterally we can do some things with Japan; bilaterally we can do some things with South Koreans. We do cooperate with Australia and Singapore, and increasingly with India, which is a good thing.
But it seems to me that the NATO relationship is enormously important to us. I think Winston Churchill said something to the effect that the only worst thing than going to war with allies is going to war without allies. I mean, people could always look at relationships and say, well, they have somewhat different views. And it’s true.
But with the countries of Western Europe, we have a large areas of common interest. You couldn’t create NATO today. No way in the world could you establish an institution like that. The fact that it’s not perfect; the fact that there are different viewpoints and relationships among the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gives people pause from time to time. But it seems to me that there are enough important things that we can do together that we ought to be supportive it and strengthen it.
It is worrisome, to be sure, that if you take the non-U.S. NATO nations and look at their defense budgets as a percentage of their GDPs, it is now below two percent, it suggests that they’re not as militarily capable as they have been in the past. And the direction is in decline rather than increasing. Nonetheless, I believe in NATO and I think it’s in our interests to be a member, to participate, and to find ways that where we do have common interests, we can cooperate.
Could a preemptive strike work in deterring Iran’s nuclear ambitions?
I’ve been out of government for I guess six years and I’m not looking at intelligence; I have no inside information. I think what I would say is that the question cast is phrased, “Would a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear capabilities succeed?” I guess the word preemptive other people call preventative defense, but the answer is that it doesn’t have to.
The Israeli strike against the nuclear capability in Iraq some years back was successful. It was a different situation, a different country, and in a different stage of development. The Israeli strike against the Syrian nuclear capabilities was successful. The word “successful” doesn’t necessarily mean that it eliminates something, but even just delaying something can be useful. Clearly Iran is farther away, Iran is bigger, and Iran is stronger. It’s the year 2012, it isn’t back in the 1990s or ‘80s, which suggests that they’re fully aware of Israeli capabilities, and undoubtedly they’ve used deeply buried sites to try to provide a greater degree of protection for what their doing.
So the answer is I don’t know; I don’t need to know. It seems to me that the Israelis face a very difficult situation. Their country is small; their population is small. They’ve suffered many, many decades of antisemitism and the Holocaust; and they can’t go a week or a month without hearing some senior Iranian figure talking about annihilating, eradicating, and destroying the state of Israel, denying their right to exist in that part of the world.
So the Israeli leadership faces a very difficult situation. They have a not-too-far neighbor that is developing nuclear weapons and has pronounced repeatedly in their conviction that Israel ought not to exist; that it’s unacceptable that Israel be there as a nation-state. Any leader of Israel has to get up in the morning and acknowledge that fact and recognize the threat that poses potentially to their people.
What are the implications of nuclear-armed Iran for the region and the world?
Time will tell. Let me go back on the missile defense question and add a thought. The lethality of weapons is greater today than ever before, and the range of delivery systems is greater. A missile does not have to be of long range, intercontinental ballistic missile range. The Iranians, the United States, and some other countries have taken ships and launched missiles off ships. And that of course gives you the ability to put a weapon of mass destruction or ballistic missile in a ship and move the ship anywhere you want in the world, and not have to go through the technical difficulties of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. You can do it with a relatively short to medium range missile.
Which brings me to the subject of missile defense. It seems to that if there’s anything that’s not offensive, it’s missile defense. By definition you’re trying to protect yourself. It is a stabilizing, rather than a destabilizing, act. I personally believe that the question is: To what extent ought our allies in Western Europe have missile defense capability and cooperate with our missile defense capability? And the answer is they ought to.
It was correct for the Bush administration, in my view, to make those arrangements in Western Europe. It’s perfectly logical for countries to not want to be held hostage to a threatening act or a threat, and to have the deterrent which a missile defense system is. It says to the other side, “Look, you don’t want to do that because we have the ability to shoot down a missile.”
So I think it’s perfectly logical that a European country would want to cooperate with us, and that the United States would want to have some ability to help defend our allies, not just us. We don’t want to have a shield over America only and think of ourselves as “fortress America,” because we have troops all over the world, we have interests all over the world, and we have close allies that would be called on under the NATO treaty to help defend. And it’s much better to create a deterrent rather than get into a conflict to help defend a close ally in Western Europe.