Nearly every day now, working from the stand-up desk in his spacious Pentagon E-Ring office, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pores over a secret document known only to a tight circle of U.S. officials: Deployment Order No. 177. Although it might sound like a one-pager that needs only a quick review, No. 177 is a series of documents, each 10 to 20 pages long, detailing exactly when, how and where Army and Marine battalions, Navy carrier groups and Air Force fighter wings are to be shipped overseas or redeployed for war in Iraq.
Pentagon officials say orders such as No. 177 are normally reviewed thoroughly in advance and fly across a Defense chief's desk. But with every step America takes toward war with Iraq, which could be as little as a month off, Rumsfeld is doing things his own meticulous way. Over the past few weeks, he has been holding up deployment papers at the last minute, demanding answers and explanations about which units are going where, why. He has been running similar drills for months on the generals and admirals, reworking the plans to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. General Tommy Franks, the Army four-star who would run the war as head of U.S. Central Command, actually prepared the plan. But as a Pentagon officer points out, "That misses the point. Franks may be the draftsman, but Rumsfeld's the architect."
As America prepares for a war that would require 25 times the number of troops deployed to fight the Taliban, Rumsfeld, 70, is on the line as never before in a long and storied career. Afghanistan was a highly unconventional war that relied in part on CIA agents carrying bags of cash to buy the loyalty of anti-Taliban fighters. But taking out Saddam would mean an old-fashioned kind of conflict, with thousands of Marines and G.I.s carrying rifles and grenades. A war, if it comes, would be Rumsfeld's legacy. Win or lose, this would be Rumsfeld's war.
Ever since Rumsfeld became something of a matinee idol with his daily war briefings, his relationship with the military he leads has become more complicated. Between his easy smile and his shiny little eyeglasses, he is vaguely reminiscent of F.D.R. and is brimming with the same sort of spooky confidence. His clipped, no-nonsense manner--leavened with plenty of "good gollies" and "dadburnits" (and a helping of time-honored doubletalk)--cut the press down to size during the Afghan war, scored high in the polls and turned the man who has the distinction of being both the youngest and the oldest person ever to hold the title of Secretary of Defense into a celebrity who is featured in the pages of Vanity Fair and skits on Saturday Night Live.
In the foxholes, Rumsfeld's take-no-prisoners bravura plays well with the soldiers who would be doing the fighting in Iraq. "We do what we're told to do," says a Marine commander, "but confidence is important to us." As you move up the ranks to the men who are supposed to be scripting this fight, however, not everyone is convinced that Rumsfeld should be managing it down to the last dog tag. Retired Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the first Gulf War, says he is "nervous" about the control Rumsfeld is exercising over the buildup. "It looks like Rumsfeld is totally, 100%, in charge," says Schwarzkopf. "He seems to be deeply immersed in the operational planning--to the chagrin of most of the armed forces."