By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007
In a rare foray into public debate since stepping down as defense secretary late last year, Donald H. Rumsfeld blasted the recent advertisement by MoveOn.org against Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and decried the current state of political discourse in Washington for its "tendency to try to criminalize public service."
"It seems that the default position for opponents of anyone is to call them liars and betrayers," he said in an interview last week, referring to MoveOn.org's portrayal of Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, as "General Betray Us." Rumsfeld expressed concern that such attacks will discourage public service, especially among young people.
He also blamed "the press and the Congress," two groups with which he often tangled while running the Pentagon, for "creating an environment that is not particularly hospitable to public service." During Rumsfeld's years at the Pentagon, critics often assailed his famously combative style for contributing to Washington's tough political atmosphere. But even then Rumsfeld could be heard expressing dismay at the negative tone of public discussion and the possibility that it would undermine interest in government jobs.
Now that he is out of office, he has devised a foundation with this concern in mind. The foundation's general goal, he said, is to "encourage reasoned and civil debate" about a range of global challenges. A major feature will be student fellowships to promote study after college in fields related to public policy, with the hope of encouraging young people to go into government.
Word that Rumsfeld is developing a fellowship program surfaced in news reports several months ago. But in the interview -- his first detailed discussion of the foundation -- Rumsfeld described a broader mission, saying the foundation will also help finance loans to "micro-enterprises" in developing countries and try to generate support for Central Asian republics. Additionally, it will fund lectures on various topics.
After keeping largely out of public view since leaving office in the wake of the 2006 midterm elections, Rumsfeld has begun to talk more openly about his plans and post-Pentagon life. He is featured in the latest issue of GQ magazine, shown among the old farm buildings, corrals and pastures outside Taos, N.M., that have been a home away from home for him since the 1980s. Fox News aired a short TV interview with him Friday. And he expects to sign a deal soon for publication of a memoir that will tell his story from childhood through the Bush administration.
While he maintains residences in the Maryland town of St. Michaels as well as in Taos, Rumsfeld also has kept a house in Washington and established an office downtown. He called the decision to remain in the capital a matter of convenience as he sorts through Pentagon files and works with the Library of Congress to archive his personal papers.
He is thinking of writing "some articles" and doing "a limited amount of speaking." But he has no intention of reassuming a high profile. "If I do some more speeches, they'll probably be with groups that are not public," he said.
He agreed to an interview on the condition that it focus on the foundation. He said some money has already been transferred into the organization, "so that it exists," although a formal kickoff is several months away.
Rumsfeld became wealthy during a 24-year business career between stints in government. A family foundation, set up in 1985 by him and his wife, Joyce, is now valued at about $20 million and makes charitable contributions to dozens of groups a year.
Rumsfeld plans to fund the new foundation with a grant from the old one and with other personal assets, plus any contributions that friends might make. He does not intend to solicit money from others, nor keep either foundation going after he and his wife have died.
Royalties from Rumsfeld's planned memoirs also will go into the new foundation, which is to be called the Rumsfeld Foundation. But Rumsfeld said he is "in no rush" to get the book out. "I'm not going to try to get something out fast -- a kiss-and-tell -- and affect the elections," he said. "That's not me."
Details about the number and size of the Rumsfeld fellowships have yet to be worked out. But they will not be attached to a particular school, going instead to individuals for study in foreign and national security affairs, economics, and other public policy fields. Similarly, the foundation's lecture series will not be confined to a single campus, Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld has long spoken of the need to encourage government service. The other main aims of his foundation -- loans to micro-enterprises and help for Central Asian republics -- reflect more recent interests.
Micro-enterprise is a burgeoning global phenomenon in which people who lack access to normal credit receive financing to operate small businesses. It has proved to be an economic boon to some poor regions. Rumsfeld noted that the repayment rates have been high, and he said such loans have the advantage of bypassing sometimes corrupt governments and landing directly in the hands of beneficiaries.
His focus on Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan stems from a concern that they lack the U.S.-based support groups that benefited the Eastern European states in their transition from communist rule. "We don't have, in Chicago or Detroit or Pittsburgh, Uzbeks or Tajiks or Kazakhs," Rumsfeld said. "I think that we need to have people who understand what's going on in Central Asia . . . and the difficulty of that transition."