I got away from CPAC for a little while this afternoon to have lunch with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  The surprisingly soft-spoken former Pentagon chief spoke on and off the record on politics, war, domestic politics, and more with a dozen members of the New Media in town for the convention.   The lunch was part of his promotion for his memoir, Known and Unknown.

Rumsfeld agreed that the democratization argument was not the main rationale behind the Iraq War, as Douglas Feith wrote.  On troop levels, Philip Klein asked Rumsfeld to walk us through his thinking on them.  Rumsfeld told us about how the war plan was a collaborative effort at the Pentagon on a complex plan, with “off ramps” to keep additional troops out if not needed.  Tommy Franks decided that additional troops weren’t necessary, which is why they didn’t get used earlier in the war.  By 2006, the US had a “relatively large” Iraqi security force for additional support.  Also in 2006, the Anbar Awakening began to gain momentum, while the Iraqi government began maturing and Moqtada al-Sadr decided to fade from the scene.

“The surge was the right thing to do at the right time,” Rumsfeld said, giving Bush “a whale of a lot of credit” for pulling the trigger on it.  “He galvanized opinion in Iraq” as well as in the US, Rumsfeld says, which was important to bolster the new Iraqi government and the connections between the US and Iraqi forces.  The intelligence hadn’t indicated that a broad-based insurgency would take place, and by 2006 it became clear that the US needed to recast its strategy.

On McCain, Rumsfeld said, “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  McCain “got it into his mind” that troop levels had been the problem the entire time, and never let it go.

Rumsfeld wrote in his book that in retrospect, he should have left the Bush administration after Abu Ghraib to keep from being a lightning rod for antiwar sentiment.  “I believe in accountability,” Rumsfeld said, but declined to criticize his former boss for refusing his two resignations.  The Army had announced the “perverted” behavior weeks before it became a media storm, but says that those responsible were already being prosecuted and disciplined.  When asked whether he would have accepted the resignation if Rumsfeld had been President, he first said “yes,” and then said, “How would I know?  I wasn’t President … I wasn’t in his shoes.”

Rumsfeld says “I would stack Guantanamo Bay against any facility in the world — it is one of the best prisons anywhere.”  He expressed his astonishment over the “mythology” that has erupted in the US over Gitmo.  No one was waterboarded at Gitmo, Rumsfeld pointed out, nor by the military at all — and only three people were ever waterboarded by the CIA, none at Gitmo.  Both Obama and McCain ran against Gitmo and indefinite detention, but both are still around — and that’s no accident.  Gitmo fills a specific need better than anything else proposed.

There are “significant differences” in how we’re approaching Egypt, but that we may be making the same mistake of raising expectations to unrealistic levels as we have made in the past.  “People expect that we can create a modern, liberal democracy in Afghanistan,” Rumsfeld explains, but that ignores the realities of a landlocked country with a history and culture of its own.  “A liberated people have been given a chance” to install a representative government that fits with their own culture, but we have a limited ability to impose any lasting outcomes otherwise.

What does the military look like in 20-25 years?  “The Iron Triangle — the permanent bureaucracy in this town” — make change difficult, Rumsfeld says.  “Today we have massively increased our special forces,” and that doesn’t make the Army especially happy.  The change Rumsfeld pushed to make to transform the ground-forces military into smaller, lighter, more rapid forces had made the US “modular,” as their support now is embedded at the brigade level rather than divisional level.  We could not fight the war we have now if that change had not been made.

“Weakness is provocative,” Rumsfeld told us, and attempting to cut defense to address the deficit is a fool’s errand.  First, the mathematics show it’s not the Pentagon that’s driving the deficits, it’s entitlements.  Secondly, cuts today mean regrets tomorrow — and spending to catch up, as the US was forced to do in the 1980s and in the early 2000s.

I asked Rumseld whether we had reversed the lesson we taught the world in the 1980s and 1990s that America would not effectively fight terrorism with the years-long efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Rumsfeld thought about that and said, “Time will tell,” but that he thinks it has been a “wake-up call” to the Arab world.  Non-state actors want to damage the nation-state concept, helped in no small part by the efforts to miseducate Arab citizens on the nature of the West.  The lessons of earlier times have been reversed, but are the new lessons durable?  Given the current administration’s reluctance on pursuing those wars, Rumsfeld didn’t sound optimistic.

Personally, I enjoyed the interaction with Rumsfeld, who was open and friendly with the group.  He seemed to enjoy it as much as we did, and the 90 minutes spent with him may wind up being some of the best-spent time at CPAC.