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Rumsfeld on the Arab revolution: It could go either way

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an exclusive interview with The Cable, credited the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda with setting the stage for the current wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. But he also warned that Egypt and the other countries in the region could easily slip into the hands of repressive groups that ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an exclusive interview with The Cable, credited the Bush administration's Freedom Agenda with setting the stage for the current wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. But he also warned that Egypt and the other countries in the region could easily slip into the hands of repressive groups that have been lying in wait.

"That region does not have a long proud history of free political institutions, free economic institutions, and democracy," Rumsfeld said. "What President Bush has done in Iraq and Afghanistan is to give the people in those countries a chance to have freer political systems and freer economic systems. There's no question that the example is helpful in the region."

But now, several years later, nominally pro-Western movements throughout the Middle East have been defeated by repressive and authoritarian organizations -- a situation that could very well repeat itself in Egypt with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Rumsfeld said, because those groups tend to be better organized and more vicious.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an exclusive interview with The Cable, credited the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda with setting the stage for the current wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. But he also warned that Egypt and the other countries in the region could easily slip into the hands of repressive groups that have been lying in wait.

"That region does not have a long proud history of free political institutions, free economic institutions, and democracy," Rumsfeld said. "What President Bush has done in Iraq and Afghanistan is to give the people in those countries a chance to have freer political systems and freer economic systems. There’s no question that the example is helpful in the region."

But now, several years later, nominally pro-Western movements throughout the Middle East have been defeated by repressive and authoritarian organizations — a situation that could very well repeat itself in Egypt with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Rumsfeld said, because those groups tend to be better organized and more vicious.

"So while what’s happening is hopeful, all of us have to be realistic and hope the process is one, that unlike Lebanon, unlike Gaza, and unlike Iran, does not end up bringing people’s hopes up and then dashed with a repressive regime," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld criticized the Obama administration’s mixed messaging during the Egypt crisis, specifically referencing the State Department’s decision to send Frank Wisner as an unofficial envoy to Cairo. The Obama administration was subsequently forced to distance itself from Wisner when he publicly called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to stay in power only days later.

"I think it’s unfortunate that they appointed Frank Wisner and then within a matter of hours got cross waves between the Department of State, the White House, and their special envoy. Clearly that weakens our voice to have mixed signals," Rumsfeld said.

Regarding the role of the Egyptian military, which now has effective control of the government in Cairo, Rumsfeld said that it may or may not turn out to be a responsible steward of power and the transition to free and fair elections.

"If one had to put some money down, you would want odds, but I would take the odds favoring that [the Egyptian military] would behave in a positive and constructive way," Rumsfeld said. "One has to say that managing this process is not going to be easy."

Rumsfeld said that he believes the tidal wave of change sweeping the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to increase its support for the opposition movement in Iran.

"I hope there are a variety of things taking place in our government, in some instances appropriately public but in some instances private … and that the examples that we are seeing elsewhere in the region, I would hope we would encourage in Iran," he said.

Rumsfeld has over 40 years of experience dealing with Egypt and the Arab world. In his new memoir Known and Unknown, he recounts the first time he met then Vice President Mubarak, in June 1975. At the time, Rumsfeld was serving as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford. "On a personal level, I found him animated, even ebullient," Rumsfeld wrote.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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