Students, he argued, should not have to censor their own questions or comments for fear of future repercussions. Intellectual debate should be encouraged and nurtured.
This is an admirable value for a university. It is a shame the Hoover Institution, by honoring Donald Rumsfeld, is ignoring it.
The Hoover Institution declares in its mission statement that it ought to be constantly "collecting knowledge, generating ideas, and disseminating both." It is both disturbing and ironic, then, that the institution recently granted a "Distinguished Fellowship" to Donald Rumsfeld, who, as Secretary of Defense and architect of the Iraq War, strove to stifle dissent and portray intellectual challenges to the administration's policies as dangerous and unpatriotic.
There are many reasons why Rumsfeld's appointment is a travesty. His arrogant and flimsy rationale for war – he once claimed to know the exact locations of WMDs – would have garnered a failing grade in any undergraduate international relations class. As Stanford Professor Bart Bernstein recently told the San Jose Mercury News, Rumsfeld's "only claim to fame was, at best, flawed and morally corrupt." His appointment is representative of a growing trend in higher education to provide "soft-landings" for political figures who left public office in disgrace or failure.
But the clearest reason why Rumsfeld should not be welcome at Hoover is that his actions and statements as Secretary of Defense contradict the fundamental purpose of a university: the encouragement and development of new ideas and the respectful scholarly debate that follows.
In August 2006, shortly before he left office, Rumsfeld gave a speech to the American Legion in which he compared opponents of the Iraq War to Nazi appeasers. Arguing that "moral confusion" in the West allowed Hitler to rise to power, Rumsfeld asked rhetorically, "[C]an we truly afford to believe that somehow, some way, vicious extremists can be appeased?" Opponents of the war, he argued, were simply not concerned with terrorism. "It seems that in some quarters," Rumsfeld argued, "there's more of a focus on dividing our country than acting with unity against the gathering threats." One can only speculate that Stanford, where many professors and students have openly criticized the purpose and handling of the war, is one of those quarters. Rumsfeld has also called war opponents "quitters" who want to "toss in the towel" and "can't stomach a tough fight."
Rumsfeld has displayed a certain disrespect for academia in general. At a press briefing in 2005, once again comparing the War on Terror to World War II, he reminded reporters, somewhat gratuitously, that "many Western intellectuals praised Stalin during that period" -- suggesting that intellectuals were somehow weak-kneed, "tossed about by the winds of concern" and not to be trusted.
Furthermore, his actions in office show a dedication to ideology over reason and belief over evidence. "Absence of evidence," Rumsfeld famously said, referring to WMDs, "is not evidence of absence."
Well, perhaps, although I doubt one could successfully defend a lackluster research paper with that argument.
Those who oppose Rumsfeld's appointment are not driven by ideology. The Hoover Institution is a conservative think tank, and it is only natural that it would draw members from the right side of the political spectrum. There was little if any opposition when Gen. John Abizaid (ret.), the former commander of forces in Iraq, was granted a spot at the institution last year.
Rumsfeld, however, is a different case. He has constantly demeaned, disrespected and attacked those who disagree with him, questioning their motives, patriotism and courage. Universities and think tanks depend on debate and disagreement, whether it's in the classroom, the peer-review process of publishing or the soap-box preaching on the main quad. Rumsfeld has shown nothing but contempt for intellectual diversity.
Defenders of Rumsfeld's appointment have argued that his career in public service makes him a valuable contribution to the institute. Throughout that career, however, he has shown himself to be more of a politician than an academically-minded public servant. He stonewalled Congressional oversight, obstructing investigations of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. He ignored and belittled the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. He chose generals and advisers who would bend to his will and replaced those who would not. He has shown a blatant disrespect for the very aspects of public policy that think tanks spend their time investigating.
Stanford prides itself on academic freedom and intellectual honesty. The university has plenty of room for liberals, moderates and conservatives alike. Rumsfeld's practice of demonizing his intellectual opponents and questioning both their motives and patriotism, however, demonstrates that he does not share the university's values.
He would not be welcomed into Gerhard Casper's classroom, and the Hoover Institution should not reward his practices with the honor that a "distinguished" appointment conveys.
If the Hoover Institution leaders wish to welcome Rumsfeld into the fold, it is their right to do so. But honoring him with a distinguished title is the wrong message to send for an institution.