Pentagon iconoclasts

With his slicked-back hair, rimless glasses, and a cast-in-iron jaw, this Secretary of Defense wields a clout like few others.

He brings a corporate executive's brazen ambition to scrap old ways, even if it rankles the top Pentagon brass. A national security crisis has emboldened him to transform the military, to exert greater civilian control over the services, and even to poach on the State Department's supremacy in foreign policy.

His name: Robert McNamara. The year: 1962.

The description also, of course, could be about Donald Rumsfeld, the current Defense secretary who exactly four decades later is embarked on a course with uncanny parallels to the early 1960s.

Today, as he visits Gulf-based troops in what he insists is not a victory tour, the tale of McNamara holds lessons that are both encouraging and cautionary: Civilian-led transformation of the military, for all its difficulties, is possible. One's record in battle can be very different from one's record in the corridors of Washington. (McNamara reshaped the military for the cold-war era, but oversaw a flawed campaign in Vietnam.) A strong personality can be both a crucial asset and a hindrance in an effort that ultimately requires cooperation in Congress and the military.

Rumsfeld and his team, now relishing US military successes, have already been confronted with some of these lessons.

"They've acted in many ways the way McNamara's whiz kids did," says former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, who was also McNamara's Air Force secretary. "That produces a predictable negative reaction from senior uniformed military people."

Prior to Sept. 11, Rumsfeld's plans for lighter, yet more lethal, US forces faced setbacks in skirmishes with the uniformed services. Now, the question is whether he can translate his victory-bolstered clout into a lasting overhaul of the armed forces.

This month, he quietly submitted to Congress legislation that would radically reshape the Pentagon's military and civilian workforces. And the departure last week of Army Secretary Thomas White could pave the way for a shakeup of that service's top leadership.

Despite the military's overwhelming success in Iraq, Rumsfeld has made no secret of his belief that the Army must transform itself from a force designed to thwart a Soviet invasion of western Europe.

It was McNamara who pushed the military to adopt that force structure at President Kennedy's direction, says Alain Enthoven, who headed McNamara's systems-analysis office and now teaches business at Stanford University. Instead of depending on massive nuclear strikes, Mr. Enthoven says McNamara wanted stronger conventional forces, and expanded the president's menu of options to include the Special Forces now favored by Rumsfeld.

Equally important were McNamara's changes in how the Pentagon evaluated weapons and spent money. His pack of number-crunching whiz kids such as Enthoven wrested budgetary control from admirals and generals.

The Sept. 11 terror attacks, like cold war 1960s standoffs in Cuba and Berlin four decades earlier, fed Rumsfeld's new urgency for change. Both McNamara and Rumsfeld saw a military unprepared for the range of conflicts that might lie ahead.

Pentagon power shift

And after a decade when President Clinton deferred to military wisdom, Rumsfeld also concluded generals and admirals had amassed too much power, says former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, who now directs the Council on Foreign Relations' National Securities Studies program.

Rumsfeld's recent "Defense Transformation for the 21st Century Act" suggests he is willing to shake up the way the Pentagon operates. The 205-page plan would shift 320,000 military jobs to civilians, freeing up those soldiers for combat duty and making it easier hire civilians outside the civil service system. It would allow top officers to serve longer - or to be ushered out early.

The legislation would also lift the limits on the number of employees Rumsfeld can hire for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and free him from reporting requirements to Congress.

Even as he pushes that plan - which would enhance the authority of the Defense Secretary on the personnel front - Rumsfeld continues to press for changes in weaponry and style of combat.

The success of the Iraq campaign, with its emphasis on flexibility and the use of Special Forces, could bolster his case.

"You liberated a country," he told US troops in Qatar Monday. "How you did it will help transform the way we defend our country in the 21st century."

Yet despite prior experience as Defense Secretary under President Ford, Rumsfeld got off to a rocky start in 2001. Having turned around pharmaceutical firm G.D. Searle prior to returning to the Pentagon, Rumsfeld erred by approaching this second tour as a hostile takeover rather than a friendly Republican homecoming, Mr. Korb says.

Rattling the brass

Like McNamara, Rumsfeld doesn't seem awed by top military officers, willing to drop generals such as White overboard with little finesse in favor of ones who share his vision for the future.

This has left wounds. Army brass angered him by lobbying Congress behind his back to save the Crusader artillery system. Rumsfeld returned the favor by announcing its cancellation without telling them first.

Harold Brown, Defense secretary under President Carter, says no one in that job, no matter how politically skilled or friendly, can both reform the entrenched defense establishment and keep the career officers who run it happy. "There's going to be tension when you try to change things," says Brown. "A less strong personality can ease that but it does not remove the tension."

It is in the realm of tactical and strategic decisions during the Iraq war that Rumsfeld's assertiveness fueled the most Pentagon tension. Published reports suggested Rumsfeld intervened with military planners about which combat units would deploy to the Persian Gulf and when they'd arrive. Most Defense secretaries leave operational decisions to military leaders.

Rumsfeld has proven equally aggressive in usurping the State Department's traditional diplomatic role. He publicly chastised allies opposed to the war as "Old Europe" and delegated the reconstruction of Iraq to a Defense Department office headed by retired Gen. Jay Garner.

In those actions, Rumsfeld has faced a national icon, Colin Powell, while McNamara competed against a more low-key Secretary of State, Dean Rusk.

Until recently, Rumsfeld seemed chastened by his 2001 budget skirmishes with the military services. He showed less willingness than McNamara to make tough budget decisions, says Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Rumsfeld has cancelled only a single major weapon system - the Crusader - and left other items such as the F-22 fighter, the Virginia-class submarine and Comanche attack helicopter unscathed. Krepinevich says Rumsfeld will not be able to postpone much longer the hardest choice associated with transformation: whether to pay for future capabilities by cutting present forces or raise the defense budget to do both at the same time. The former approach means cutting systems that enjoy support in the military and in Congress.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...