Published on Monday, October 21, 2002 by the Seattle Times
Dissension in the Ranks:
Rumsfeld's Style, Goals Frustrate Top Brass
by Vernon Loeb and Thomas E. Ricks
The Washington Post
Donald Rumfeld's public image as a sharp, in-charge secretary of defense is a far cry from how he's perceived among Pentagon insiders. They describe Rumsfeld as often abusive, indecisive and accessible only to a small 'palace guard' of loyal advisers.
WASHINGTON When Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold was preparing this year to leave his position as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his boss, Gen. Richard Myers, nominated an Air Force officer to succeed him.
But when Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of his choice for the next director of operations or "J-3," one of the most important jobs in the U.S. military he received a rude surprise.
Not so fast, said Rumsfeld, who in a sharp departure from previous practice personally interviews all nominees for three-star and four-star positions in the military. Give me someone else, Rumsfeld told Myers after twice interviewing the nominee, Lt. Gen. Ronald Keys.
Myers came up with a selection more to Rumsfeld's liking, Air Force Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz ending a long-standing practice of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs naming his top subordinates.
Senior military officers now recount Keys' demise to illustrate a pronounced civilian-military divide at the Pentagon under Rumsfeld's leadership. Numerous officers complain bitterly that their best advice is being disregarded by someone who has spent most of the past 25 years away from the military. Rumsfeld first served as defense secretary from 1975 to 1977, in the Ford administration.
Top brass frustrated
Nearly two dozen current and former top officers and civilian officials interviewed said there is a huge discrepancy between the outside perception of Rumsfeld the crisp, no-nonsense defense secretary who became a media star through his briefings on the Afghan war and how he is seen inside the Pentagon.
Many senior officers on the Joint Staff and in all branches of the military describe Rumsfeld as frequently abusive and indecisive, trusting only a tiny circle of close advisers, seemingly eager to slap down officers with decades of distinguished service. The unhappiness is so pervasive that all three service secretaries are said to be deeply frustrated by a lack of autonomy and contemplating leaving by the end of the year.
Rumsfeld declined to be interviewed for this article.
His disputes with parts of the top brass involve style, the conduct of military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and sharply different views about how and whether to "transform" today's armed forces. But what the fights boil down to is civilian control of a defense establishment that Rumsfeld is said to believe had become too independent and risk-averse during eight years under President Clinton.
What makes this more than a bureaucratic dispute, however, is that it is influencing the Pentagon's internal debate over a possible invasion of Iraq. Some officers question whether their concerns about the dangers of urban warfare and other aspects of a potential conflict are being sufficiently weighed or dismissed as typical military risk aversion.
Billion-dollar plans in doubt
The dispute also promises to have a big impact in the coming year on the fate of hugely expensive weapons systems. Stephen Cambone, a top Rumsfeld deputy, is recommending more than $10 billion in savings by cutting or delaying the Air Force's F-22 stealth fighter, the Navy's next-generation aircraft carrier, and three Army programs: the Comanche reconnaissance helicopter, the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle and the Future Combat System.
These tensions were straining relations between the uniformed military and Rumsfeld before Sept. 11, 2001, but were partially submerged by the Afghan war and other counterattacks on terrorism. They have re-emerged as the Pentagon plans for possible war in the Persian Gulf and for a fiscal 2004 budget that is in danger of being swamped by war costs and long-deferred expenditures on modernization, new weapons and Rumsfeld's desire to transform the military into a 21st-century force.
"There is a nearly universal feeling among the officer corps that the inner circle is closed, not tolerant of ideas it doesn't already share, and determined to impose its ideas, regardless of military doubts," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute with close ties to defense contractors and the military.
"All of the bad blood of last year is coming back in a very big way," one former Pentagon official said.
'Palace guard' resented
All three service secretaries were recruited from private industry to bring "best business practices" to the Pentagon and promised autonomy in making management reforms. But all three find their actions constrained by Rumsfeld and what is referred to as his small "palace guard," according to Pentagon insiders.
Air Force Secretary James Roche has thought he lacked input on decisions about the service's centerpiece program, the F-22, senior officers and defense contractors say. Navy Secretary Gordon England has expressed interest in a top job at the proposed Homeland Security Department. Army Secretary Thomas White, a former executive at Enron Corp., has been tarnished by the Enron scandal, his failure to promptly divest his Enron holdings, and controversy over his use of Army aircraft for personal business.
It's an ironic position for an administration that came to office promising new respect for the military. In Congress and elsewhere in Washington, some now question whether the military feels free to give its best advice to the administration or whether that advice is welcomed.
"I've heard repeatedly about the lack of trust between the secretary and the uniformed officers," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee and a former Army officer. "That, I think, is a problem," particularly with a possible invasion of Iraq, he added.
"If there is an atmosphere where contrary views aren't well-received, you may move into an operation that isn't well-advised," a three-star officer warned.
Views welcomed, some say
Myers, in an interview, denied that he or other senior officers feel constrained in speaking their mind to Rumsfeld.
"It has never been easier to express our opinion, our thoughts, with any secretary," Myers said. "There is ample opportunity, in fact, encouragement, to present other views and disagree."
Victoria Clarke, Rumsfeld's spokeswoman, cited a series of "spectacular accomplishments" at the Pentagon: a new defense strategy, a nuclear posture review, a restructured missile-defense program, far more realistic budgeting procedures, and an ambitious agenda for "transforming" the military. Those couldn't have happened without close civilian-military relations, she said.
"It's extraordinary that those things got done, in the face of amazing resistance to change, at the same time we were prosecuting the war on terrorism," Clarke said. Rumsfeld "not only welcomes, but encourages, dissent."
While issues of great substance lie at the heart of Rumsfeld's unsettled relationship with the military, discussion of the Pentagon's current environment invariably begins with assessments of Rumsfeld's powerful personal style.
Even his detractors admit he is a man of considerable energy and intellect who is pushing the right issues and raising many of the right questions. Rumsfeld, 70, is universally praised for his handling of the war in Afghanistan, where he and other Bush Cabinet members insisted on a bold plan for toppling the Taliban and driving al-Qaida out of the country.
What appears at times to be indecisiveness on Rumsfeld's part, according to one senior officer, stems from his deep personal involvement in operational planning.
It has become a truism in national-security circles that Rumsfeld has been a better secretary of war than secretary of defense. Rumsfeld has two dominant priorities. The first is reshaping the U.S. military from a heavy, industrial-age force designed in the Cold War to an agile, information-age force capable of defeating more elusive adversaries anywhere on the globe.
Rumsfeld's second priority, about which he has been less open, is reasserting civilian control over a military establishment that had grown autonomous and, many believe, too cautious during the Clinton years. Throughout the war on terrorism, Rumsfeld has pushed for bolder plans from the military. Under his stewardship, war planning has become far more effective and imaginative, said a former official who otherwise is critical of Rumsfeld.
"This guy really is trying to get (the Pentagon) to work for him," one former defense official said. "I don't think he's chosen the right path. But it's not a question of him being the devil and everyone else is a misunderstood angel."
If Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon in January 2001 predisposed to see senior military officers as dull and uncreative, as many believe, he has since shown a willingness to reassess their capability. Some officers say relations between his office and the uniformed branches have improved as both sides have learned to better interact.
"Rumsfeld has changed over time. He's still cantankerous, but he's not necessarily as combative as he was at one point in time," one three-star officer said.
'Courting a rebellion'
Others are far more pessimistic. "Things are more fouled up (at the Pentagon) than I've ever seen them," said one former defense official sympathetic to Rumsfeld.
"The depth of disaffection is really quite striking," added a defense consultant. "I think Rumsfeld is courting a rebellion."
Rumsfeld's primary objective in reasserting civilian control over the Pentagon has been in reining in the Joint Staff, an umbrella organization of about 1,200 personnel, drawn from all four services, that is crucial in overseeing daily military activities worldwide.
The staff works for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Rumsfeld has made it clear that in his Pentagon, the chairman works for him.
People who have dealt with him over the last two years said Rumsfeld saw the Joint Staff as sometimes unresponsive to civilian leadership. He wasn't alone, recalled one officer at the Pentagon, who said Joint Staff officers sometimes seemed to think that "the suits don't need to know this."
Under Rumsfeld, the civilians are no longer cut out.
Rumsfeld tried to gain control over the key position of director of the Joint Staff, the person who helps determine the daily agenda of the U.S. military leadership, backing down when his move to oust the incumbent met opposition. But he made the point that the defense secretary would be intimately involved in deciding who filled the top positions. And he prevailed when it came time this year to replace Gen. Newbold.
Chairman says he has say
Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has been criticized by generals who think he has failed to stand up to Rumsfeld. But Myers said such complaints are from officers who don't understand his close relationships with Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He also said that "if I didn't feel like I had my say to my boss and had an opportunity to be influential, I wouldn't be here."
Rumsfeld is now working to strip the Joint Staff of a series of its offices legislative liaison, legal counsel and public affairs. These have given the military leadership a degree of autonomy by providing it direct pipelines to Congress, to other parts of the government and to the media.
Clarke, Rumsfeld's spokeswoman, denied Rumsfeld has singled out the Joint Staff in an attempt to diminish its power.
"The secretary thinks the entire department, civilian and military, was lethargic, bureaucratic, not fully addressing the dramatically changed world in which we find ourselves," she said. "And he has appropriately lit fires under everybody and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the stakes around here are very high.' And some people respond well to that, and some people don't."
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company