Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is visiting Joint Base Lewis-McChord Friday to meet with service members and promote his memoir, Known and Unknown.
It’s Rumsfeld’s first trip to the base south of Tacoma since 2002, when he checked out burgeoning Stryker brigades as they readied for the first combat missions overseas. At the time, the eight-wheeled machines that are now Lewis-McChord’s signature fighting vehicles faced an uncertain future as a still-new weapon.
This time, Rumsfeld says he’s looking forward to seeing soldiers and airmen he met on past travels.
“One of the real enjoyable aspects of writing a book and then going to various places is that people come up who I’d met in Iraq or Afghanistan or around the world, and it gives me a chance to thank them again for their service for the country, and help them understand how much they’re appreciated.”
He’ll be at the Air Force post exchange from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and at the Army post exchange from 4 to 6 p.m. Anyone who can get on base can attend, but Rumsfeld is not planning a book event outside of the military installation.
Rumsfeld, 79, now spends his days in Montana and occasionally weighs in on conservative causes. He’s heading out Friday from Seattle on a cruise sponsored by the American Conservative Union.
His 813-page memoir traces his four decades of work in government ending with his take on the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq and its handling of the insurgency that cost thousands of American lives.
He spoke with The News Tribune this week about the book and the challenges the Defense Department faces today:
Q: When you were last here, you were portrayed as an opponent of the Stryker brigade concept. What are your thoughts on the vehicle today, and how did it perform while you were secretary of defense?
A: “While I was there they did an excellent job. I’ve of course been out for four and half years. I don’t recall saying anything to anyone that would lead them to believe what you said. They were new and untested.”
Q: We recently covered the opening of a new, $50 million warrior transition unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Could you have better prepared for the medical and psychological wounds from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars earlier in the Bush administration?
A: “Of course things always evolve and change they certainly were prepared in many respects. They were organized, trained and equipped. If you think of the amazing medical assistance that troops are getting today, an enormous number of the people today are recovering from wounds who would not have lived in earlier conflicts.
“That change occurred because of the speed and skill with we which can get people off the battlefield, and it has changed the nature of what’s required afterwards. You have a great many more people wounded than you would have; you have people with wounds who would not have survived in earlier conflicts.”
Q: In your book, you repeatedly stress that the appearance of weakness can invite attacks. Is our military showing weakness today as it fights these long wars?
A: “We had documentation to support what I said. We saw the comments by Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders after the non-response after the attacks on the US embassies, on the USS Cole, the pullback from Lebanon. They commented on it. What I said was just a fact. Weakness does invite aggression; it encourages people to do things they never would have thought of doing.
“Where are we today? We’re clearly not demonstrating weakness in Afghanistan or Iraq. The policy in Libya, the ambivalence prolonged what was going on there for weeks and week. If the president had said ‘When this is done, Ghadafi will not be there, people would have defected to the rebels.’
“He didn’t, he said that wasn’t our policy.”
Q: You fought for defense spending increases after Vietnam and when you took office with President Bush. There’s a sharp cry for defense cuts today and it’s seemingly more urgent than in past budgets. Where would you start if you had to trim Pentagon spending today?
A: “First of all, we cut back after World War I and we ended up in World War II. We cut back after World War II and we ended up in Korea.
“We have this feast or famine where they swing the wheel one way or they swing the wheel another way. It’s not efficient. After the Cold War, the U.S. cut back on our intelligence commitments and our defense spending. We ended up with 9/11
“An outside observer could say, ‘Well, listen we survived so, maybe that was not the most efficient way to do it but it didn’t kill us.’ And that’s true
“On the other hand the lethality of weapons today are so vastly greater than they were in earlier eras, that we don’t have the margin for error that we used to have. The leadership doesn’t have it.
“The second fact of the Department of Defense is there’s no big government bureaucracy that doesn’t have waste there. A lot of the problems are from Congress. The Congress stuffs about $10 billion down the Defense Department’s throat that we didn’t want and had nothing to do with national security. There are things to be saved.
“There are certainly things that can be done. However the people saying we could solve the budget on the backs of the Pentagon just don’t understand the growth in government has been in domestic spending. When I was in Washington during the Johnson administration, defense spending was 10 percent of gross domestic product. Today’s it’s 4 percent.
“The deficit, which is crushing the American people has come not from the defense budget, it has come absolutely and with out question from entitlement and domestic spending.”
Q: In your book, you’re very critical of the Johnson administration for misleading the American people about the costs of the Vietnam War. What do you say to Americans who level the same criticism at you and the Bush administration for misjudging Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and underestimating the Iraqi insurgency?
A: “On repeated occasions, I said that anyone who thinks they can tell you how long a war is going to last, how much it’s going to cost, how many lives are going to be lost – simply can’t do it. It isn’t possible.
“The enemy has a brain, all plans go out the window with first contact with the enemy and it simply is beyond the ability to make those judgments and estimates. I said that repeatedly when I was in the Pentagon and you just simply have to know that.
“As a young congressman I listened to prognostications coming out of the Johnson administration that proved wrong, and I think people in the Bush administration avoided that language after major combat operations had ended.
Q: For example in your book you pointed to the banner behind President Bush in his “Mission Accomplished” speech?
A: “The banner, the president didn’t have anything about the banner. His speech language was rather careful. He talked about the end of major combat. But the banner said ‘Mission Accomplished’ – over, done.”