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Rumsfeld: Older but Wiser?

12 minute read
Michael Duffy/Washington

It wasn’t so very long ago that the name Donald Rumsfeld sent shivers down the spines of Washington’s most battle-hardened bureaucratic warriors. In the 1970s, when Rumsfeld was chief of staff and later Secretary of Defense under President Gerald R. Ford, he was a fearless backroom operator. Henry Kissinger once admitted that Rumsfeld was the only person ever to get the best of him in a political fight. Rumsfeld’s inside moves during the Ford years were so clever and complex that he developed a cult following among conservatives. He was the man who would stop at almost nothing to win, and almost always did. In 1974, he wrote a small pamphlet–Rumsfeld’s Rules–about how to make things happen in Washington. He has updated it regularly ever since. Rule No. 25: “Don’t blame the boss. He has enough problems.”

That one still applies. In seven months as Pentagon chief, Rumsfeld has managed to spook the military, alienate defense contractors, mobilize much of Capitol Hill against him–and even make some in the White House question his toughness. It’s usually a Democrat who puts the Pentagon on a wartime footing, but Rumsfeld, 69, is an armor-plated Republican and a military man to boot (he served as a Navy pilot). He has stirred up these problems by launching a much needed but oddly secretive review of the U.S. military that until last week threatened to sink ships, ground planes and retire soldiers in order to reduce U.S. forces overseas and free up money for more research in areas such as missile defense. “This is one of the most interesting situations I’ve seen in a long time,” says Representative Norm Dicks, a pro-military Democrat from Washington State. “He says he wants the military to stop saying they can fight two wars on two fronts simultaneously. But he has opened more fronts in Washington than any Defense Secretary in memory.”

Which helps explain why, all of a sudden last Friday, Rumsfeld sued for peace. After hinting for months that the new Administration might force the Army, Navy and Air Force to cut two or three divisions, 40 to 50 ships and as many as 72 fighters, the Pentagon chief said, in effect, never mind. The three services, he announced, can decide for themselves how to prepare for the future. “This is a big organization,” he said. “The services make lots of decisions. It would be foolhardy to try to micromanage from the top…every aspect of everything that is going on.”

This is the story of how Don Rumsfeld tried and has so far failed to conquer the Pentagon–the story of a man who played by the rules of a bygone age, when power in Washington was less diffuse, when the military brass were more subservient and when options could be hammered out in a place that barely exists anymore–in secret. It’s the story of how Washington has changed in the 24 years since Rumsfeld left the capital for the private sector. After his announcement last Friday, Rumsfeld denied that he had executed an abrupt about-face. He insisted he had never committed to force reductions in the first place. But he admitted, in an interview with TIME, that he was “surprised” by how much Washington has changed since 1976. After leaving town “I was not into the rhythm of the place,” he said, and the changes in the intervening years took him by storm. “My Lord, in this place, all you have to do is think about something, and it is leaked. It’s like there are eavesdropping microphones on your brain.” It’s enough to make a man devise some new rules for coping. Here are a few that Rumsfeld might want to adopt.

New Rule No. 1 Times change. So do the Rules.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had a simple message for their audiences, particularly those in military towns: “Help is on the way.” To most men and women in uniform, that meant more money was on the way. But after Bush and Cheney took over last winter and installed Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, the new team shocked hard-liners in Washington by proposing little new money for the military this year. Instead, Rumsfeld announced that he was conducting a “top-down” review of the Pentagon’s strategy and forces, with an eye toward transforming the hidebound institution and getting it ready for the wars of the future. Help would have to wait.

Rumsfeld’s review was a good idea, everyone agreed, because the Pentagon was still spending about the same amount in the post-cold war world as it had when the Soviet Union was a threat. With the big old enemy gone, it made sense to re-examine how America trains and equips itself to fight. Besides, the huge budget surpluses that were being forecast seemed to make genuine reform a possibility for the first time in decades. “There was reason to do the review even if the cold war hadn’t ended, but it had,” says Lawrence Korb, a Reagan-era Pentagon official now at the Council on Foreign Relations. Korb notes that the Joint Chiefs were behind the idea. After eight years of Clinton, he said, they “were dying to have these guys back.”

New Rule No. 2 Ask the locals for help. It’s impolite–and quite possibly dangerous–not to.

If the review was overdue, the way Rumsfeld went about doing it was downright peculiar. Instead of using active-duty officers to run the show, he at first went outside to retirees for advice. That upset both officers and civilian employees, who were much more up to speed about current threats and capabilities. Rumsfeld also kept top officials of the services in the dark about his progress–and many, like Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, complained that it took months just to get a meeting with Rumsfeld. It wasn’t long before the Pentagon bureaucracy went from pliant to resistant. “People got mad,” said F. Whitten Peters, Secretary of the Air Force under Clinton, “because they didn’t feel it was a real two-way street.”

Rumsfeld had reasons for his secrecy. When push came to shove, the military didn’t much want to re-examine itself. When he asked for recommendations about how to change, the Navy came in with a request for five additional aircraft carriers. The Air Force offered to mothball some old bombers but would not sacrifice a single fighter plane. The Army proposed to cut the Reserves–an idea it knew Congress would never approve. But there was something else going on. Throughout the campaign, the Bush team kept complaining about burdensome overseas commitments. The military, however, regarded all the extra work as exhausting but also as a useful lever during budget negotiations. The more the services thought about Rumsfeld’s “transformation,” the less they cared for it. As an admiral said last week, “Like it or not, the current strategy resonates with most people here. It’s better to be engaged overseas than to have to die [in combat]. We like that. When we’re engaged, we know the turf and we know the allies. Pulling out takes all that away.”

New Rule No. 3 Don’t charge up the Hill alone.

With the military brass suspicious of him, Rumsfeld then did something truly strange. He kept his potential allies on Capitol Hill–Republicans and Democrats alike–completely in the dark about his plans. Senators from shipbuilding states could not find out if their beloved destroyers and frigates would be axed. Members of Congress with divisions stationed in their backyards kept hearing rumors about deactivation but could not confirm them. There were new leaks every day about dismantling National Guard units and mothballing ships. And when the lawmakers managed to corner him, Rumsfeld gave nothing away. “He made everybody mad,” says Dicks. “He’d listen to what you had to say, but there was no dialogue.”

Behind the scenes, Rumsfeld was making some progress. By late July, he had yoked the Joint Chiefs together and won their O.K. to abandon a cornerstone of U.S. defense strategy–the ability to fight two simultaneous wars. For a decade, that strategy had helped justify the large force structure left over from the cold war. Once Rumsfeld got the generals to abandon it, he could pressure the services to downsize and refashion their forces in support of a more realistic strategy–such as winning one war decisively while deploying peacekeeping troops in perhaps half a dozen other places. “He really locked them in,” says a Rumsfeld aide. “He got them to agree that the world had changed.”

But by then, a lot of other things were changing too. As summer arrived, as the economy kept sputtering and Congress enacted a $1.35 trillion tax cut, those rosy surplus projections began to shrink. Military health-care costs rose faster than missile-defense bills. The budget situation became almost impossible. For months, many analysts had been saying the only way Congress might go along with Rumsfeld’s reforms was if he sweetened the deal by sprinkling goodies on key districts. But now the extra money was drying up. Rumsfeld went to the White House in July to ask for $38 billion more for next year’s military budget, and he came away with less than half that. It was the largest increase since Reagan, but it wasn’t enough to grease the way for Rumsfeld’s reforms.

New Rule No. 4 Don’t assume your subordinates are on your side. They probably aren’t.

A month ago, when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, Rumsfeld floated a plan to close dozens of military bases over the next eight years. That proved, if nothing else, that he was serious about cuts, but it was tantamount to declaring war on Capitol Hill. And with that announcement, Rumsfeld reactivated a reserve unit that had outlived its enemy–the secret anti-Clinton operation formed inside the Pentagon in 1993. When Clinton arrived that year and announced his plan to loosen rules on gays in the military, a network sprang up overnight between uniformed officials in the Pentagon and their allies on Capitol Hill. The phones began to hum; e-mail chains were forged. Before long, the Pentagon had the Hill pledging to stop just about any Clinton proposal the military didn’t like. When rumors of Rumsfeld’s cuts began to circulate, the wires began to clatter anew. “What the uniformed guys put in place to undermine the last President,” said a top Pentagon official under Clinton, “was now being used to undermine Rummy.”

Officers saluting the Secretary in the corridors of the Pentagon but working behind the scenes to thwart him–this was something that didn’t often happen 25 years ago. The CLASSIFIED stamp on Rumsfeld’s plan was hardly dry before copies found their way to Capitol Hill. By Aug. 3, it was apparent that lawmakers from both parties would bury any cuts he proposed. Republicans were locked and loaded; Democrats pretended to be sympathetic, just for fun. Says Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a former Army officer: “He was sailing into the teeth of a storm everywhere he looked.”

“I’ll give you a rule,” Rumsfeld said last Friday, an hour or so after he announced that he would let the services reform themselves. He put pen to yellow foolscap and spoke as he wrote. “It goes something like this: ‘If you deal with a senior officer, you can be almost absolutely certain that he is capable of doing a number of things very, very well–even though the thing you are dealing with him on may not be one of those things.'”

That sounded as if Rumsfeld was a little resentful of the way the brass had undercut his reforms. Sure enough, an aide later translated: Don’t expect generals and admirals to spend a lifetime in the bureaucracy and then be able to tear it up and start over. “I thought about this the other day,” Rumsfeld continued. “That’s always been true, and I should have known it, but I never formulated it in my head.” It is possible, of course, that by making the military responsible for cutting itself Rumsfeld is retreating to fight another day and with a bigger weapon. As he told Time, “There are certain decisions that President Bush is going to make.”

Rumsfeld had changed from his suit jacket to an old gray cardigan, and took a seat in his large, spare Pentagon office. His huge desk was behind him, but it lacked a chair because he prefers to work standing up; he thinks better that way. What else has changed since 1976? he was asked. He looked as though he wasn’t sure where to begin. The Congress, he said, the power of congressional staff, the number of restrictions lawmakers place on the military. And the defense contractors. “They have gone from a lot to a few, and they have activities in a very large number of congressional districts.” And the press: “It’s arranged for promoting conflict, difficulty and problems. I guess that was always the case, but not like now.”

New Rule No. 5 Get a rabbi. Preferably one named Cheney.

Before Rumsfeld surrendered last week, he enjoyed stalwart support from the White House. Dick Cheney, once a Rumsfeld protege, came to his rescue. Rumsfeld is “going to have to break some china, but he’s just the guy to do it,” Cheney told the Washington Post two weeks ago. But that support may be softening. “There’s some concern about him going native,” says a senior Administration official who fears Rumsfeld is “falling into the old habit” of letting the uniforms dictate to the civilians.

But what clearly has the White House official steamed most is the way the military has short-circuited Rumsfeld’s reforms. “We’re giving them the largest increase in spending since 1984, and they’re out there complaining!” says the official. “If they think they can get more money out of Congress, more power to them. All they want is more money–more money and no reform.”

–With reporting by James Carney/Washington

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