Donald Rumsfeld in Washington last month. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“George W. Bush believed deeply that people desire to be free,” Donald Rumsfeld tells me in his downtown Washington office, only a few blocks from the White House. “And that free people act more responsibly.” When I ask if events in the Middle East these last two months prove that Bush’s Freedom Agenda was smart, Rumsfeld pauses thoughtfully. “I wish I knew for sure,” he says.

As many readers will undoubtedly (if imperfectly) recall, the former Defense secretary was heavily criticized for insisting on force levels in Iraq believed to be based on the Bush Administration’s overly optimistic assessment of how the Iraqi people would respond to the end of Saddam’s dictatorship. When it comes to predicting the outcome of recent popular upheaval in the Middle East, Rumsfeld is clearly more cautious. The popular revolutions that have reconfigured the political landscape in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries, Rumsfeld says, “might be good, might make things more hopeful. But you can also think of it as someone who yells fire in a crowded theater. Who can tell you who will get out safely? Or who will manage that process? This is the perfect instance of an unpredictable situation. It creates an opportunity for vicious minorities.”

When the smoke clears in Egypt and other Arab countries, Rumsfeld believes, those who are most disciplined are most likely to succeed. I ask if that means a willingness to use force. “It can come to that, but first there’s discipline,” Rumsfeld replies. “There is a lack of discipline in the mass of humanity. You have hundreds of thousands, millions of people who don’t know what they want and a handful who do. Determination is worth something. I close my eyes and picture this turmoil and ferment, and this image that comes to my mind is of magnets and magnetic particles. A magnet will draw along these particles in the direction it’s leading. The question is, who are the magnets going to be? People will have their own views and then add to these views an impression of how things are going.”

Rumsfeld is 78 years old and quick to point out that his time on earth has spanned one-third the history of the United States—the country that he has served for more than three-quarters of his life. After graduating from Princeton in 1954, Rumsfeld was commissioned as a naval officer, serving as an aviator and flight instructor. He was an Illinois congressman from 1962 until 1969, when he joined the Nixon Administration as director of the United States Office of Economic Opportunity. He also served as President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of staff and later as his secretary of Defense before becoming President Ronald Reagan’s Middle East envoy—a role made notorious by the frequently replayed image of Rumsfeld’s 1983 handshake with Saddam Hussein, the man his military would later depose. But it is his last position in government, his second stint as secretary of Defense, from 2000 to 2006, by which history will largely judge Rumsfeld. And if the recent uprisings against Arab regimes are any indication, history may come to look more kindly on President George W. Bush’s administration than seemed likely when Rumsfeld left office.

Rumsfeld’s recently published memoir, Known and Unknown, currently No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list, was four years in the making. “I didn’t think I’d write a book,” says Rumsfeld. “Then I thought I’d write a faster one.” Rumsfeld and his staff of young aides, editors, and fact-checkers have also set up a website with all of his many papers, memos, and briefings, so that “anyone who wants to look up the context for one of the quotes in the book can go to the whole document and check it for themselves.”

Known and Unknown opens with an explanation of one of Rumsfeld’s best-known statements, delivered in a 2003 press conference: “[T]here are known knowns … we also know there are known unknowns, that is to say some things [we know] we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” If Rumsfeld was mocked at the time for his utterance’s apparent obscurity and seeming pedantry, the meaning is clear to any first-year philosophy student: What does past experience tell us about things, and what can it not forecast? In other words, what are the limits to what we know of the world?

Rumsfeld’s uncertainty about the outcome of the series of uprisings in the Middle East is an antidote to the blind optimism of those who see military coups as social media revolutions and hence refuse to see the risks involved, not only to U.S. interests and allies, especially Israel, but to the Arabs as well. “Few things are as exhilarating as hope,” Rumsfeld says. “And few are as frightening as the uncertainty that comes from a situation like this.”

Rumsfeld’s worldview is a combination of a conservatism that springs from the experience of witnessing first-hand the limits of political activism and an optimism that is inevitable for any American who believes, in spite of human nature and the course it has charted throughout history, that sometimes the better angels of our nature gain the upper hand. His style is warm and personable, and it’s not difficult to see how he had the press corps eating out of his hands after Sept. 11—up until, that is, the Iraq war.

Overall, he says, he is disappointed in how the Obama Administration has handled the developing situation in the Middle East. “They should have been quicker off the mark with Libya,” Rumsfeld says. “You would be happy to encourage revolts and uprisings in Iran, Syria, and Libya. We almost can’t lose. It’s hard to think those circumstances could get much worse than they are. Qaddafi’s behavior has been harmful to us.”

Egypt is a different matter. “How you behave with an ally tells other allies how you behave,” Rumsfeld says of the White House’s marching orders to Mubarak. Rumsfeld explains how he had just seen a video in which Niall Ferguson ripped into what the Scottish-born NYU professor believed was the administration’s lackluster response to the crises in Tunisia and Egypt. “I can’t help but agree with what Ferguson said, but it’s easier for him than someone who has been in those positions. I’m slow to judgment.”

Still, as Rumsfeld notes, “Mubarak was helpful in the region and created a period of stability that was helpful to everyone”—Arabs and the United States no less than Israel. “If you were an Israeli that benefited from the Egypt-Israel treaty, which provided a respite from decades of fighting, you just have to be deeply concerned,” he continued. “It’s not that they don’t want the Arabs to have opportunities. But if you were in that situation, you might opt for stability versus opportunity for your neighbors.”

I ask how he sees Israel’s strategic situation in the region and whether the Jewish state will continue to serve as an American asset or turn into a liability. “I don’t look at Israel as an asset for the U.S.,” he says. “Any country that is democratic is an asset to the world, a model. That’s despite all the criticism they get from the U.N., the pressure they get from Iran, and the not-so-latent anti-Semitism in our country and other countries.”

While Rumsfeld’s vision of a smaller, more mobile Army may have been partly responsible for the rocky early years of American occupation of Iraq, it may become even more significant now than when he was in office. Rumsfeld’s successor as Defense secretary, Robert Gates, recently said that any future Defense secretary suggesting land invasions in Africa or Asia should have his head examined—a quip apparently aimed at Rumsfeld. But of course that wasn’t what Rumsfeld advised George W. Bush at all. Instead, he argued for a lighter force to go get Saddam and then leave. It was on Gates’ watch that the U.S. military has placed a premium on its counterinsurgency capabilities. In other words, he has helped turn an instrument designed to fight and kill enemies into one with the purpose of winning the hearts and minds of foreign populations. But because the loves and hatreds of foreigners are by definition obscure to American officials, including all future secretaries of Defense, a military centered on counterinsurgency will soon find itself irrelevant.

It is Gates’ Pentagon that perceives of the U.S. armed forces as potential hostages in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are at the mercy of Iran and its local allies. And it is Gates who has put the brakes on establishing a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace that might shape the growing civil war there to the advantage of American interests. It’s somewhat paradoxical that Gates’ Pentagon has become more influential in the policy-making process than other bureaucracies, even as it means that American influence is shrinking in the Middle East. And it’s not going to get any easier for Washington to project power there, as it did during the tenure of Rumsfeld’s career.

As some analysts have suggested, Arab regimes are now going to be less likely to cooperate with Washington, whether that’s because their publics demand it or because the region’s political elite no longer trusts us as an ally. For instance, Middle Eastern regimes like Egypt’s and Pakistan’s may not give us the sort of help with terrorist suspects that our intelligence community and military have grown accustomed to.

“There are all kinds of power,” says Rumsfeld. “There’s the visible power to dissuade and deter, the power to impose, the power that comes from a nice marriage of military and diplomatic influence. That influence is greater if you know where to focus it.”