Rumsfeld's cautious optimism

Posted: Aug 10, 2005 12:00 AM

There are at least two presumptions some people make about the peace effort in Iraq (yes, I'm being semantically clever to make a point). One presumption is the falsehood that the United States can say "never mind," stop its effort to help bring freedom and self-determination to Iraq and, like magic, those who now hate and wish to destroy us will also say "never mind" and go back to killing each other instead of us.

The other false presumption is that those who tell opinion pollsters they now oppose the war and think it makes America more vulnerable to terrorist attacks know what they are talking about. Their conclusions have been reached largely through television, which doesn't always present a complete picture. Besides, how can a nation fixated on runaway brides, missing blondes and materialism be taken seriously when it comes to global matters of defeating terrorists and liberating nations?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sees a gap between opinion polls and what he has observed from recent visits to Iraq. During an interview at the Pentagon on Tuesday, I asked Rumsfeld about the latest USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll that shows that 56 percent say the war is going badly, while 57 percent say the war has made America more vulnerable to terrorism.

He said the soldiers in Iraq "see the progress they are making and they are absolutely dumbfounded by what they see and the impression that's left by America's media here in the United States." Rumsfeld also said the Pentagon keeps track of what the Iraqi people think and they are "increasingly optimistic about the future of their country and increasingly negative about the insurgency."

Does this sound like Vietnam when political and military leaders talked about "turning the corner" and "light at the end of the tunnel"?

"You haven't heard words like that from me," Rumsfeld answers. "What I see is a situation on the ground that is clearly a difficult one, let there be no doubt." He forecasts increasing violence between now and when a constitution is drafted later this month and scheduled elections in December.

Rumsfeld is deliberately vague in response to a question about Iran's decision to resume its nuclear program. Iran claims it only wants to produce energy from nuclear power, but the U.S. believes it will manufacture nuclear weapons.

At what moment, I asked, does this become a point of no return as it was for the Israelis who bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981? "I don't know," he says, leaving himself the widest possible latitude for diplomatic or military responses.

About insurgents coming into Iraq from Iran, he is more direct. In a Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld said continuing to allow the insurgents into Iraq from Iran would ultimately be a problem for Iran. Was that a threat?

"No, I wouldn't use the word 'threat.' I'm from Chicago. If you're going to cock it, you'd better throw it." Rumsfeld explained he thinks that Iraq and neighboring countries "except for Syria" are not going to like Iran's efforts to destabilize Iraq. "To have an unstable situation in Iraq is a dangerous thing for the Gulf states and for Jordan, Saudi Arabia (and) Turkey. I think you have to live with the effects of your acts."

Rumsfeld said recent media reports about alleged abuse of detainees are not new. Rather, he says, they are stories about past incidents that are coming out in pre-trial hearings, or at proceedings where people have already been convicted of past abuse. He also noted that al-Qaida operatives have been trained to say they have been tortured.

Asked whether useful information has been extracted from detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Rumsfeld said, "There is no question that information provided by detainees in Guantanamo has saved American lives and saved the lives of people in other countries. It is aiding our body of knowledge about the global war on terror and it has been and will be useful."

So, are we making progress? Are we safer? Rumsfeld says, "There is no way it's possible for any country to defend (itself) every minute of the day or night in every location against every conceivable technique or attack by a terrorist. It's just too easy to strap on a vest and blow people up if you're willing to kill yourself." But, he says, the pressure that's on terrorists makes it "harder for them to move, communicate, raise money and recruit and maintain people."

If one accepts that terrorism will not end anytime soon, Rumsfeld's summation of progress is cause for some optimism and not the pessimism reflected in recent polls.