Rumsfeld: Obama's 'lead from behind' approach has come back to haunt him, he needs to clearly define US mission in Syria

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," August 29, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld joins us. Good evening, sir.


VAN SUSTEREN: Tell me, sir, how significant is it that the British have voted not to essentially go along with us should we do a military strike, at least not for the moment?

RUMSFELD: Well, it is, as has been said, humiliating. It is a direct result of the confused and "lead from behind" posture that our country has taken under the Obama administration.

The fact that there has not been a mission defined leaves people with confusion and unwillingness to be supportive. Unless we state -- it's true not just overseas, but it's true in our country. I mean, if you can't even organize a three-car convoy, a motorcade, then you've got a real problem and you have to stop and say, "Is what we're doing really making sense?"

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you envision is the goal of a missile strike now? What are the possible goals, and what can we possibly seek to achieve, you know, or reasonably achieve?

RUMSFELD: Well, I don't have any idea what they have in mind. You know, one looking at it has to say there's a lot we don't know. We don't know precisely yet if chemical weapons were used, although it appears likely. We don't know who used them. The inspectors have not come out. I think it's important for the credibility of the government to get to ground truth.

We don't know what the White House or the president believe to be our strategic interest. What is -- what is the national interest for the United States? You can't put a coalition together until you define the mission. When you define the mission and say, Here's what we're going to do and here's why we're going to do it, then countries come in line.

Countries aren't going -- I mean, in the Bush administration, they had dozens of countries supporting the activity in Afghanistan, in Iraq, proliferation, counterproliferation initiative, the global war on terror. And the reason they did was because there was clarity, and there's a lack of clarity here.

The idea of firing a shot across the bow or a pinprick action to so-called punish them, I think, is probably a mistake. I think unless you've decided you have a clear purpose that is in the interests of our country, it's best not to do that because the United States will look ineffective and weak.

VAN SUSTEREN: Compare and contrast for me the situation between Iraq, where there was suspicion that there were weapons of mass destruction and it turned out not -- here there seems to be relatively no suspicion of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, yet there is not an appetite to do it. You know, what -- what's the difference between the two and how are they the same?

RUMSFELD: Well, in the case of Iraq, obviously, they had used chemical weapons against their neighbors. They had used -- Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people. He was known to have had stockpiles and he was refusing to allow the U.N. to go in and validate whether or not they remained and still existed.

In this instance, we don't know who -- we know that they had chemical weapons, but we don't know yet who used them and for what purpose. And that is, I think, a situation -- I think also, the fact that it turned out there were not large stockpiles in Iraq has led to a great deal of understandable caution on the part of the United States and other countries.

VAN SUSTEREN: In this instance, the president has said -- at least up to this date -- that regime change is not a goal of this mission, should he decide to send missiles or take military action against Syria. Your thought on no regime change as not being a goal -- does that in some way have any factor into any of your thoughts on this?

RUMSFELD: Well, it has to affect your thinking. If you think of what's really important in the Middle East to the United States, first one would have to say is Egypt. And we've played that hand very badly. We've ended up leaving the Egyptian people with the impression we support the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian people are opposing the Muslim Brotherhood. And clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a partner for us of any appropriateness.

In the case -- the second most important thing, or maybe equally, would be the Iranian nuclear program and their relationship with Syria and their support of terrorist organizations. To the extent the president does something and it leaves Bashar Assad standing, who has, A, presumably used chemical weapons, B, been complicit in terrorist acts in supporting various terrorist organizations in close complicity with Iran, it's going to tell Iran that the United States of America is willing to draw a red line and it really doesn't mean anything.

And the question in my mind is, if we look weak and persuade Iran that they can charge ahead with their nuclear program, we will have done something most unfortunate. And I can't at the moment, not -- knowing there's so much we don't know about what's taking place in Syria, I can't at the moment tell what's going to make us look weaker, doing nothing, having drawn a red line, or going in and doing a shot across the bow and a pinprick.

What he's managed to do is to get China active in the Middle East supporting Assad and reactivate Putin in Russia supporting Assad, basically, in support of the use of chemical weapons.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it at all possible, or is there any, you know, reference in history, or even -- do you think it's possible -- can you have a military strike into a civil war, not have a regime change, get out and stay out? Or once you put your foot into this, are you now -- you know, do you own it? Are you part of this? And are we then more involved than we ever wanted to or dreamed to be?

RUMSFELD: Well, I think it would be most unfortunate if the United States ended up on the ground in that situation over a sustained period of time. It is tragic, to be sure, that the -- some 100,000 Syrians have been killed. That's a terrible tragedy.

On the other hand, the strategic interest for the United States is -- as I say, more properly should be focused on Iran, Egypt and not on Syria. And I think that's just the reality.

VAN SUSTEREN: Have we sort of -- has the president sort of boxed himself in by, you know, saying that, you know, this red line, and now that he's drawn the red line and he's talking about Assad was going to leave -- he's been saying that for two-and-a-half years, he hasn't left. Now there might be missile strikes, and he's -- and Assad is not the target. So he's going to be emboldened afterwards, I assume.

Yet on the other hand, he can't get Britain to back him, can't get the U.N. to give an authorization or at least not yet anything from Congress. So it really does look -- it's like President Obama all alone. So it's -- I mean, is he boxed in, or what's his exit strategy?

RUMSFELD: Well, unfortunately, I don't think he's thought those things through. I haven't sensed any strategy or any roadmap or idea as to what the next steps ought to be. He talks and he says things that box in the United States and drive us down a cul-de-sac. That doesn't mean that the only thing he can do now, it seems to me, is to do something that would make us look still weaker.

I mean, this administration has said to the world that we are basically a country in decline. He manages the economy modeling it after Europe, which is a failed model. He has made pronouncements in the world that have proven in relatively short order not to be the case.

And I think that what he needs to do is to take a deep breath, get down to ground truth and say to himself that the United States does have a role to play in the world, but it has to be played in a steady, solid way. And in fact, the policies that we've seen have been harmful to the United States and the perception of the United States, rather than helpful.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much, sir, for joining us.

RUMSFELD: You bet.