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Interview: David Brooks Discusses Donald Rumsfeld's No-Nonsense and, to Some, Offensive Way of Talking

All Things Considered: March 12, 2003

Analyzing Rumsfeld's Statements


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is known as a man who does not mince his words. His penchant for tough talk has won him praise and respect throughout his career, but in recent months, some of the United States' staunchest allies have come to consider his blunt style as off-putting, even offensive. In January, he chastised France and Germany for not backing a war on Iraq. In those now-infamous words, he dismissed the two countries as `Old Europe.'

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's Old Europe.

NORRIS: To further complicate matters with NATO allies, Rumsfeld delivered another jab when he appeared before lawmakers in early February. He said that as far as he knew, a number of countries were willing to back the US-led war against Iraq by sending troops, but...

Sec. RUMSFELD: Then there are three or four countries that have said they won't do anything. I believe Libya, Cuba and Germany are ones that have indicated they won't help in any respect.

NORRIS: Lumping Germany in with Libya and Cuba did not go down well in diplomatic corridors in Berlin. And then there was yesterday, when Rumsfeld was asked if the US was willing to go to war without Great Britain.

Sec. RUMSFELD: To the extent they are able to participate in the event that the president decides to use force, that would obviously be welcomed. To the extent they're not, there are work-arounds and they would not be involved, at least in that phase of it.

NORRIS: Joining us now is David Brooks of The Weekly Standard. David, the administration is trying to cobble together a coalition of the willing. Does the secretary, with his blunt speaking style, complicate these matters? I mean, it's never a good idea to alienate your allies.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The Weekly Standard): Yeah. Obviously, it does, but he comes as a package. He's one of those people who says what's on his mind. We all have friends like that, and sometimes you want to kick those people in the teeth. But on balance, I think we need those people, and I think the president realizes he needs those people, especially in times of war. In times of peace, a Donald Rumsfeld can be a real problem, but in times of war, I think the president thinks you want a straight talker, someone who will not varnish things, who will not spin things. So Rumsfeld's a package--you take the good with the bad.

NORRIS: So from a diplomatic standpoint, is he also a secret weapon? He can say those things that the administration or others in the administration cannot say?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, he vents. He vents some of the frustration at Germany, for example, the administration feels. I don't know that he's a secret weapon. The Europeans have been very clear, `Send us Colin Powell. Do not send us Donald Rumsfeld.' So Rumsfeld is a problem. He's a diplomatic problem, but he is someone who sort of has absorbed the ethos that Bush tries to project, which is that he's Gary Cooper, the straight-talking, simple-talking man, and that sometimes causes problems.

I recall the first State of the Union address after September 11th. George Bush said--he pointed to Tony Blair, who was sitting in the balcony during that State of the Union. He said, `Britain is our truest friend in Europe.' Well, I would have loved to have been in our embassies in Berlin and Paris at that moment. I can tell you our diplomats were spitting up their Courvoisiers because it's a very undiplomatic thing to say. Bush said it because he thought it was true, and actually I think it is true, as most of the things Rumsfeld has said is true. But it certainly doesn't help make life easier if you're trying to make friends.

NORRIS: But when you look at the headlines in the foreign papers, particularly in Britain, they were mostly to the effect Rumsfeld Strikes Again. But when you actually listen to the statement, he's not specifically saying that the US is heading off to battle with or without Britain. He's rather acknowledging that they're in a rather tough space. So at this point, is his sharp-tongue reputation so strong that Europe reacts with alarm to almost anything he says?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. I hope he doesn't have a country home over there because he is unpopular in Europe, and what he said was true. We do have to have what he called work-arounds in case Britain doesn't fight, as I think his comment about Old Europe was true, that the Franco-German axis is no longer the center of Europe. The things Rumsfeld has to understand, and I think the whole administration and the whole country has to understand, is that people see us as the big hegemon, the big superpower, and we have to be aware that every 1/10th arrogant thing we say sounds to a lot of people like a hundred arrogant points, and that is something the administration just has to learn.

NORRIS: But he does do real damage. I mean, the US has one strong ally here, and he's given them an excuse to back away from the table.

Mr. BROOKS: He's made Tony Blair's life difficult, and he's made the administration's life difficult today. I know a lot of people who admire Donald Rumsfeld. Today, everyone I know is exasperated with him because what he said was, while true, extremely unhelpful. But as I say, you know, you either are going to have somebody who tells you what's on his mind, which has a virtue, or you have one of these modality people who only recite the DVD tract that they think you want to hear. And you take the good with the bad, the good days with the bad days. Yesterday was one of Donald Rumsfeld's bad days.

NORRIS: Thank you, David.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

NORRIS: David Brooks of The Weekly Standard.

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