Archive for Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Rumsfeld shifts gears at Defense

August 1, 2001

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— Many defense experts say it's time for a revolution in how we approach our national security needs. The Cold War has been over for more than a decade, and new threats require new thinking. That is the scenario that lured Donald Rumsfeld from his cushy post in private industry to head the Defense Department. Yet, six months after assuming the post, Rumsfeld appears no closer to changing the way we defend ourselves than the day he took office.

This is Rumsfeld's second tour of duty at the Pentagon. His first time around, appointed in the 1970s by President Ford, he was the youngest-ever Defense Secretary. Now in his 60s, he is at a point in his life where he never expected to get another turn at the helm, and he's determined to do it his way. A naturally assertive fellow, he doesn't expect to step aside for anybody. The combination of his overbearing personality and his command-and-control management style has proved deadly in Washington, where subtlety and salesmanship are essential to bring about change.

Rumsfeld wants to move the military away from its two-war strategy, which requires a high degree of readiness and manpower, toward a stealthier, more high-tech strike force with a space-based, antimissile shield as a centerpiece. Knowledgeable critics worry that Rumsfeld's plan will be used as an excuse to de-fund conventional forces, and the Joint Chiefs, who represent the various military services, are lobbying against any cutbacks that might affect them. They have enlisted so many powerful members of Congress in their cause that it is said on Capitol Hill, "If the Joint Chiefs prepared the battlefield for war the way they prepared the battlefield to get Rumsfeld, we'd never lose."

Rumsfeld's obsessive focus on an antimissile shield makes many lawmakers uneasy. They see it as the equivalent of another Manhattan Project that, while allegedly defensive in nature, would open the heavens to the arms race.

Setting aside the merits of Rumsfeld's Revolution, the way he has presented his case is puzzling. First, he conducted his review of defense policy with great secrecy, inviting comparisons to how former First Lady Hillary Clinton formulated her failed health-care plan.

Members of Congress complained that he didn't consult them, and there was a report that Rumsfeld privately referred to lawmakers as "hillbillies." He didn't do much better at the Pentagon, where he alienated the Joint Chiefs with his grandiose plans and his cocky, arrogant style. "He's treating the Pentagon like it's a hostile takeover," says a former Pentagon official.

Change is unsettling, and some of the negative reaction to Rumsfeld is predictable. Former President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his farewell address about the growing power of the military-industrial complex. Rumsfeld may be right that the entire defense structure needs an overhaul, but he won't get anywhere if the defense industry bureaucrats, members of Congress and the generals are all on the other side.

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