By Jeff Fox
A former secretary of defense says the national and international institutions put in place during the Truman era have worked well but need to be updated or recast to meet contemporary challenges
“We’ve not refashioned ourselves to deal with a new world, a different set of circumstances,” Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday night during the annual Howard and Virginia Bennett Forum on the Presidency in Kansas City. The event is put on by the Truman Library Institute.
Rumsfeld, who was secretary of defense under President Ford and then again under President George W. Bush, was joined on the panel by William S. Cohen, who was in Congress for 24 years before serving as Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense; and David von Drehle, editor-at-large for Time magazine. The moderator was another former senator, Bob Kerry.
Rumsfeld said the institutions that came into being during Harry Truman’s time in office at the end of World War II and the years immediately afterward – the CIA and National Security Agency, the United Nations and NATO, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the reorganization of the War Department as the Defense Department – are as crucial to Truman’s legacy as anything else he did.
“And they have served our nation and the world reasonably well for a number of decades,” he said.
The topic was American presidents and their cabinets, though the conversation ranged beyond that. In particular, Cohen said the U.S. political system is becoming unworkable and said President Obama’s decision to back off from a confrontation with Syria weeks ago will hurt the country.
Von Drehle said the role of the cabinet has changed much over the nation’s history. For George Washington, it was essentially his political advisers, but it’s evolved into the various secretaries running their departments. Cohen said he only attended cabinet meetings that pertained to national security and that was just four or five meetings in the four years he was secretary of defense.
“I think the word cabinet is misleading today,” Rumsfeld added, “because it suggests it’s a cohesive thing.”
The wide-ranging discussion touched on other issues:
• Cohen pleaded – a couple of times – for citizens to speak up and get Congress to act more productively.
He cited former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen – who by the way was given this year’s Truman Public Service Award in Independence – as saying that the federal debt is a threat to national security.
“And there’s great wisdom in that ... given what’s going on on Capitol Hill,” Cohen said.
He criticized the political standoffs in Congress, many of which are over spending and debt issues.
“We know what needs to be done, but we can’t reach agreement,” he said, adding that compromise is simply a common part of life and needs to be in Congress as well.
The country is looking at another three years – the rest of Obama’s term – of “stalemate and stagnation,” which he called unacceptable.
“And the public has a role here to say, ‘enough,’” he said.
There’s a broader issue, Cohen said. We as Americans have too often taken the easy choices instead of the needed choices.
“It seems to me if we’re going to survive, we have to get back to some stern virtues,” he said. Rights come with obligations he said.
The world is taking note, too, he said.
“People are making different judgments now,” he said, “because we’re unable to discipline ourselves” – a line that drew applause.
• Rumsfeld and Cohen both condemned Edward Snowden, who has released massive numbers of classified NSA documents. He fled the country and is living in Russia, even as the revelations – including the recent ones about eavesdropping on allied leaders – continue to come out.
“Heroes don’t run. Heroes don’t run,” Cohen said.
• They had kind words for Ike Skelton, the former congressman who for decades represented parts of Eastern Jackson County and who passed away last week. Skelton rose to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and emphasized the need to take care of military personnel and their families.
“We need more like him,” Cohen said.
• Cohen said he has been dismayed at the Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis. Obama had said the government’s use of chemical weapons against rebels there could bring a U.S. military response, and there’s strong evidence that happened in August. Obama said he would strike but then changed course.
“Don’t draw red lines unless you have the power and the will to enforce them,” Cohen said.
These events have left the U.S. looking feckless, he said.
“So it’s diminished our credibility, and that’s not a good thing,” Cohen said.
The evening had several light moments, and Rumsfeld in particular had a few zingers. Congress – he served in the 1960s – is often like “535 ants on a log floating down the Potomac River, each one of them thinking they are steering.”
Kerry at one point asked about political gridlock, and Rumsfeld playfully chided, “You were a senator. You were part of the problem.”
That brought a laugh from the audience and response from Kerry: “I try to be part of the solution.”