Rumsfeld's battles with Pentagon have long history
By Bryan Bender
April 24, 2006
WASHINGTON -- Donald H. Rumsfeld's battles with the Pentagon brass began long before the Iraq war, or even Sept. 11, 2001.
The brash 73-year-old defense secretary, who first headed the Pentagon in the Ford administration, returned to the job a quarter-century later as a man with a mission: to transform the massive Cold War-era bureaucracy into a technology-driven strike force, and become the father of the 21st-century military.
Rumsfeld's plans sparked immediate resistance from the armed forces, so much so that a week before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, news outlets were reporting that he was being squeezed out. Instead, Rumsfeld used the post-9/11 emergency as a laboratory for his reforms, including high-tech wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last week, amid a firestorm of calls by retired generals for the defense chief's ouster over strategic missteps in Iraq, a defense trade website ran a little-seen item that the Army -- a primary target of Rumsfeld's reforms -- had been told it might have to cut forces or weapons programs by up to $25 billion over the next six years.
Rumsfeld's current and former aides, interviewed last week, emphasized that his larger transformation agenda, replete with unpopular cuts, was the main underlying cause for the uproar, far more than reversals in Iraq, for which the generals bore equal responsibility.
Likewise, according to those who know him, Rumsfeld's unyielding commitment to his vision of the military -- combined with what aides call his fierce loyalty to President Bush -- explains why he's clung to the job for so long.
"He is a very progressive guy and many of these guys [in uniform] still want their heavy divisions," said retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, attributing much of the bitterness toward Rumsfeld to generals wishing to preserve their fiefdoms.
McInerney, who meets with Rumsfeld frequently and recently accompanied him on a week-long trip to Asia, compared Rumsfeld's proposed cutbacks in the big standing army to World War II commander George Marshall's efforts to retool a military clinging to its 19th-century ways. "Do you know how hard it was for George Marshall to get rid of the horse cavalry?"
But Rumsfeld's critics say he's clung to his vision of transformation with a stubbornness that defies any dissenting opinions and ignores the reality of a war where high-tech weaponry succeeded in removing a dictator, but failed to restore order.
A former top Rumsfeld aide who generally admires the chief recalled that his commitment to reforming the Pentagon was evident a few days after the building was attacked by terrorists in 2001, when he gathered his top staff to discuss how to prosecute the war on terrorism. Despite the challenges ahead, he told them that the reforms he was pursuing would remain a top priority.
"The building was still on fire, but he said we have to stay focused on the overall transformation," recalled the aide, who asked not to be identified discussing internal meetings.
Many people in the room were taken aback. "A lot of people thought we are not going to focus on that stuff for a while. And they were dead wrong," according to the adviser.
Throughout the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Rumsfeld's bluntness and imperious manner at news conferences have led to public caricatures of him as a prototypical hardliner, ready to meet any challenge with a bombs-away mentality.
But the aides say that people who view Rumsfeld as a military hardliner misunderstand his relationship to the services. In the confines of the Pentagon, Rumsfeld is frequently described as a "progressive" who defies conventional ideas about the use of force.
Like Robert S. McNamara, the Vietnam-era defense chief who is the only man who has served longer in the job, Rumsfeld is a former corporate chief executive officer who measures his success in terms of taming the world's greatest bureaucracy.
"People say he is a hawk, that him and [Vice President Dick] Cheney run everything. He is not some ideological nut," said a former top Rumsfeld aide, who asked not to be named. "You can have a reasonable discussion with this guy. But this is also a guy who for five years has been tipping the applecart, canceling big orders for the Army, and a lot of people are [angry]."
A former Republican representative from Illinois, Rumsfeld quit the House to run large agencies for President Richard M. Nixon and his successor, Gerald R. Ford. Even then, he had a reputation as someone with progressive instincts and a bullish managerial energy.
"Don is a big thinker and he has always been change-oriented," said Frank Carlucci, secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan. Carlucci worked under Rumsfeld in Nixon's Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969. Carlucci recalled being shocked when Rumsfeld ordered him to replace most of the staff and to shut down some of organization's satellite agencies.
"If you want somebody who thinks outside the box and is willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, then you go for Rumsfeld," Carlucci said in an interview.
For the final year-and-a-half of the Ford Administration, Rumsfeld served in his dream job of defense secretary. After his tenure was cut short by Ford's defeat, he spent the remainder of the '70s and the '80s in the business world.
But he always thought about defense policy. In the 1990s, he chaired several government commissions on the future of warfare and explored ways to retool the military to be able to respond to "asymmetric" threats such as long-range missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism.
When President-elect George W. Bush asked Rumsfeld to return to the Pentagon -- after first considering Dan Coats, former Indiana senator -- Rumsfeld created his own mandate and didn't seem to care if he ruffled some feathers.
Nonetheless, rumors swirled quickly that Bush would replace Rumsfeld because of his frayed relations with the military brass. Asked by Newsweek magazine about the rumors that he was about to be replaced, Rumsfeld said the week before 9/11: "Not likely."
The day before 9/11, Rumsfeld outlined his reform agenda in a speech in the Pentagon auditorium, calling for "an all-out campaign to shift Pentagon resources from bureaucracy to the battlefield."
Knowing that many generals opposed him, Rumsfeld took personal control of the promotion process, to ensure he had a corps of commanders willing to press his reforms.
"He became actively involved in picking the generals for promotion," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and Pentagon aide who coined the phrase "military transformation" in the late 1990s. "He wanted people who believed in transformation so they could carry on after he was gone. But those decisions have typically been the prerogative of the military services. And if you really want to make someone angry, fool around with who is going to have what job."
Rumsfeld and his staff have undertaken an unpopular series of initiatives to turn many military desk jobs into combat jobs. He also is battling major unions in court to reform the National Security Personnel System to make it easier to move Pentagon bureaucrats around.
The American Federation of Government Employees said in a statement last week that the secretary "has lost the confidence of the civilian defense workforce, and in light of recent news reports and commentaries, it appears he has lost the confidence of military leaders and soldiers as well."
Rumsfeld also has ordered the military to make changes in force structure out of a deep belief -- underscored by the lightning-fast toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after 9/11 -- that smaller units backed by precise weapons were the wave of the future.
"The first [defense review in 2001] became fairly heated among all the services, the Army in particular, which was facing losing two divisions," said retired Army General Paul Kern, who oversaw the vast Army Materiel Command until 2004. "That was very difficult for the organization to accept."
Kern added that he believes Rumsfeld's reform initiative "is one of the undercurrents" of the resentment that recently manifested itself over his handing of the Iraq War.
Some of the retired generals who have attacked Rumsfeld acknowledge that their concerns extend beyond Iraq to his larger agenda. Within the Pentagon, anger has only grown after the news, first reported by Insidedefense.com, that Rumsfeld's office is considering a $25 billion cut to the Army, which has carried much of the cost of the Iraq conflict.
One of Rumsfeld's recent detractors, retired Major General John Batiste, who
headed the First Infantry Division in Iraq, put it this way last week: "Boots
on the ground and high-tech weapons are important, and one cannot come at the
expense of the other."