Don Rumsfeld may be out of Washington, but he’s got a keen eye on foreign policy and national security. The former secretary of defense in the administration of President George W. Bush believes that the Obama administration’s mistakes in Syria and Libya stem from lack of leadership, not having a clear mission and faulty coalition building.
He said that the mission has to determine the coalition, but the exact opposite was done in Libya.
“The Obama administration went to the U.N. They went to NATO. They left it open as to what the mission was, and therefore people had different views. People didn’t want to do this; they were unwilling to say that Gadhafi had to go,” Mr. Rumsfeld told me in an interview aboard a cruise as part of the Conservative Political Action Convention.
“Therefore they prolonged this. I’m sure there have been a lot more people killed.”
Wearing a fleece and leather vest as we sailed from chilly Ketchikan, Alaska, Mr. Rumsfeld explained that if President Obama had openly said that action in Libya was necessary for humanitarian reasons, then the coalition nations could decide whether or not they wanted to be a part of it on that basis. Instead, “we just had a very vivid example of the importance of deciding what the mission before you fashion a coalition.”
President Reagan’s Middle East envoy said that Iran, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are considerably more important to our national security than Libya, but it’s important now because we started it. He said the president made a big mistake in not making it clear that the Libya’s leader Moammar Gadhafi had to go.
“The guy’s been there for 40 years. He’s a vicious dictator,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “The idea that he might still be there when this is over — which is what Obama left everyone to believe. that Gadhafi could still be there, and he is still there - it’s going to prevent people from supporting rebels. It’s going to prevent people from defecting away from the government.” Mr. Obama has “prolonged it by leaving that ambiguity.”
Asked if he thinks that the president is in violation of the War Powers Act in Libya, the former Illinois congressman was not absolute. In his recent memoir “Known and Unknown”, he writes about being the sole member of the House of Representatives in 1965 to call on Congress to discuss whether the president needed a declaration of war for Vietnam.
However, he told me the legislation “has never been challenged in the Supreme Court. There are a lot of people who believe it is unconstitutional.” He explained that, “The president of the United States, under Article II of the Constitution, has the authority to manage our national security, which is something that is enormously difficult for a committee of 535 legislators to do.”
In respect to Libya, Mr. Rumsfeld said that, “Bush went to Congress and got a resolution. Obama went to the U.N. and NATO. Strange to not go to the Congress and ask for a resolution. But whether or not he had to, constitutionally, I think is a very open question.”
Mr. Rumsfeld also believes that the United States has made the same mistake with Syrian President Bashar Assad. It took Mr. Obama until mid-August and countless deaths in the Mideast nation before he said that a regime change was necessary.
“Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton was saying that Assad is a reformer. Imagine. He just isn’t. He’s got the same people his father had around him. It’s a tough dictatorship. He’s minority Alawite sect. He is going to do as much repression as they need to,” he said. “Assad is not going away unless we say he should.”
I asked what the U.S. can do to force the dictator to leave power. The former defense secretary spoke cautiously, saying simply that “there are ways to move people away from support for him and make it less attractive.”
More from my exclusive interview with Mr. Rumsfeld to come….