Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 4/21/2006 [Archive]

What Would Donald Rumsfeld Do?

Midge Decter: My friend Donald Rumsfeld

Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush administration's point man on Iraq and main target of the critics of the Iraq war, may feel that the whole world has turned against him. But the secretary of Defense still has plenty of loyal defenders, including Midge Decter. The neoconservative author and lecturer is a friend of his who was given unprecedented access to Rumsfeld in the run-up to the Iraq war for her authorized biography, "Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait."

I talked with Decter by telephone on Wednesday from her home in New York City:

Q: What do you think Donald Rumsfeld really thinks about these retired generals who are calling for him to resign?

A: I doubt that he is surprised by their views. Some of these generals were opposed to the war all along. Some have been his enemies for internal Pentagon reasons. So I doubt he's surprised, except he may think it is almost unprecedented for them to behave this way -- as I do. I don't remember when there was such a phenomenon. But I doubt that he fell over in a dead faint of shock from this.

Q: Did it surprise him?

A: Only in the sense that it's not done what they've done. It's not fitting. It's not proper. But that they are there -- and that they are brooding and that they are hostile to him --I'm sure came as not a bit of surprise. Days, weeks, months after he first got to the Pentagon, the army was already very hostile to him because they had expected big things of him. He had been there before. He had been there in the Ford administration. Not very long, but he had been there. They thought, 'Oh, boy, this is our guy who is coming in. He'll do wonders for our budget and we'll have everything we want.'

He came in and almost overnight disabused them of this. They were not going to get a budget increase. In fact, what they were going to have to do was go through a whole period of re-evaluation of everything that was going on -- all the policies, all the organization. Because he came in with the approval or maybe at even the request of the president -- I don't know; I wasn't in on their conversation -- to do something about bringing the military into the 21st century.

He got up their noses as soon as he got to the Pentagon. On the other hand, I think it is very important to say that there are undoubtedly more officers serving in the armed forces, particularly more junior ones, who think he's great.

Q: It's more of the old guard at the Army, as opposed to the up-and-coming junior officers?

A: There are some who are not old guard but it has to be pointed out that some of the generals who have organized themselves in this little cabal were opposed to this war in Iraq, period. A couple of others were notbut thought it wasn't being conducted properly. Now, I'm not a military expert and I'm not going to tell you whether it was conducted properly or not. I do have the sense that no wars are conducted properly. There is no such thing. It's very easy to second-guess after mistakes have been made.

Q: The "media Rumsfeld" we have learned to love and hate -- the words "imperious," "hard-headed," "self-assured" come to mind.

A: Well, he certainly is tough. He is a very, very, very experienced man. He's done all kinds of different things, including running two successful corporations. He started out as a young congressmen elected four times and so on. He's had a wide range of experience and he knows what he thinks.

He's very, very respectful of intelligence -- I don't mean CIA intelligence. I mean brains. And he's also respectful of straightforwardness. When he got to the Pentagon, he turned out to be a very tough boss, and a lot of people were scared to death of him -- and showed it. That did not endear them to him, let's put it that way. Also, he is a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly. If you want to earn his respect, if you disagree with him, you offer a sound argument and disagreement. If you wish to earn his contempt, you'll start sweating and feeling nervous and run away.

Q: Has Mr. Rumsfeld learned any big, important lessons from what has happened in Iraq compared to what the plans were?

A: Of course! He's a very, very, very intelligent man -- and a very honorable man. I'm sure he's learned and I don't know if those lessons apply to the next place we end up in, either, because everything is a special set of circumstances. What is new here is the conduct of the opponents of the war.

Q: Do you have any sense that he has changed his mind as to what constitutes success in Iraq?

A: No. Success in Iraq is to establish a relatively decent representative government there. It hasn't happened yet but it hasn't not happened yet, either. It's taken time and the place is a mess because there is an insurgency.

Let me tell you something: The Israelis probably know better than anybody else how to fight terrorism, because they have had so much experience and because they have good intelligence. And they can't fight it totally successfully. We're now just beginning to learn how to fight it and there is no way to fight it successfully. It's nasty stuff.

One of the worst things people did was make this scandal about Abu Ghraib. Not because Abu Ghraib was nice. It was stupid and ridiculous, but --. The most important thing in fighting terrorism is intelligence. You have to get information from people. And the only way to get information about terrorism is to get a terrorist and get him to start to talk to you. Now don't tell me you can do that by being nice to him, if you know what I mean.

Q: War is a dirty rotten business -- which is why we shouldn't go into them so often.

A: It is, but the question is, are we up to it or aren't we? I don't know the answer to that question, and perhaps I think probably by now Don Rumsfeld thinks he may not know the answer to that question. But one thing he knows George Bush is: George Bush is one tough man and one brave man.

Q: Do you think Mr. Rumsfeld will be forced to resign?

A: No. I don't know this. This is not a fact. But I would be willing to bet some nice portion of my husband's income that somewhere in President Bush's desk is a letter of resignation from Donald Rumsfeld to be taken out and used at Bush's pleasure when he so decides.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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