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The Nation

Pentagon Reform Is His Battle Cry

Donald H. Rumsfeld, with new political clout won in Iraq and Afghanistan, intensifies his war on the military establishment.

August 17, 2003|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Donald H. Rumsfeld has won two wars and won them his way, overruling military traditionalists. But to the secretary of Defense, Afghanistan and Iraq were merely two battles in a larger crusade.

Even as he directs military operations around the world, Rumsfeld has seized a leading role in the national security debate in Washington, giving the Pentagon new clout in administration debates on foreign policy and intelligence.

He has set out to "transform" the military establishment. He wants everything to move more quickly, whether it's getting Marines to trouble spots or designing and delivering new weapons systems.

Pentagon officials would write fewer reports to Congress, get raises based on performance rather than seniority, and buy weapons and supplies at the best value for the dollar. And overseas troops would shift from Cold War garrisons in Europe to terrorism hot spots like East Asia and the Middle East.

All that at the age of 71, on the final lap of a long political career.

If Rumsfeld succeeds on all those fronts, he may enter the history books as one of the most powerful secretaries of Defense since the office was created -- as powerful as Robert S. McNamara, who remade the Pentagon in the 1960s.

But the prickly Defense secretary can only hope the analogy ends there. McNamara was undone by the war in Vietnam. Will Rumsfeld be undone by the "peace" in Iraq?

For Rumsfeld, peace -- or the half-peace that has followed the end of major combat on May 1 -- is proving at least as difficult as war. Another 129 soldiers have been killed since then. The 148,000-strong U.S. force in Iraq is tied down battling guerrillas loyal to the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein, delaying the homecoming of thousands of troops and straining the armed forces.

Enlisting other countries to help has been more difficult than some Pentagon officials anticipated; fewer than 6,000 troops from nations besides the United States and Britain have arrived so far.

And despite his clout in Washington, Congress has pared back some of Rumsfeld's bureaucratic reforms -- to the point that he may ask President Bush to veto this year's defense bill.

Rumsfeld says he believes that he is making progress on all fronts; Iraq, he vows, will not be another Vietnam.

"I don't do quagmires," he told reporters last month.

Rumsfeld's record suggests that it might be foolish to doubt him. Admirers and critics alike, many of whom would only speak anonymously about him for this article, credit the Defense secretary with unusual prowess as a war leader and bureaucratic gladiator.

"There's no question he's one of the strongest and most powerful secretaries of Defense we've had," said Robert S. Strauss, the longtime Democratic Party patriarch. "Whether you like him or dislike him, you have to recognize that he's smart as hell, and he understands bureaucracy and bureaucratic infighting better than almost anyone in town."

Rumsfeld is pugnacious, demanding, brusque and, to his rivals, infuriating. That, admirers say, is what makes him effective.

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger collided with Rumsfeld almost 30 years ago, when Rumsfeld was on his first tour as Defense secretary under President Ford. Kissinger described the young Rumsfeld in his memoirs as "a special Washington phenomenon: the skilled full-time politician-bureaucrat in whom ambition, ability and substance fuse seamlessly."

To quote "Rumsfeld's Rules," a collection of aphorisms the Defense secretary has compiled over half a century: "Don't necessarily avoid sharp edges. Occasionally they are necessary to leadership."

Or, more succinctly: "If you try to please everybody, somebody's not going to like it."

"Rumsfeld has a black belt in both proactivity and reactivity," said a former senior official. "[Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell is spending most of his time being reactive.... The result is that Rumsfeld often dominates. On a lot of issues, he's this administration's thought leader."

State Department officials complain that Rumsfeld sometimes plays unfair by sending underlings to negotiate on policy decisions, only to withdraw his assent later -- leaving the decision-making process in chaos.

An official in a third agency said there is some truth in that but added another factor. The Department of Defense is "chaotic, but at least it has a policy," he said. "State is orderly, but it has no policy."

Rumsfeld also keeps rivals and underlings off balance with a constant blizzard of dictated memos -- known as "snowflakes" inside the Pentagon and "Rummygrams" elsewhere -- asking questions and proposing new policies.

"What are you doing about this? How long is it going to take?" a senior Pentagon official said, describing the memos. "It's a management technique to keep people on their toes.... We joke about how we'd like to steal his Dictaphone."

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