Rumsfeld: ‘It’s not a war on terror’

In a new interview posted on, conservative columnist Cal Thomas asks outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “With what you know now, what might you have done differently in Iraq?” Rumsfeld offers a remarkable response:

{Typos from Townhall’s site}

CT: With what you know now, what might you have done differently in Iraq?

DR: I don’t think I would have called it the war on terror. I don’t mean tobe critical of those who have. Certainly, I have used the phrase frequently.Why do I say that? Because the word Œwar’ conjures up World War II more thanit does the Cold War. It creates a level of expectation of victory and anending within 30 or 60 minutes of a soap opera. It isn’t going to happenthat way. Furthermore, it is not a Œwar on terror.’ Terror is a weapon ofchoice for extremists who are trying to destabilize regimes and (through) asmall group of clerics, impose their dark vision on all the people they cancontrol. So ‘war on terror’ is a problem for me.

I’ve worked to reduce the extent to which that (label) is used and increasedthe extent to which we understand it more as a long war, or a struggle, or aconflict, not against terrorism, but against a relatively small number ofterribly dangerous and violent extremists. I say violent extremists becausean extremist who goes off in a closet is extreme, but he’s not botheringpeople. An extremist who has those views and insists on imposing them onfree people strikes at the heart of who free people are. There are peoplewho want to be able to get up in the morning and go where they want, do whatthey want and that is exactly the opposite of the vision of violentextremists.

People who argue for more troops are often thinking World War II and theWeinberger Doctrine, which is valid in a conflict between armies, navies andair forces. The problem with it, in the context of a struggle againstextremists, is that the greater your presence, the more it plays intoextremist lies that you’re there to take their oil, to occupy their nation,stay and not leave; that you’re against Islam, as opposed to being againstviolent extremists.

People who argue for more, more, more, as I would in a conventionalconflict, fail to recognize that it can have exactly the opposite effect. Itcan increase recruiting for extremists. It can increase financing forextremists. It can make more persuasive the lies of the extremists that weare there for the oil and water and want to take over their country. Thereis no guidebook, no map that says to Gen. Abizaid or Gen. Casey what theyshould recommend to the secretary of defense or the president as to numbers.It is a fact, whether or not it flies in the face of the popular media, thatthe level of forces we have had going into Iraq, and every month thereafter,are the number of troops the commanding generals have recommended. I havenot increased them or decreased them over the objections of any general whois in a position of authority with respect to that decision.

Is it the right number? I don’t know. Do I have a heckuva lot of confidencein those two folks? Yes. Do I think it’s probably right? You bet, or I wouldhave overruled it, or made a different recommendation to the president. Butthey have to walk that line; they have to find that balance.

There are two centers of gravity. One is in Iraq and the region; the otheris here. The more troops you have, the greater the risk that you will beseen as an occupier and that you will feed an insurgency. The more troopsyou have – particularly American troops, who are so darn good at what theydo, the more they will do things and the more dependent the Iraqis willbecome and the less independent they will become. If there’s a ditch to bedug, an American does not want to sit down and teach an Iraqi how to dig theditch. He’ll go dig the dad burn ditch. But that is not what the task is.The task is to get the Iraqis to dig the ditches.

On the one hand, you don’t want to feed the insurgency and on the other youdon’t want to create dependency. So at some point, you’ve got to take yourhand off the bicycle seat. You’ve got the bicycle going down the street.You’re pushing and holding it up, and you go from four fingers, to threefingers, to two and you know if you let go they might fall. You also know ifyou don’t let go, you’ll end up with a 40-year-old who can’t ride a bike.Now that’s not a happy prospect.

Simultaneously, you have the problem here at home. The more troops you havethere, the more force protection you need, the more food you need, the morewater you need, the more convoys you need, the more airplanes you need, themore people get killed, the more targets there are. If part of the center ofgravity is back here in the United States and they constantly see moreAmericans getting killed, they ask, ‘Where are the victories?’ ‘Where’s theland warfare victory?’ ‘Where’s the sea victory?’ ‘Where’s the air victory?”Where’s the body count?’ ‘How many of these people are we killing?’ ‘Howmany are we capturing?’ ‘How do we know if we’re winning or losing?’ Themore people you put in, the more you’re going to get killed.

The argument has been unimpressive, not terribly thoughtful (or)multidimensional and a bit narrow in this regard. Do I know that the rightnumber is there? No. Do I think it is? Yes. Is there anyone who is smartenough to prove it is or isn’t? No.

Rumsfeld not only used the phrase ‘war on the terror’; he repeatedly criticized anyone who questioned the validity of it.

– “[T]here has been comment in the press of late about whether or not we’re even engaged in a war on terror, or whether our purpose might be better explained in a different manner. Let there be no mistake, we are a nation at war, against terrorist enemies who are seeking our surrender or our retreat. It is a war.” [8/2/05]

– “I would like to say that Iraq is really one of the battle grounds in the global war on terror.” [4/24/06]

– “Iraq is the central front of the global war on terror.” [12/16/05]

– Q: My argument is that we are fighting the war on terror in Iraq. Back me up a little bit on that, Mr. Secretary.

RUMSFELD: Well, you’re absolutely right. [8/3/04]

– “[Iraq is] part of the global war on terror; let there be no doubt.” [9/10/03]

– Q: Do you feel that the Administration by turning its attention onto Iraq would be leaving the job undone a bit too soon?
RUMSFELD: Oh, no. Indeed that’s part of the global war on terrorism, Iraq. [12/4/02]

Rumsfeld’s outgoing memo on Iraq – which calls for a “major adjustment” in strategy – makes no mention of the one thing he would have “done differently” on Iraq.


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