Rumsfeld Explains His Rules

The former Secretary of Defense explains the rules that got him through his career.

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In his "80-plus years on this earth," Donald Rumsfeld has collected enough "borrowed wisdom" to fill a book. In "Rumsfeld's Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life," the former defense secretary recounts anecdotes and quotes that have guided him during his time in business and government, including four administrations. Rumsfeld recently spoke with U.S. News about his rules, some of which have made their way around the highest levels in Washington, and his take on the current administration's leadership. Excerpts:

What are Rumsfeld's rules?

Well first, they're not all Rumsfeld's. I quote a lot of other people – Winston Churchill and Sun Tzu and [other] philosophers. Second, they're not all rules. They're in some cases anecdotes and thoughts that I've accumulated over my 80-plus years on this earth. My mother was a school teacher. I started out collecting words I didn't know the meanings of, and then thoughts and ideas. I mentioned one of them to Gerald Ford when he had just become president, and he asked to see a copy. So I had them typed up, and he suggested I circulate them to the senior staff in the White House. And they kind of gained a life of their own.

You say your favorite rule is: "All generalizations are false, including this one." What does that mean?

Often you hear people say things like "always" and "never" and "every," and those terms generally – and I said generally, notice, not never – aren't really quite applicable. So I ended up advising in the book that generalizations are generally wrong, including that one. It's important, I think, to recognize texture and dimension in things.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

"Politics is human beings; it is addition, not subtraction." What does this one mean?

If you're involved in politics in any way, you have to understand first that you're dealing with human beings. Politics is a matter of communicating with people, and one would think trying to get a majority of support, you have to deal with human beings and have to recognize that it's addition. And your goal is to gain support, to be persuasive, to be inclusive.

Why is the issue of sexual assault in the military really coming to the surface now and how should it be addressed?

I don't think it is coming to the fore at this time. I think it's something that has been discussed in the military and in the civilian world for as long as I've been alive. I think the armed forces probably have the ability to deal with it in a more effective way than the civilian world. And my hope is that they'll figure out an approach that will encourage reporting of any type of abuse.

Are there lessons or rules from the American withdrawal from Iraq?

Well, I personally think it's inexcusable that we do not have a Status of Forces agreement in Iraq. How the Department of State and the president could have managed to do that is, in my view, beyond comprehension. It enables us to do things, but it also serves as a deterrent because neighbors and other countries who may have an interest in disadvantaging a country, if they know we have a Status of Forces agreement, are less likely to do so.

[See a collection of political cartoons on women in combat.]

Do you support military intervention in Syria?

I don't know, which is another one of my rules: It's important to say you don't know [when you don't] and not be hesitant to do so. But if you're going to intervene, you would want to have reasonable confidence that what ended up replacing [Syrian president Bashar] Assad would be better. There are some people involved that would be better and some that would not.

You have a chapter on dealing with the press. Was the Justice Department's AP phone record snooping appropriate?

I don't think we'll know until there have been hearings. It's hard for me to believe that it was appropriate. I've been around so many decades and seen so many leaks, and I don't recall ever seeing what the government appears to have done in this case.