OTR Interviews

Rumsfeld: Pres. Obama's lack of leadership in Syria has sent a signal that the US is withdrawing, will not play a major role in maintaining peace and stability in the world

Uncut: Former defense secretary critiques president's handling of Syrian crisis, gives take on message America is sending the world


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," September 4, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Earlier, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went "On the Record."


VAN SUSTEREN: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has now voted in favor of giving the president authority. It will be have to be further debated. But what's your thought about this?

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: My thought is that Secretary Kerry has been dealt a very tough hand. What he is as a new secretary of state dealing with are decisions that were made over a period of time. Red lines were drawn. Comments were made by his predecessor that Assad, President Assad was a reformer. The opposition to Assad over a period of time has been evolving in a way that has been, I think, deteriorating in the sense that the chances of prevailing over Assad have not have gotten better, they've gotten worse, in a sense.

I suppose there's greater visibility as to what makes up the opposition today. But I think the decisions that are in the Oval Office are the tough ones, and President Obama's got his hands full. And goodness knows, you wish him well if he make a decision to use force. And -- but the lead-up to this I think has been most unfortunate.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is he responsible for the lead-up to this point?

RUMSFELD: Oh, yes, absolutely. Yes. I mean, you simply -- you don't get up in the morning and demystify things for your opponents. Put yourself in the other fellow's shoes. Imagine yourself as a Syrian and you are -- you want a better life. You don't favor Assad and the fact that they have killed, I don't know, something in excess now of 100,000 people in that conflict, the struggle for over two years. And you've got to decide where are you on this as a citizen of Syria.

And the president of the United States says, Well, we're not going to have any regime change and tells the world that Assad is going to be there when it's over. Well, you worry about your family. You worry about your life. And it keeps people from being supportive of those that are opposing Assad.

And that decision-making process, it seems to me, is unfortunate. The essence of leadership is clarity, and that's the only way you can get unity of purpose. The fact that the Congress is at sixes and sevens about this whole thing is reflection of the lack of leadership that we've seen, the fact that there isn't an international coalition despite the fact that there have been the use of -- apparently the use of chemical weapons, which it increasingly appears that that's the case, the fact that there has not been any coming together in the international community to speak of is, again, a reflection of the fact that the president has not provided a vision, a statement as to -- with clarity as to what was to be done.

He said, We're not going to do that, we're not going to do this, we're not going to do that. And that kind of -- I almost said that kind of leadership. The absence of leadership, I think, is what has led to this confusion in people's minds. Will the outcome, if we do anything, be better or not?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, that's my question is that, as best we understand it, we're going to have a limited military strike, assuming that it's voted through Congress, although the president seems to say that even if the Congress says no to him that he has the authority to do it anyway -- is going to...

RUMSFELD: Which I believe he does.


RUMSFELD: I mean, you look at successive presidents...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, that's been -- that can be debated. I mean -- I mean, that's -- that's -- a lot of people have a very different view of that, whether the president has authority.

But in light of the fact that our -- if our military does a limited strike, sends off 150 Cruise missiles, and 24 hours goes by, what do we have?

RUMSFELD: Well, that I think is the question. I think the president used the phrase, before he went to play golf, something to the effect firing a shot across the bow or punishing. What have we achieved if that's what we do?

It seems to me you either have to decide that there should be regime change and make a conscious effort to help the -- those opposing the Assad regime and killing the 100,000 people that have died, or you don't do something. You just don't do it. Why would you say you're not going to do this, you're not going to do that and you're not going to do this and demystify it and leave the clear impression he's going to be there when it's over?

So I can understand two things. One, the natural instinct you want to be supportive of the president of the United States. And he is the commander-in-chief. I can also understand that people in the Congress could decide they want to vote no and say that the goal that has been set out is so vague, so confused, so unspecific that I wonder if doing anything is going to accomplish anything.

VAN SUSTEREN: I always think like a lawyer, since that's my education, look for the worst -- look at the worst case scenario and think whether or not I can live with it. What's the worst case scenario, in your mind, after 150 Cruise missiles strike Damascus and -- or Syria, and Assad is still head of that regime? What's the worst case scenario? What do we have to worry about?

RUMSFELD: Well, what you have to worry about is that the role of the United States is seen as ineffective, weak, and that our country is in decline and that that message goes out to the people in Iran, for example, where the United States and other countries have said that they ought not to proceed with their nuclear program, and they see the effect of the United States is -- is -- is nothing.

I mean, why does one fire a shot across the bow of a ship? It's because you expect to get a certain outcome, and if you don't, you then do something that will achieve that outcome. It's a warning shot. And what he has announced to the world is all he's going to do is fire a shot across the bow. My impression is he'd be better off not doing that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, he says that if we don't do something, and his -- and those who agree with him, is that it will hurt the credibility of the United States if we don't do something at this point.

RUMSFELD: The credibility of the United States has already been damaged, and it would probably be further damaged if we did, quote, "a shot across the bow," and that's it. We're better off not doing that, it seems to me.

The absence of leadership is a signal to the world that the United States is withdrawing, that the United States is not going to be a factor for contributing to peace and stability in the world. And if someone said, Well, what's the biggest thing you worry about? I would worry about that. I think that it's going to be a more dangerous world, and the vacuum that has been created is going to be filled by countries and leaders who don't have our values and don't have our interests.

VAN SUSTEREN: The secretary of state says there will be no boots on the ground. Is there any way we can be sure of that?

RUMSFELD: Sure. No, I -- I...

VAN SUSTEREN: And that we won't get dragged into it, into something?

RUMSFELD: I think there -- if there's a determination not to, I think you can be sure of it. I think -- I think the -- I would have to say that Secretary Kerry's been dealt a tough hand, but I thought he -- his presentation was forceful and persuasive. I thought he did a good job. And he's in a tough position because he's dealing with the deck as he found it after four years.

VAN SUSTEREN: President Putin of Russia is calling him a liar today because he says that Secretary Kerry said there's no al Qaeda element in the rebels, and he points to one group, one rebel faction that is associated with al Qaeda, al Zawahiri. President Obama is going to see Putin in the next 24 hours.


VAN SUSTEREN: What's that going to be like?

RUMSFELD: Well, I think it'll be awkward. We've -- we've -- the United States of America is faced with a situation where they talk about the international community, but there isn't an international community. It's not a community. It's a group of countries. And the mechanism, the United Nations, that is there to address questions like this is subject to a veto by President Putin and by the People's Republic of China, both of whom have sided with the Assad regime.

And it appears that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons and it appears, therefore, that Putin and the People's Republic of China are siding with the use of chemical weapons.

Now, I can't tell you the facts. I would guess there are Islamists in the mix of opposition forces against Assad. How strong they are, I just simply do not know, and I know I don't know.

But we know what happened in Egypt. The United States came away persuading a lot of the Egyptian people that we favored the Muslim Brotherhood, and they then took to the streets and tried to have -- and succeeded in having the Muslim Brotherhood leadership taken out and brought out of office.

But the signal has gone out to the world that the United States is not uncomfortable supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which I think is a terrible mistake. The Islamists in the world are fundamentally against the nation state concept, and the world order is based on the nation state concept. The American people prefer the nation state concept.

And the idea that some religious group would try to impose their views across nation states, which is what's taking place, and use terrorism and the killing of innocent men, women and children to achieve that, is something that it seems to me we ought to be opposed to energetically, and we didn't demonstrate that opposition in Egypt, a terribly important country.

And I don't doubt for a minute that the Islamists will try to take and play an outsized role in Syria if they are successful. And so in helping the opposition to Assad, people have to be very careful that they don't end up with something worse than the Assad regime, which is hard to imagine but possible.

VAN SUSTEREN: So what's the best strategy? In light of the position we're in -- we have the president saying that there is a red line. He says he didn't draw it, it's drawn by the international community. You've got a Congress...

RUMSFELD: He did draw it!

VAN SUSTEREN: I'm telling you what he said.

RUMSFELD: You're kidding! I didn't see that.

VAN SUSTEREN: He's saying that it's been -- that's drawn by the international community, by international standards, by Congress, by the American people...

RUMSFELD: This president has tried to find a way to blame everybody or anybody for everything! And leadership requires that you stand up, take a position, provide clarity and take responsibility. And I can't imagine him saying that he didn't draw the red line, but he did draw the red line.

VAN SUSTEREN: In light of...

RUMSFELD: If we have ears!

VAN SUSTEREN: In light of where we are...

RUMSFELD: I've been out in Montana, and I must have missed that.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. In light of the -- where we stand right now, where the fact that Congress is voting on this, debating it, likely to give him authority, if they don't give authority, it seems like he's going to do it anyway, send those Cruise missiles over to Syria -- is there -- is there any -- any way that the United States can sort of regain stature, credibility, do anything at this point? Because it almost seems like we're a little boxed in because our president has said we're going to do this.

RUMSFELD: There's no question but that the leadership, or the lack of leadership, to be more precise, has driven our country into a cul-de-sac, and that's not a good place to be. Is it possible to come out of it? Sure.

We have a wonderful country, and if the president would bring in good advisers and sit down and think through where he is and get down to bedrock, to concrete and know where he is, and then decide that he's willing to make a decision, and either the decision is to not do something -- if he's unwilling to do anything that's going to change the regime, I think he's probably better off doing nothing and accepting the burden that falls on us from all of his prior statements.

If he decides he wants to change the regime because he thinks the killing of 100,000 people and the use of chemical weapons is something that is damaging and harmful to our country and to the world, I think the American people would follow him.