Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a rare public speech, warned that American military and financial weakness is creating a more dangerous and unstable world.
Rumsfeld also said the U.S. government, both Congress and the executive branch, is dysfunctional and ill-suited for the information age. He called for creating a blue-ribbon commission to modernize the administrative functions of government agencies and institutions in both branches.
The former defense secretary during the George W. Bush administration said he was asked recently what keeps him awake at night.
“What I worry about most today is American weakness,” Rumsfeld told a conference of congressional staff members and former government officials hosted by the Defense Forum Foundation on Capitol Hill.
“The signal of weakness is a dangerous one,” he said.
Rumsfeld said that throughout his 80-year life, “the world has been a safer place because of the United States of America.”
Rumsfeld said American weakness can provoke potential adversaries into conflict and urged keeping the United States strong both financially and militarily, while maintaining robust diplomatic and intelligence capabilities.
Foreign perceptions of the United States as strong and engaged in world affairs and available to help its allies have a significant deterrent effect on would-be aggressors, he said.
“I look at the United States today and I think anyone has to worry,” Rumsfeld said.
After a recent visit to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Rumsfeld said he met numerous leaders from the region who expressed concerns about growing fears of U.S. weakness.
Also, he said an Asian statesman he did not name told him the United States is making a mistake in adopting Europe’s economic model, which the foreign leader said was “a failed model, a model that isn’t working very well.”
“And to the extent the world looks at the United States and sees that we are not managing our economy in a way that suggests that we’ll be able to continue to participate in the world in a constructive way, that is a signal of weakness,” Rumsfeld said.
A major target of the former defense chief: plans by the Obama administration to cut $487 billion from the Pentagon over 10 years. The potential for an additional $600 billion in cuts looming through the congressional process called sequestration is also worrying America’s friends and allies, he said.
“People read that and they think, ‘Well, which way is America going? Where is it going? What’s it going to be like? What’s the effect of that in the world?’”
“And I would submit that that is what worries me when I go to bed tonight, the idea of an America that is not seen as strong, and a presence, and a deterrent, a dissuader to countries from behaving in manners that are harmful to others.”
The planned defense cuts, he noted, likely will send the wrong signal to China as well.
“It’s important for the United States of America to recognize that cutting our defense capabilities by half a trillion dollars in the first tranche, and prospectively another half a trillion dollars, is a signal that is not a good signal for the world and is not responsible behavior by the United States,” he said.
Rumsfeld said the United States needs to build up its forces to avoid having to fight a future conflict.
“The goal is not to fight a war,” he said. “The goal is not to win a war because you don’t want to fight one in the first place. The goal is to do what [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower said is, it’s peace through strength. It’s to have those capabilities that create the kind of deterrent and defense and dissuading effect in the world that enable us to make a contribution to peace and stability.”
China is free to build up its military, “but we can’t ignore it,” he said. “We have to recognize not that they are an enemy, but you can be darn sure that they don’t get up every morning and ask what they can do to make life better for the United States. You can be absolutely certain of that. And we have to recognize that. It’s our job to look out for our interests, and it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for us to do.”
Rumsfeld, a former congressman who held senior executive branch posts including two stints as defense secretary in the 1970s and 2000s, and also led a successful business career, said the U.S. government “isn’t working very well,” because bureaucracies and other world institutions such as the United Nations and development banks were set up in the 1940s during the industrial age.
“The world’s changed. We’re now in the information age, and those institutions really don’t serve us very well,” he said.
Rumsfeld said the government should create a panel similar to the 1947 commission set up by President Harry S. Truman and headed by former President Herbert Hoover to recommend administrative changes to government.
“It strikes me that if our country is going to be able to function effectively in the information age, it is time for another Hoover commission,” Rumsfeld said.
Both the Congress and the executive branch are “going to have to make adjustments” to the current environment to function well, he said.
Asked during a question session about how defense cuts could impact the military’s ability to counter China’s new high-technology arms, Rumsfeld said current defense cuts mirror similar mistakes made after past conflicts.
During the Bush administration, he said, it took a long time to build unmanned aerial vehicles and to bolster special operations forces. But, once in place, those capabilities produced what he termed “the finest military forces on the face of the earth.”
In response to critics who say the United States survived past defense drawdowns, Rumsfeld said: “First, it is enormously inefficient to do that, and second, it takes a whale of a long time to develop” lost military and intelligence capabilities.
“It is a terrible mistake” to make such cuts, he said.
Current threats include new dangers posed by increasingly lethal weapons, such as nuclear and biological arms in the hands of rogues states and terrorists, to new cyber attack capabilities that threaten U.S. electrical grids.
Rumsfeld criticized the Obama administration’s conciliatory policies toward Moscow.
“Clearly the reset button didn’t work. Or else we hit the wrong button,” Rumsfeld said, adding that the relationship with Russia is difficult.
“If you look around at who are its close friends, it’s [Fidel] Castro, [Hugo] Chavez, [Bashar] Assad, the Iranians,” he said. “And they’ve now invaded Georgia. They have their military forces in a base within a matter of 20, 30 miles from Tbilisi. It’s a mixed relationship. I wouldn’t use the word enemy, and I wouldn’t use the world ally. It is what it is.”
On Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement that the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was a “catastrophe” for Russia, Rumsfeld said: “It wasn’t the biggest catastrophe. It was a wonderful thing, when you think of the people that were freed and the economies that are moving from command economies to freer economies throughout Central Asia and the Eastern Bloc and the Warsaw Pact countries.”
Rumsfeld also said Putin is moving Russia “in a direction that certainly could not be considered an ally of the United States” and that its anti-democratic direction should be checked.
On Pakistan, Rumsfeld said the United States mishandled its relationship with Islamabad in the mid-2000s by wrongly pressuring then-President Pervez Musharraf, such as insisting that he not go to work in his military uniform.
The pressure produced a weak successor government and increased the risk that the nuclear-armed south Asia power could become a failed state.
Pakistan under Musharraf “stepped up, courageously in my view,” to help the United States after 9/11 by arresting terrorists, he said.
Rumsfeld also expressed concerns about Turkey’s government, which in recent months has arrested numerous military officers as the Islamist-oriented government in Ankara sought to limit military influence.
“Turkey has arrested and thrown in jail a lot of military personnel,” Rumsfeld said. “A lot of them have very strong NATO relations. That puts up a caution flag.”