As I see it: The West’s lethally unknown knowns

In Washington recently I met Donald Rumsfeld, America’s former defense secretary.

Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Washington recently I met Donald Rumsfeld, America’s former defense secretary. Rumsfeld became almost as famous for his musings about “known unknowns” as he was controversial over his role in the Iraq war.
He is also widely respected for his intellect and his incisive, take-no-prisoners approach to foreign and defense issues. So I wanted to know what he made of a world which has now become infinitely more complex, chaotic and dangerous.
Although measured and diplomatic, he sounded a clear warning. A dangerous world was becoming even more threatening because of a profound failure by the West to grasp the nature of that danger.
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The threat from the Islamic world, he said, could not be addressed solely by military or counterterrorist measures.
“You begin to look at this thing not like a war but more like the Cold War, something that’s not going to take two, three, four years but decades. And you have to recognize you’re not going to win this with bullets, you’re in a competition of ideas. You’re going to have to squeeze down bank accounts, to find out who’s teaching whom what, to find ways to promote and encourage moderates. But we’re not beginning even to identify what the problem is.”
In particular, he said, the West didn’t seem to grasp that in the Muslim world the nation state was disintegrating.
“The movement for a caliphate, the movement against nation states is central and fundamental. And no one’s talking about it. Is the nation state perfect? No.
Has it worked pretty well? Yes. Once that’s gone, you’ve got massive disorder.”
This was being fueled by Islamist groups whose actions were dictated by religious faith. “So normal deterrents don’t work when you are dealing with that kind of outer-direction. They’re still in a minority but they are convinced, they’re determined and they’re not going to go away.
And the lethality of weapons today is growing, the technologies the Western world has advanced are available off the shelf to everybody.”
The subsequent rise in global terrorism, he said, was having a profound effect across the world. The intimidation was working.
Western leaders were displaying lack of courage by refusing to identify the enemy and the nature of the threat.
Last February, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivered a speech at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the intellectual hub of Sunni Islam, in which he called for a religious revolution to curb Islamic extremism. The West demonstrated its own problem by its reaction to his speech.
“It was brilliant, it was tough, it was right, and what did we do? Said we should probably limit our military aid to Egypt because he’s a dictator.
“Imagine! Imagine! He’s a guy with enormous courage, in THE most important Arab country. To the most important audience of educators and imams, he gets up and hits it right on the button. And then it’s not trumpeted or promoted or repeated or discussed. It’s gone into the ether. And that’s just a shame.”
Global institutions, said Rumsfeld, were not equipped to deal with these problems.
Most of the things facing NATO today – the proliferation of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, terrorism, human slavery – were very different from when it was founded.
As for the UN, the mere mention of its name elicited a withering blast of Rumsfeld sarcasm.
“Once every two or three years the UN screws up its courage and passes a resolution against Israel. It gives people veto powers that dumb it down to the lowest common denominator.
“Anyone who looks at the UN has to say: Good try! But is it likely to be deft or facile or in sufficient common agreement about a problem that it would be able to function on behalf of the world community?” It would be better, he suggested, to have “multiple coalitions” of the relatively small number of “right-thinking” countries such as the US, West European nations, Israel and some Asian states.
In Russia, President Putin was getting away with pursuing his aim to recreate the old Soviet Union because the West was allowing him to do so.
The negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, he said, were being driven by the goal of achieving a deal rather than working out whether there were sufficient common interests to make a deal worth having.
Central to this was President Obama’s abandonment of America’s historic role in promoting and defending free societies.
The vacuum was now being filled by aggressors such as Putin’s Russia or the Iranian regime.
In under two years, however, President Obama will be gone from the White House. But would he have fundamentally changed America? “Fundamentally, no. Unquestionably changed it, though, oh my goodness yes.
You can’t have eight years of US government and sprinkle people throughout who are like-thinking and not have it cause you a considerable period of time thereafter to redirect, reeducate that government.
“What the US did historically had an effect on the rest of the world. So to the extent that the US ducks a problem, this tells other countries that when you have a problem you have at least to ask yourself isn’t it likely that the US will duck your problem? So the US has trained the world to be skeptical about it as an ally.
“That’s equally true of its enemies. The education process which lowers expectations of the US tells them it’s free play for them to act against the values of America.”
Of course, I wanted to ask Rumsfeld about Iraq. Would he have done anything differently? “I’m not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment of their histories. The idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq, it seemed to me, is unrealistic to a certain extent, and the president and the administration would have been better off not allowing the mission to creep in that direction. I was concerned about it when I first heard the beginnings of those words.”
Had the West made a mistake in levering out Gaddafi from Libya, which was now vastly more dangerous as a result? “Gaddafi looked at Saddam Hussein when he was pulled out of that spider pit and said, that is not going to happen to me. And so Gaddafi said, I’ve got a nuclear program, I’m going to give it up, take it away. That was a big deal and a good thing for the region and the world and a wonderful signal; taking out Saddam Hussein had a very positive effect there. And then it was not well handled. I don’t know what the world would look like if they hadn’t done that [getting rid of Gaddafi] but it certainly doesn’t look very nice having done it.”
He worried, he said, about the global abdication of leadership. “I worry about the risks we take when we seem to tolerate certain behavior patterns. It isn’t okay if you acquiesce and accept something that is that hostile to what has produced order in the world. Leadership is hard stuff, it’s risky, it can turn out wrong.”
Without it, though, the bad guys will always win. And that’s a known known.
Melanie Phillips is a columnist for The Times (UK).