Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday compared critics of the Bush administration to those who sought to appease the Nazis before World War II, warning that the nation is confronting “a new type of fascism.”
Speaking at the American Legion convention here, Rumsfeld delivered his most explicit and extended attacks yet on administration opponents -- leading Democrats to accuse him of “campaigning on fear.”
By likening today’s U.S. foreign policy to that during World War II and the Cold War, Rumsfeld sought to portray skeptics of the Bush administration as being on the wrong side of history. He ridiculed American officials who had hoped to negotiate with Adolf Hitler.
“Once again, we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism,” Rumsfeld said. “But some seem not to have learned history’s lessons.”
He continued, “Can we truly afford to believe that, somehow or someway, vicious extremists could be appeased?”
Rumsfeld did not directly accuse any specific critic or group of advocating the appeasement of terrorists, and he did not identify the administration opponents who were the focus of his criticism. Surveys have shown that although most Americans believe the Iraq war was a mistake, they support U.S. efforts to track down terrorists.
Rumsfeld’s use of the word “appease” was particularly notable, referring to the failed efforts of the pre-Churchill British government to mollify Hitler. Administration officials in the past have used the term “appeasement” to deflect criticism or justify White House policies -- President Bush did so just before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But Rumsfeld in his speech appeared to use the term in a markedly more pointed way.
The Defense secretary has become one of the administration’s most divisive figures, and demands for his resignation have become a litmus test in congressional races around the country as Iraq confronts deepening violence and civil strife. Rumsfeld aggressively defended the war and his leadership of it in speeches to the American Legion on Tuesday, the Veterans of Foreign Wars a day earlier and in other meetings with service members this week.
In each speech, Rumsfeld has acknowledged the reality of debate in a free society. But he has attacked the media, charging that news reports have been manipulated by Iraqi insurgents or Al Qaeda terrorists. And he has suggested that negative news articles and criticism of the war threaten to sap the nation’s will to continue to fight in Iraq.
Rumsfeld also warned that “moral or intellectual confusion” about which side is right or wrong “can weaken the ability of free societies to persevere.”
Borrowing a phrase from the nation’s most conservative commentators, Rumsfeld in a new line of attack argued that critics of the Iraq war, like critics of the Cold War before them, were part of a “blame America first” crowd.
“The struggle we are in is too important -- the consequences too severe -- to have the luxury of returning to the ‘blame America first’ mentality,” he told the American Legion. “Can we truly afford to return to the destructive view that America -- not the enemy -- is the real source of the world’s troubles?”
Rumsfeld’s view of Bush administration critics contrasted with that of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who took a softer tone in a speech to the convention later Tuesday. She appeared to acknowledge that many questions about the Iraq war were fair.
“On the one hand, Americans want desperately to succeed in Iraq. They want to do whatever it takes to achieve victory,” Rice said. “But on the other hand, there are unsettling questions. Is success possible? Is it really worth the effort?”
Rice said she believed that the U.S. strategy was working, and that the military must remain in Iraq or risk handing a victory to violent extremists in the Middle East.
“If we abandon the Iraqi people before their government is strong enough to secure the country, then we will show reformers across the region that America cannot be trusted to keep its word,” Rice said. “We will embolden extremist enemies of moderation and of democratic reform.”
In recent speeches, Bush has acknowledged public concern about the war, saying last week that the conflict was “straining the psyche of our country” and that he would never question the patriotism of those who disagreed with him.
However, Bush too has drawn parallels between his Iraq policies and World War II. Before the U.S.-led invasion, he said: “In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war. In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this Earth.”
Rumsfeld’s speech drew sharp complaints from Democrats, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was criticized by Rumsfeld in a speech Monday.
The elder Kennedy, who served as a U.S. ambassador to Britain before World War II, resigned that post because he opposed British and U.S. war preparations.
“Secretary Rumsfeld is the last person who should preach the lessons of history after ignoring them for the last six years,” Kennedy said in a statement. “As a result of his failures, Americans are less safe.”
Both Kennedy and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) renewed their call for Rumsfeld to be replaced.
“Secretary Rumsfeld’s reckless comments show why America is not as safe as it can or should be five years after 9/11,” Reid said. “If there’s one person who has failed to learn the lessons of history, it’s Donald Rumsfeld.”
Criticizing news coverage of U.S. policies abroad, Rumsfeld pointed to “a focus on dividing our country.”
For instance, he said, news outlets have carried more reports about U.S. military abuses than about Army Sgt. First Class Paul Smith, who posthumously won the Medal of Honor for heroism during the invasion of Iraq.
Rumsfeld was applauded by the American Legion convention for calling on the group’s members to “set the record straight.”
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.