TheDC Interview: Donald Rumsfeld — secret critic of the neoconservatives?

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was thought to be many things during the Bush administration: stubborn visionary of Pentagon reform, sender of “snowflake” memos and, by his left-wing critics, evil war monger.

But secret critic of the neoconservatives? That is a shock.

Rumsfeld reveals in his meticulously documented book, “Known and Unknown,” that while he vigorously supported the invasion of Iraq, he departed from the Bush administration’s vision of a liberal, democratic government to replace Saddam Hussein.

Recalling how he took issue with President Bush’s remarks on the subject – Bush had vowed Iraq would “transition from dictatorship to democracy” – Rumsfeld outlines what his concerns were then.

“A nation that had suffered under decades of dictatorial rule was unlikely to quickly reorganize itself into a stable, modern, democratic state. Deep sectarian and ethnic divisions, concealed by a culture of repression and forced submission to Saddam, lurked just below the surface of Iraqi society,” he writes.

Nearly eight years after invading Iraq, with all the struggles the U.S. has faced in transferring power to Iraqis, circumstances have quieted the gleaming visions of a liberal Middle East once frequently promised.

“If there is a single principle that today divides neoconservatism from traditional American conservatism, it is the conviction that the promotion of liberal democracy abroad is both a moral imperative and a profound national interest,” wrote Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan in the Weekly Standard in December 2003, hailing Bush as “the most visionary and, yes, the wisest and most capable foreign policy maker” in the administration for siding with that view.

Rumsfeld said that as the invasion began in the wake of 9/11, the post-war mission for Iraq was modest.

“It was fairly clear that the task … have the country develop a government that would not have weapons of mass destruction, that would not attack its neighbors, and would be respectful of the various diverse elements within their country. In other words, rather limited goals are the goals that we set,” he told The Daily Caller at his downtown office Thursday.

Then, “at some point, the discussion turned more towards democracy.”

Rumsfeld’s book offers almost no information on how this crucially important change happened, other than to note then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice often spoke the language of the neoconservatives.

“Rice seemed to be the one top adviser who spoke that way, but it was not clear to me whether she was encouraging the president to use rhetoric about democracy or whether it was originating with the president,” Rumsfeld writes.

Curious at how such a vitally important precept our nation’s foreign policy could mysteriously morph without the secretary of defense knowing how, I pressed Rumsfeld in the interview.

“How did you lose this battle within the administration?” I asked.

“It was not an issue that really had a full hearing,” Rumsfeld said.

“It never was ultimately rejected, it wasn’t followed. It never, in my view, came up crystal clear, where the inter-agency process addressed it, elevated it, considered the pros and cons and achieved a presidential decision as such,” Rumsfeld said.

Even weeks after the initial invasion, the Defense and State Departments remained deeply divided on post-war plans. Out of the uncertainty rose a vision of a liberal Democratic Iraq, but from where? From nowhere?

The issue is important in shaping what we know about the Iraq War.

But as the Obama administration cheers protesters in Egypt, there are lessons applicable today. Is it prudent, is it in the U.S. interest, to hope for instability in Egypt? To think the result might be a functioning democracy and not a theocratic state governed by the Muslim Brotherhood?

Rumsfeld declined to go into detail on the subject, noting that he can’t know the secret diplomacy the Obama administration is conducting behind the scenes – “That is what’s important,” he said.

But here are his fuller thoughts on democracy in Iraq at the beginning of a long war there:

From his book:

“I hoped Iraq would turn toward some form of representative government, but I thought we needed to be clear-eyed about democracy’s prospects in the country. Even the United States, though it had been the heir of hundreds of years of British democratic political development, did not evolve smoothly or quickly into the liberal democracy that we benefit from today. Millions of African Americans were considered property for more than 75 years after independence from England. Women couldn’t vote until nearly 150 years after independence from England,” Rumsfeld writes.

“Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, ‘The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.’ A millennia-old culture dating to the very beginnings of civilization would have to work its way toward adopting practices we considered democratic gradually. The art of compromise, which is central to a successful democracy, is not something that people learn overnight. If we hurried to create Iraqi democracy through quick elections, before key institutions – a free press, private property rights, political parties and independent judiciary — began to develop organically, we ‘could end up with a permanent mistake — one vote, one time — and another Iran-like theocracy,’ as I wrote in a May 2003 memo,” Rumsfeld writes.