The most visible face of the Bush Administration over the past week has not been the President, or even the Vice President who whipped the administration's budget through the House. Day after day this week (and much of the last one, too) the administration figure hogging the front page of national newspapers was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The missile-defense scheme he has championed for years took an important step closer to fruition as the White House dispatched its diplomats to pitch the project in the capitals of the world, and the press talked of a unified Space Command like so many excitable adolescents. But the primary reason for the media attention Rumsfeld enjoyed this week was the fact that he is playing maestro in what may be the most comprehensive overhaul ever of the U.S. military and is keeping the nation guessing (and its media furiously speculating) over just what that will entail, making him our newsmaker of the week.
It takes a Republican to say no to the military. And when multiple nos and some painful amputations are the order of the day, that Republican had better have matchless hawkish credentials. And few can match either Donald Rumsfeld's hawkish stripes or his reputation as a bureaucratic brawler. Indeed, one of the more widely reprinted legends surrounding the 69-year-old Defense Secretary, who served in the same post under President Ford, alleges that Henry Kissinger once told Republican insiders that of all the despots he'd had to deal with, none was more ruthless than Donald Rumsfeld.
It's not hard to see why the Bush Administration asked Rumsfeld to do a second tour of duty in the job. For one thing, its hawkish Vice President may have wanted some company given that the more dovish Colin Powell had been tapped as Secretary of State. With potential policy battles looming over such sensitive issues as missile defense, Cheney may have felt he needed more support than could be offered by such comparatively lightweight Defense Secretary candidates as Dan Coats and Tom Ridge.
A second, and ultimately more important consideration was the Bush Administration's promise to remake the military. The $300 billion a year behemoth evolved to meet the threats of the last century, but the war it was built to fight ended in 1991. Since then, the challenge has been to redefine its strategic mission and rebuild its capabilities accordingly a process that will inevitably involve some painful cutting of projects dear to the hearts of generals, politicians and defense industry lobbyists.
A Democratic Administration led by a draft-dodger was never going to persuade the generals to let go of their pet projects or the legislators to trim the military pork for the folks back in the district. The Bush Administration needed a Defense Secretary with nerves of steel and impeccable hawkish credentials to break the bad news to the military, and stare down the backlash on Capitol Hill. And Rumsfeld's combination of true-blue conservative ideological stripes and CEO managerial skills made him the dream candidate. Cheney certainly had no doubts about that Rumsfeld had been his mentor when the Vice President was a gung-ho congressman from Wyoming.
Rumsfeld and his fellow hawks certainly had to swallow a couple of minor setbacks early on in the new administration. They were forced to bite their tongues as Powell moved to bring Washington's Iraq policy more in line with its Arab allies by calling for a relaxation of many sanctions against Baghdad while seeking to tighten control over access to military technology. And during the Hainan spy plane standoff, the Defense Secretary found himself sidelined it was prudent for the Bush Administration, during those difficult days, to muzzle the man who'd only weeks earlier told the U.S. military that its primary mission was to build the capability to fight and win a land war in Asia. Only last week, he was forced to retract an order to halt all military-to-military ties with the Chinese: the directive was modified to require a case-by-case review of such contacts, and the error blamed on an aide.
But those were minor setbacks. On missile defense, he's won the game. The system for which he'd pressed for years has now become an article of faith in Washington, and while Powell's mission is now simply to pacify allies anxious over the implications for arms control, to Rumsfeld not exactly a die-hard advocate of arms control falls the job of choosing which tools to use in the building of a missile shield.
Another reason Rumsfeld was in the news this week were reports that he'd pressed for the consolidation of the space divisions of the different armed forces into a single space command under an Air Force general. This was not a particular dramatic shift, despite the media spinning it as a step to realizing Rumsfeld's Flash Gordon vision of a Space Force protecting U.S. satellites from attack by earthly rogues. But it is an indication that the media is hanging on his every word.
The reason? The journalists, like the generals, the politicians and the lobbyists all know a major overhaul of the U.S. military is coming down the pike, but they don't know its shape or form. The only person who does is the Defense Secretary, and the stakeholders are desperately parsing everything that looks like a leak from his office. But Rumsfeld is playing his cards so close to his chest that the Senate Armed Forces Committee is threatening to delay ratifying Defense Department appointees to protest being kept in the dark.
There are currently some 18 panels reviewing aspects of military strategy, policy and force development as part of a planned dramatic overhaul designed to equip the U.S. armed forces for the wars of the future. Many of their recommendations are in conflict and the fact that there's a steady stream of minor leaks to the media has resulted in a frenzy of speculative reporting which has the U.S. scrapping large aircraft carriers the one day, retaining them the next; scrapping manned fighter planes or going ahead with all three costly fighters currently in development; scrapping the ability-to-fight-and-win-two-wars measure for force size or retaining it, and so on.
And Rumsfeld simply smiles, icily, through the cacophony. It will be his job to sift and synthesize the slew of contradictory proposals that emanate from these panels, and set priorities. It may have announced itself as the most conservative administration since Reagan, but the Bush team has refrained from simply throwing money at the military in the Reagan fashion. Indeed, it stuck pretty much with the defense budget figures of the Clinton Administration, planning to first undertake a comprehensive review to ensure that monies are wisely spent on remaking the military. Rumsfeld's secretive style may actually help him keep the lobbyists, generals and politicians off balance until the administration has finalized its proposals. And it is, paradoxically, his poker-faced secrecy that's keeping the Defense Secretary in the headlines.
With reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington