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Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2003 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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The real Rumsfeld 10 minutes with author Midge Decter | Midge Decter has known — and liked — Donald Rumsfeld, the straight-shooting U.S. defense secretary who has led America's military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, for almost 20 years.

For "Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait," her authorized biography, she was given unprecedented, as-it-happened access to the Bush administration's energetic, often controversial war spokesman — and only Cabinet member to make People's magazine's "Sexiest Men Alive" list. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR. )

Decter is an influential conservative author and lecturer who has written for or worked at Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly and nearly every major political think magazine. She is married to Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary magazine, and is on the board of directors of The Heritage Foundation. I talked to her this week by telephone from New York City:

Q: Is there any difference between the Donald Rumsfeld you know and the one we see on TV at those press conferences?

A: There's very little difference. The Donald Rumsfeld I know is someone I could not get to gossip. He handled gossip-leading questions just the way he handles questions he doesn't want to answer in those press conferences.

Q: What is your take on the leaked memo?

A: It sounds exactly like him. I'm sure that in the files of the Pentagon there are many memos that sound just like that. What that memo was saying is, the war on terror is a long and difficult one and it's not like fighting a military war and I want you to give it some thought. That's really what he was saying. What they were making a fuss about, I don't know — except for his enemies who were out to make trouble for him.

Q: Do you think, as some reports I read said, that the memo is proof that he is becoming "a more moderate defense leader"?

A: (Laughs). Well, he came to the Pentagon with a request from the president — in addition to his own view of the matter — that he reform the military and help to reshape it so it would be more attuned to the 21st century and high technology. And so there would be less division among the various fighting groups and so on.

Q: How much does what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq represent Rumsfeld's views?

A: It represents his views very much. ... The military war in Iraq was certainly a war — although Rumsfeld himself would deny having planned it — in a style that he approved of and that he had looked forward to.

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Q: Was he surprised by the problems that have come in Iraq — the resistance, not being able to find undeniable evidence of weapons of mass destruction?

A: It didn't surprise him as much as it seemed to have surprised the press — or the people who were looking to be surprised by it. It's actually not been a very long time. Everybody got spoiled by the fact that this was a three-week military engagement.

Q: What are Rumsfeld's greatest personal strengths?

A: Well, he's extremely intelligent, it will not surprise you to hear. He's very clear-headed. He knows what he knows. He knows what he doesn't know. And so there is a very strong assurance in him, along with modesty, which is a very interesting combination, and a powerful one.

Q: What are his weaknesses?

A: Well, not everybody would agree that this is a weakness, but I found it one. He's very, very regimental, which means that he's, um, let me see how to put this: He is entirely wedded to the formalities when they don't necessarily apply, by which I mean, if you ask him a question about the war, he will say, "The commander in chief is the president of the United States."

If you ask him about the State Department, he will say, "The State Department has its responsibilities, the Department of Defense has its responsibilities."

Q: Would you like him as much as you do if he were an isolationist, a real strong Cato Institute noninterventionist?

A: (Laughs.) That's an unfair question! Of course I wouldn't, because one of the elements in feeling friendly toward somebody is sharing attitudes in common. I know people at the Cato Institute whom I like. I don't know any members of the erstwhile American Communist Party whom I like.

But you're asking a different question, because he and I met because we were engaged in a common cause. I was running something called the Committee for the Free World in the 1980s. It was a committee of academics, intellectuals and scientists — the same the kinds of people who then were making anti-American declarations. We got ourselves together and said, "We're also academics, intellectuals, literary people and so on, and we call the United States 'The Free World' and we are for it."

It was basically a mailing list, this group, and I ran it. I asked Rumsfeld, whom I knew of but didn't know at that point, if he would be our honorary chairman. So we met by being engaged in a common purpose, which as I'd say, makes a very strong bond.

Q: Did he ever talk about having met Saddam Hussein in 1983-84?

A: No, I didn't get the chance to ask him about that, actually. Because while I was researching the book, the war in Iraq came along and he got rather busy. A good deal of my research was done by reading. I read his files.

Q: Did Rumsfeld himself really think through and plan well for the military occupation?

A: No. I don't think he or anybody else in the government or anybody else in the country that I saw, had done that.

Partly, I think they were mislead by Iraqis in the United States who were giving them the low-down and misled them; partly by a failure of imagination and having failed to take into account how bitter and angry and distrustful the Shiites were toward us. We knew the Kurds were OK, and they turned out to be. But we really misjudged the Shiites.

Q: Is he someone who is likely to say, "Boy, we blew this. We really messed up"? Is he capable of seeing his own mistakes, in other words?

A: He is capable of seeing his own mistakes, and he is capable of seeing other people's mistakes. But he is not yet prepared to say that it is that badly blown, either. Though it is a bit of a mess, it still is only six months.

Things are very much better. The country had been brutalized. I not only mean the people. I mean the electricity, the food, the health care and everything had been brutalized by the Baathist Party.

Of course every American serviceman who is killed is a knife through our hearts. And on the other hand, as he himself has said many times, in the city of Chicago and plenty of other cities, that many people are killed in a week or a night.

Look how many men we lost in Vietnam, yet people liken this to Vietnam. It's crazy. It was a brilliant war. And according to reports of people who have been there recently, things are a whole lot better in Iraq.

Now the war is a war on terror, and it's one that nice people like Americans are not good at fighting. You have to be pretty nasty to be really skillful at fighting a war on terrorism.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald