Defense: Rumsfeld's Lonely, Losing Battle

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Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Armed with the experience, the attitude and the requisite mandate from the president, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was going to be the guy who finally whipped the U.S. military into post-Cold War shape. But now, as his department scrambles to pull together a quadrennial review of Pentagon strategy and budgets before its Sept. 30 deadline, Rumsfeld is widely assumed to be losing the fight. The signs are grim: For a week, the New York Times and the Washington Post have peppered their front pages with stories on Rumsfeld’s fading luster; Slate suggests starting a "Rumsfeld Death Watch," predicting his exit as DoD chief by February.

The betting here: Bush and Cheney don’t seem like the type of guys to jettison Rummy because he’s under a little fire — especially when they’re the ones who stranded him in enemy-held territory.

What Happened?

George W. Bush’s drive to restructure the military into a quick, agile and cost-effective force appropriate for the post-Cold War world started promisingly enough. "As president, I will begin an immediate, comprehensive review of our military," Bush announced at The Citadel in South Carolina — a review that would cover "the structure of its forces, the state of its strategy, the priorities of its procurement." These would be radical changes, he said, pushing the military beyond "marginal improvements" to "skip a generation of technology."

The problem: that speech was nearly two years ago. Having planted his flag, Bush rarely spoke of restructuring again and retreated into vagaries about strengthening the U.S. military after "years of neglect" by the Clinton Administration. And those vagaries were duly taken by hawkish Republicans and Pentagon officials to mean simply that more money — even more than Clinton threw blindly at the Pentagon at budget time every year to keep those hawks and soldiers off his back — was on the way from the new GOP president.

Then came the tax cut, and the slowing economy and the shrinking surpluses, and the politically uncomfortable reality that alterations in the way the Pentagon waged war would have to come, to a large degree, out of its own pockets. All the while, Rumsfeld kept trudging, convening a task force headed by serious-minded (and Pentagon-scaring) restructuring guru Andrew Marshall and reporting to a hostile Congress that difficult decisions would have to be made.

Rumsfeld’s original plan — reportedly, spend twice the extra $18.5 billion the White House sent the Pentagon’s way — certainly would have made all those choices easier to stomach. As it is, Bush’s earmarked funds went to missile defense and status-quo basics like parts and equipment and improved living standards for soldiers, and the disagreements between the military establishment’s soldiers and civilians became measurably sharper. And Rumsfeld is on the brink of a choice that — at least for the time being — has little or no chance of making its way into the field.

The Choice

The choice was laid out in two reports that are on Rumsfeld’s desk right now. One, by civilian analysts in the Pentagon’s Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, concluded that the armed forces could be reduced by well over 10 percent without strategic detriment — with the savings getting ploughed back into the sort of high-tech weapons systems and generation-skipping investments that Bush talked about. The other, from aides to the generals that make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was simpler: Keep the military at its current size of 1.4 million people on active-duty.

Notwithstanding the military’s internal and institutional resistance to change — and it is a formidable obstacle — the brass’ view is that near-term threats to U.S. security are too great and too many to risk a rebuilding that would leave forces temporarily inadequate. The restructurers’ is that the Pentagon’s current needs assessment — and its two-war requirement, which is a cinch to go in any case — is too lavish for the world of today.

One short-term fact everyone seems to agree on is that the military, is currently over-stretched to meet its current strategic needs. The question is how to fix that — with more military, or less strategy?

The Politics

Generally, one of two things need to happen for the military to submit to an ambitious restructuring: either it loses or otherwise screws up a war, or a president makes it his No. 1 priority. It’s been a while since Pearl Harbor, or even the failed Iran hostage-rescue attempt in 1980, and that left Bush. And his once-stated dream of a refashioned military quickly took a back seat — both fiscally and in terms of political capital — to tax cuts, education, health care, Social Security privatization and just about everything else.

Without leadership (meaning arm-twisting) from on high, Congress has never discovered any inclination to approve the sort of weapons-scrappings, base closings, and personnel cuts that the math demanded — not when the livelihoods of constituents were on the line. That was apparent at budget time at the end of June, when Rumsfeld proposed cutting the B1 bomber fleet — and just last week, 34 of the 60 members of the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee wrote to Rumsfeld warning him against trimming the Army.

One reason Bush has let Rumsfeld dangle is that Democrats are lining up to do the previously unthinkable: make military readiness their issue. Even Hillary Clinton can be heard harping on the trade-offs between Bush’s tax cuts and his Pentagon budget, and when a Clinton — any Clinton — and a Daschle start threatening to pick up votes on a military issue, Bush knows it’s time to pull his political neck out of harm’s way.

The Prognosis

Come September, Rumsfeld will probably try to navigate some middle ground between the status-quo and force reduction, find some way to reduce the perceived strategic demands of the current world, and put out a plaintive recommendation for more troop and weapons-system cuts that Congress will declare dead before it ever hits the Hill.

And in a year or two or three, if things are quiet enough at the White House, maybe Bush will make another speech, send out the congressional shock troops and give his old buddy Rummy a real chance to shine.

If he hasn’t quit by then.