Washington — When President Bush took office and proclaimed it was proof that a C student could reach the top, many people said not to worry, he has great advisers. Then the economy tanked and most of the administration's economic team was replaced. But the administration's stars remained: Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and ... Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Cheney, Powell and Rice have had their problems, but remain in favor. Cheney was sent to the Middle East in a round of shuttle diplomacy that failed. Powell insisted that the president seek U.N. approval to defend the nation and the world's oil supplies from Iraqi aggression, only to later lament that the United Nations did not run U.S. foreign policy. Rice is continually dismissed as an academic, out of her element in the realpolitik world of international power games. Even so, each of these people has survived and is generally well-liked and well-respected.
But the lightning rod star of the team is Don Rumsfeld. He has evolved as an irascible, opinionated, divisive force who simultaneously evokes admiration and dismay. He has managed to alienate veterans, foreign allies and high-ranking officers, all to no purpose.
He denigrated the value of draftees in previous conflicts, which set off a firestorm of protest from the veterans' organizations representing patriotic people who had served when called and fought on the beaches of Normandy, the mountains of Korea and the jungles of Vietnam.
He explained that Germany and France were "old Europe," implying that those important nations had lost much of their previous importance.
He is extremely unpopular in the Pentagon, where his overbearing, abusive style has rankled many top officers. Even retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the leader in the Gulf War, said, "Candidly, I have gotten somewhat nervous at some of the pronouncements that Rumsfeld has made," and he went on to explain his concerns over the defense secretary's competence. Rumsfeld has discovered myriad methods of alienating the Pentagon brass, to the point of making petty and unnecessary changes, such as altering CINCPAC (Commander-in-Chief Pacific) to COMPAC (Commander Pacific). Adm. Chester A. Nimitz was CINCPAC in World War II, and every commander of the Pacific Fleet until now held the same title, but Rumsfeld, sources tell us, declared there is only one commander-in-chief: the president. But traditions are an important element in military cohesiveness, and the Navy is not happy about this and many other aspects of what Schwarzkopf refers to as "the Rumsfeld thing."
Why does Rumsfeld do it? Perhaps he can't resist the spotlight. It is somewhat reminiscent of Pres. Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt and Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in the Nixon and Ford administrations. They, too, could not resist the spotlight, and they, too, said foolish things. In their cases, the foolishness included racial jokes and epithets -- this, Rumsfeld has not done.
What is interesting is that most experienced leaders, whether in business or government, rarely speak without purpose, which is why alarm bells go off when someone like Rumsfeld speaks without thought. He did not have such a reputation when he first served as secretary of defense in 1975 under President Ford. Interestingly, almost none of the current officers in the Pentagon had even graduated from college by that time. Perhaps this is a reason for his treatment of those officers. He could be looking at them with the same arrogance and ego of age that causes a senior to sneer at a freshman.
Compare and contrast Rumsfeld with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a consummate professional who concentrates on getting the job done and not on getting his name in the headlines. In any event, Rumsfeld cannot survive many more missteps, and even now, he may be only one more gaff from gone.
Prediction: Rumsfeld will make the next high-profile departure from the Bush administration.