Donald Rumsfeld lambastes Obama on Syria: 'Take responsibility'

Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush's Defense Secretary, says President Obama is not showing leadership on Syria. But he comes to the debate with his own Iraq War baggage.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listens to the opening statement of Gen. John Abizaid while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2006 in Washington. Mr. Rumsfeld has been critical of President Obama this week.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has chosen a perilous time in President Obama’s presidency, and in world affairs, for that matter, to comment so pointedly about the president's performance.

As the president weighs the difficult decision of striking Syria for apparently using chemical weapons against its own citizens – and while he’s in Russia for the Group of 20 meeting  – Mr. Rumsfeld took to the cable TV and lecture circuit this week to deem Mr. Obama the “so-called commander-in-chief” and “ineffective.”

"The president is not, in my view, providing the kind of leadership that I think almost any president in my adult lifetime would be providing," said Rumsfeld after an address at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., Tuesday.

Rumsfeld is, of course, not the only voice of administrations past to criticize. And many, like Rumsfeld, were involved in making the case for the 2003 Iraq war.

But perhaps Rumsfeld hasn’t gotten the dictate from his former boss, President George W. Bush. Mr. Bush has said he would not comment on the performance of his successor, that he knows how hard the job is, and that it’s not his place anymore to add fodder to the national political discussion.

Rumsfeld, it seems, shares no such sentiment.

He slammed Obama for trying to walk back his 2012 comment that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would mark a red line, prompting the US to consider action. The president has since suggested that the red line represents an international norm, not a parameter he has drawn himself.

“This president has tried to blame everybody or anybody, for everything and leadership requires that you stand up, take a position, provide clarity and take responsibility,” Rumsfeld told Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren. “And I can’t imagine him saying that he didn’t draw the red line. But he did draw a red line.… We have ears!”

Rumsfeld elaborated on CNN. “It’s exactly the reason that there is not a large coalition wanting to support the president; it’s a reason that Congress is confused,” he said.

Rumsfeld is pushing for regime change in Syria or no intervention there at all. Thematically, he is painting a picture of a clumsy White House that lacks firmness and direction in its goals and has been unable, so far, to provide a clear sense of urgency in Syria.

With Obama first saying he is for military action in Syria and then tossing the matter to a skeptical Congress for approval, his mettle is being tested at home and abroad. If Congress fails to sign off on a resolution sanctioning strikes – a move Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona says would be “catastrophic” for the institution of the presidency – it remains uncertain if the president will move forward.

So there’s certainly room for criticism that the president’s process thus far has been non-linear. But the White House argues that, however slow and awkward Obama’s moves appear, at least the administration is working to secure the facts first.

Rumsfeld was famously part of a team officials that presented inaccurate information to the Congress and public before taking the nation into a costly decade-long engagement in Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction there.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld’s successor at the Defense Department, Robert Gates, has registered his support for the president’s push for intervention. Gates is a Republican who stayed on to serve during Obama’s first term.

“I strongly urge the Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, to approve the president's request for authorization to use force in Syria,” Gates said Thursday in a statement to Politico. “Whatever one's views on current U.S. policy toward Syria, failure by Congress to approve the request would, in my view, have profoundly negative and dangerous consequences for the United States not just in the Middle East but around the world both now and in the future."

Rumsfeld is known to be outspoken and frank, so his remarks aren’t surprising. But are they meaningful? Will he sway members of his own fractured party? 

“For many members, it's less complicated a consideration,” says Republican strategist Kevin Madden, also a Washington-based CNN contributor. “Rumsfeld's comments won't matter compared to what they are hearing from their constituents. It will come to what the folks are telling them back home and whether or not they have confidence that President Obama has a real plan to change outcomes over in that region of the world.”

Rumsfeld, for his part, is not relenting.

“I think the decisions that are in the Oval Office are the tough ones, and President Obama has got his hands full,” he told Ms. van Susteren. “And goodness knows you wish him well if he makes a decision to use force. But the leadup to this I think has been most unfortunate.”

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