Donald Rumsfeld served twice as U.S. secretary of defense, first under President Gerald R. Ford and more recently for President George W. Bush. His long career in public service began as a Navy pilot and Illinois congressman and went on to include stints as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, director of the Economic Stabilization Program and ambassador to NATO during the Nixon administration. Mr. Rumsfeld was chief of staff in the Ford White House before being sent to the Pentagon. A member of numerous federal commissions with extensive private-sector experience, he was CEO of G.D. Searle pharmaceutical company and General Instrument Corporation. Secretary Rumsfeld’s memoir, “Known and Unknown” (Sentinel), which hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, was released in paperback earlier this year.
Decker: In the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate, Joe Biden repeatedly criticized what he characterized as profligate Republican plans to increase defense spending. Given the many diverse dangers out there, what is the appropriate size for the U.S. military today?
Rumsfeld: The trillion-dollar deficits and the ballooning debt amassed by the Obama administration will crush future generations. Further, they send a signal to the world of American weakness. They must be dealt with. The fact is, throughout the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the United States was spending roughly 10 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Today, we are spending about 4 percent of GDP on defense. Obviously, defense spending isn’t the cause of the deficits. They have been caused by entitlements and the failure of the government to tackle them. As to the size of our military, the goal is not to win a war, but to prevent a war. Weakness is provocative. Our armed forces have to be a sufficient deterrent so we contribute to peace and stability, without having to engage in a conflict. It is better to have one too many tanks than one too few.
Decker: The Obama administration’s bungling before and after the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Libya has been shocking to witness. Other than dead diplomats, what are the consequences when a superpower’s leaders don’t take its role and responsibility in the world seriously?
Rumsfeld: The Obama administration’s attempt to deflect responsibility and attribute what was clearly an organized heavy-weapons attack on an American consulate to a so-called “spontaneous” demonstration or to a YouTube video that almost no one had seen makes so little sense that it can only be characterized as a cover-up. For the president to then leave for a political event in Nevada — rather than address the murder of four Americans, including our ambassador, and the protests and riots in some 22 locations around the world — reflected seriously misplaced priorities. It is a disappointing failure to provide leadership, and that absence of U.S. leadership has created a vacuum that is being filled by countries that do not share our values or interests.
Decker: Asian nations concerned about a hegemonic Beijing are rapidly building up their arsenals. Does China pose a threat to its neighbors in the region and to U.S. national security, and what should America’s posture be toward the Middle Kingdom?
Rumsfeld: China has been strengthening its military capabilities with double-digit, defense-budget increases for the last decade, so there is clearly a seriousness of purpose which we must recognize. The question is what China is likely to do with its new military capabilities that include a blue-water navy, anti-satellite missiles, stealth aircraft and an increasingly aggressive cyber program. China’s expansionist impulses have led to uneasy relations with its neighbors. It is asserting its power and unfounded territorial claims in the South China Sea. It’s in the interest of the countries in the region — India, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and others — to work together to dissuade Beijing from upsetting the balance in East Asia with provocations. Our relationships with these nations will be critical in protecting freedom of navigation and the territorial rights of our friends and allies.
Decker: What do you think the legacy of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be? Are hard-won gains there being squandered by a rush to pull out?
Rumsfeld: To the extent the Obama administration thinks it can withdraw from the world, fail to obtain a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, publicly trash the elected leadership in Afghanistan and then pull out all U.S. military forces according to an arbitrarily announced deadline, the result will be damaging to those countries and to ours. The series of diplomatic missteps we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan have reduced our leverage there. The Iraqi and Afghan people have been given the opportunity to build free societies. It has been a long, difficult process for both countries, but let’s not forget it was for America as well. This administration’s dealings with the freely elected Afghan and Iraqi governments have made that process more challenging for them and made it easier for the enemies of freedom in and near both nations to prevail.
Decker: What do you think is the most imminent threat facing America today, and what should be done to address the problem? In other words, what keeps you up at night?
Rumsfeld: An easy answer to the question would be that the most imminent dangers to the United States are the “unknown unknowns” — the things that we don’t know we don’t know. These are especially troubling given the proliferation and availability of increasingly lethal weapons. From Pearl Harbor to 9/11, America has had to cope with surprise on several occasions. Today, we could witness a surprise of a magnitude that could dwarf earlier attacks. As the “Dark Winter Study” suggested, instead of 3,000 dead as America suffered on 9/11, the number of deaths could be 30,000, 300,000 or even a million with the use of a biological weapon such as smallpox. But I believe the most dangerous threat is one that would be self-inflicted: American weakness.
We are seeing the mismanagement of our economy, which sends a signal around the world that America is in decline and going the way of Europe. We are seeing the possibility of cutting close to a trillion dollars from the defense budget over the next decade, if the sequester is not prevented. To the extent the United States abandons its role in the world, that role will be filled by others who do not have our interests or values, and the world will most certainly become a less stable and more dangerous place. That, I believe, is the gravest and most imminent threat facing America today.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the new book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, 2011).