At lunch Monday with a small group of columnists, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld handed us a speech he'd delivered in 1984 on the occasion of his receiving the George Catlett Marshall Medal.
It was Oct. 17, three weeks before a critical election that would give Ronald Reagan an overwhelming electoral victory. It was also a time when voices in the media and Democratic Party were calling for the United States not to introduce Pershing II missiles into Western Europe to counter missiles the Soviet Union had placed in Eastern Europe. The left wanted an accommodation with Soviet dictator Konstantin Chernenko. Reagan believed in victory over communism, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of the Soviet bloc nations is testimony to his sound judgment.
Even before those exciting events, Rumsfeld saw another threat coming in as the tide of Soviet communism rolled out. He spoke of terrorism. Remember, this was 1984, 17 years before 9/11 at a time when most of the world thought terrorism was an isolated phenomenon confined mainly to Israel.
"Terrorism is growing," Rumsfeld said then. "In the 30 days ending last week, it is estimated that there were 37 terrorist attacks, by 13 different organizations, against the property or citizens of 20 different countries."
Even then, Rumsfeld noted terrorism is "state-sponsored, by nations using it as a central element of their foreign policy … terrorism has a home."
He said terrorism works because even a single attack by a small and weak nation can influence public opinion and lower morale and can "alter the behavior of great nations." Isn't that precisely what is happening now? As the terrorists watch the American electorate grow tired and frustrated with the war against insurgent terrorists in Iraq, do they not think all they have to do is hold out a little longer and America will sign anything and do anything to preserve the lives of its people? Why should they believe anything else?
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Using a justification for fighting terrorism that would resurface in the current war, Rumsfeld said, "Terrorism is a form of warfare and must be treated as such … weakness invites aggression. Simply standing in a defensive position, absorbing blows, is not enough. Terrorism must be deterred."
In his 1984 speech, Rumsfeld said terrorism cannot be eliminated, but it can be made to function at a "low level" that will allow governments to function. He repeated that thought at lunch and added that the United States is somewhat at a disadvantage because the terrorists don't have a media that challenges their policies, they have no hierarchy and they "get to lie every day with no accountability." Speculating again about the future, Rumsfeld said, "there will be no conventional wars in the near future and no way the military can win or lose a war."
I asked him what he meant. He replied, "We're socialized into believing the American military can go find somebody and kick the hell out of them, or find a battleship to sink, or an air force to shoot down. You can't do that in the 21st century."
Noting the length of the Cold War, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was also at the luncheon agreed the terrorists can be deterred "if the American people will just give us the time."
Later that day, I spoke with Haley Barbour, Mississippi governor and former Republican National Committee chairman, about the apparently slim GOP prospects in the coming election. Noting how the polls show Iraq has hurt Republicans, Barbour said, "The public gets tired of long wars."
That is precisely what Osama bin Laden and his bloody associates are counting on. Their plan for victory is to exhaust the United States.
In 1984, Rumsfeld recalled Winston Churchill's lesson from World War II that weakness invites aggression. And he warned, "Ours is a dangerous world, a world in transition."
We have now transitioned from dangerous to even more dangerous. If we grow weary in this battle, we can be sure our enemies won't flag. They are prepared for a long war. We'd better be, for to be unprepared and to lack resolve means the war will come anyway, but with greater intensity and with more American (and European) casualties.