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Experience has shown Rumsfeld when, how to exert military force

WASHINGTON—Although he is one of the leading proponents of using force in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld knows from personal experience that the use of American power can go terribly awry.

Former U.S. officials who worked alongside Rumsfeld during two disastrous military ventures—one in the ྂs, the other in the ྌs—say the experiences have had a powerful influence over his views on when and how to exert military force.

In 1975, Rumsfeld was White House chief of staff under President Ford when the communist Khmer Rouge seized an American merchant vessel, the SS Mayaguez, off Cambodia. He participated in the decision to launch an ill-fated rescue attempt that resulted in the deaths of 41 Marines, sailors and airmen, and in the wounding of 50 other U.S. servicemen.

Eight years later, as President Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East, Rumsfeld himself was under fire in Beirut while the United States wrestled with how to extract itself from a Lebanese civil war in which 241 Marines had been killed in a terrorist bombing, the American Embassy had been bombed and Americans had been held hostage.

The two episodes were perhaps the worst debacles for the U.S. military in the post-Vietnam era. They were also critical moments in the 70-year-old Rumsfeld's long career as an adviser to four Republican presidents, including his leadership of the Defense Department during the successful effort to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan.

John O. Marsh Jr., who as a member of Ford's White House staff participated with Rumsfeld in National Security Council meetings on the Mayaguez Incident, says the episode taught him that "combat is uncontrollable."

Rumsfeld, he said, must have drawn the same conclusion.

"In my mind," Marsh said, "the incident would have introduced into his thinking the element of caution—because he knows the price that can be paid. He knows what can happen."

The Mayaguez was a container ship with a crew of 39. On May 12, 1975, it was in the Gulf of Siam, 60 miles from Cambodia.

This was weeks after the last American forces had evacuated Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge, a communist group, had just taken power in Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge captured the ship at gunpoint. At 10:40 the next morning, the National Security Council met at the White House. Ford and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller were at the table, along with military and intelligence officials.

A transcript of the meeting, declassified in 1996, shows Rumsfeld helping to probe the military options. The council, which met again the next day, decided on a hasty strike to recapture the hostages.

The United States had no ties with the Khmer Rouge. Negotiation seemed impossible. The meeting participants saw the hijacking as a test of American resolve in the wake of the Vietnam defeat.

Ford signed off on a plan to send Marines from the Philippines and Okinawa to pluck the Mayaguez crewmen from an island where it appeared they had been taken. Another force would board and regain control of the ship.

The operation went awry from the start. The crew was not on the island the Marines hit. Three American helicopters were shot down in the first wave of the assault.

As they fought for their lives, the Marines learned that the Mayaguez crewmen had been released at sea, and were picked up unharmed. They then had to fight their way off the island, suffering further casualties.

Later, it became apparent that three Marines had been left behind. One of them apparently was shot; two others were reported to have been captured and executed.

Six months after the Mayaguez Incident, Rumsfeld was appointed by Ford as his defense secretary.

Twenty-five years later, in May 2000, just months before Rumsfeld was to become defense secretary for an unprecedented second time, the Pentagon announced that the bodies of six Mayaguez Marines had been recovered and were being brought home.

Memory of the incident, Marsh said, remains a fresh for him.

"Everything you are today—and all of your attitudes—are an accumulation of your experience," he said.

Marsh has remained a friend of Rumsfeld's. He said the Rumsfeld he remembers from the ྂs is the same Rumsfeld he knows today—"very cool" under stress.

"I cannot say he was an advocate of force," Marsh said. "But he was not one to retreat from the option of force, either."

In almost four decades of public service—broken by two stints as a corporate CEO—the Princeton-educated Rumsfeld has been a congressman from Illinois, director of President Richard Nixon's Office of Economic Opportunity and ambassador to NATO. A Democratic president, Bill Clinton, made him head of major commissions on missile defense and national security issues related to space.

His most challenging job may have been his six-month tenure as Reagan's Middle East special envoy.

In Lebanon, in 1983 and 1984, Rumsfeld experienced for a second time how the use of military power can go wrong.

This time, the United States had demonstrated power in an attempt to keep peace. Lebanon had been in civil war since 1975. Together with Britain, France and Italy, the United States had positioned troops around Beirut to separate warring religious and political factions.

The goal was to give the national government time to build an army capable of keeping the peace itself. The aim was similar to what America and its allies are now trying to do in Afghanistan.

In the fall of 1983, as a Druze militia threatened to overwhelm Lebanese army troops in the Shouf Mountains above Beirut, the United States intervened militarily. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea opened fired on Druze positions. Thereafter, the United States was seen as having taken sides.

The Marines had no real mission, except to keep their heads down. Their compound was regularly shelled from the mountains. On Oct. 23, 1983, a terrorist blew up the Marine barracks with a truck bomb, killing 241 Americans.

Ten days later, Reagan appointed Rumsfeld as envoy. His job was to find a way out for the United States without abandoning the Lebanese government or appearing to give in to terrorism.

Reginald Bartholomew, then U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, remembers the period as a perplexing time for American policy-makers, Rumsfeld included.

"We didn't think we were getting involved when we got in," he recalled. "We thought we were a stabilizing force."

Rumsfeld negotiated with the Lebanese factions and with other Middle Eastern leaders in hope of finding a peace settlement. In December 1983, he flew to Baghdad to meet with Saddam Hussein, who then was receiving U.S. backing in Iraq's war with Iran, the country that was sponsoring the attacks on Americans in Lebanon.

Rumsfeld has seldom talked publicly about that period. But two months ago, on a trip to Qatar, he was asked by reporters about his 1983 meeting with Saddam.

"The purpose was to attempt to see if the Iraqi regime could be at all helpful in our efforts in the Middle East with respect to terrorism," he said.

"You say, how do you justify that? I justify it because 241 Marines were killed, and the president of the United States asked me to do that."

Back in Beirut, in late ྏ and early ྐ, battles raged in the streets.

Bartholomew recalled that Rumsfeld, then 50 years old, was in personal danger numerous times. The ambassador's residence, where he lived and worked, was often shelled.

Rumsfeld, though an ROTC graduate of Princeton and a former Navy pilot, had never been under fire.

One day, Bartholomew said, he and Rumsfeld were in a "communications shack" behind the residence using a secure telephone line to communicate with Washington. A 122 mm Grad rocket exploded at the base of the shack.

"It blew out the window and part of the wall," he said. "There was a big, heavy IBM typewriter, and it blew that typewriter right between our heads. Three inches one way or the other and either he would have lost his head, or I would have lost mine.

"We were both covered with debris. Our ears were ringing. Don said, `Jesus!' And I said, `Let's move!' And we ran to the house."

U.S. efforts toward a peace settlement failed. The Reagan administration decided to evacuate the Marines anyway and it fell to Rumsfeld to deliver the bad news to Lebanese President Amin Gemayel: the United States was abandoning him.

"I felt terrible; I felt sick in my stomach," he said in a 1987 interview with David C. Martin and John Walcott for the book "Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism."

It wasn't long before the Beirut government fell under control of Lebanon's neighbor, Syria.

Bartholomew said the whole Lebanese experience was a lesson for him in the misuse of military power.

"I can't tell you how it influenced Don, but I can tell you how it influenced me," he said. "If you're going to use military power—use it!

Don't just demonstrate with it. If you're going to send people into harm's way, then give them what they need to do the job—not just in materiel, but in decision-making, as well."

By the time he got back to the Pentagon as Bush's defense secretary in 2001, Rumsfeld had developed firm ideas about when and how the United States should apply force.

The lesson he had learned was not that force should be avoided, but that—in the words of Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—it "should be taken in as forceful, complete, efficient and fast a way as possible."

"Not that things are not going to go wrong—they are going to go wrong," Pace said in an interview Friday. "But the things we can actually think through (must be) thought through as best as they can be."

Six months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington he had written down his thoughts in a two-page set of guidelines. There are echos of the Lebanon and Mayaguez experiences in his thinking.

Guideline No. 1: "If U.S. lives are going to be put at risk, whatever is proposed to be done must be in the U.S. national interest," he wrote. "If people could be killed, ours or others', the U.S. must have a darned good reason."

The military goals, he wrote, must be clear and achievable—and taken after all diplomacy has been exhausted. If public support is weak, he wrote, "U.S. leadership must be willing to marshal support to sustain the effort for whatever period of time may be required."

A year after the battle for Afghanistan comes the possibility that the United States will do what it has never done—launch a pre-emptive war against a perceived threat.

Rumsfeld, at the Pentagon podium on Jan. 29, offered his views about when power should be used.

He did not speak of the Mayaguez Incident or Beirut. Instead, he talked about Pearl Harbor and World War II, in which his father had served aboard a ship.

He said that if a nation waited for "perfect knowledge" that an opponent would strike, it would always be taken by surprise.

"Perfect knowledge—it's not the way the world works," he said. ". . . The only way you get perfect knowledge is to wait until Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. That's when you get perfect knowledge. That's after the fact. And after the fact in the 21st century, in the world of weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons that can kill tens of thousands of people, after the fact is too late."


(Tom Infield reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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