Rumsfeld: mainly a style thing

Leaked memo is just the latest flash point in the controversy that swirls around Defense secretary.

Is Don Rumsfeld a forceful personality? You bet he is.

Are top US generals and admirals assertive too? They sure are.

Does this mean the Secretary of Defense and the armed services sometimes squabble bitterly over the direction of US military policy? Seems logical - doesn't it?

Almost three years after the Bush administration took office, Donald H. Rumsfeld remains the Roman candle of the cabinet.

The latest episode of his continuing adventures in bureaucracy involves a memo, leaked this week, in which he questions whether the Pentagon can successfully transform to fight the war on terror.

The comment is a tough one, and of a piece with his struggle to change an organization he appears to believe is slow-footed and stodgy.

"He has been fairly critical of his military, and not just undercut, but ridiculed retired generals who speak against him," says retired Navy Commander Michael Corgan, now a military historian at Boston University.

Of course, the man they call Rummy has seemed outsized ever since he reappeared at the helm of the Pentagon after an absence of a quarter century.

Jut-jawed, erect, he gives the impression in public that he is forever barreling forward into some personal head wind. At press conferences his habit of prefacing all his assertions with questions ("Would I be happier if we'd caught Saddam? Of course I would!"), plus occasional outright explosions, can intimidate reporters.

Not all his administration peers are fond of him, reportedly. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, there was talk in Washington that of Bush's cabinet members, Rumsfeld stood a good chance of being the first to resign, or get the heave-ho.

Ever since the beginning of the war on terror, the internal struggles pitting Rumsfeld and his hard line on policy against the more diplomacy-oriented Colin Powell have been a news staple.

But that's not the only bureaucratic foe Rummy has faced. Another, in a sense, is the Department of Defense, the very organization he leads.

That may overstate the case a little - after all, Rumsfeld is for most purposes the military's boss, whereas Mr. Powell is his equal on a flow chart. On the surface, at least, the Joint Chiefs have strongly supported the administration's strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But look at it this way: the Department of Defense is a $400 billion organization with hundreds of thousands of permanent employees. The uniformed leaders of the services have spent all their adult lives immersed in military detail.

Yet every few years there's a new boss sitting in the big suite in the Pentagon's outer E-ring, full of new ideas and eager to change the way things are done.

"There's a long history of tension between the civilian leadership in the Pentagon and the military leadership," says Peter Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That's natural, and ... in some cases it produces better policy."

It can take a strong-willed outsider to cancel weapons systems in which many officers have invested their careers, for instance. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's cancellation of the Navy's A-12 attack aircraft program remains a legendary - and highly litigated - Pentagon battle.

But the conflicts between Rumsfeld and his hand-picked aides, and the military, have at times been surprisingly open and bitter. For instance, last February the Army's then-chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, told Congress that an occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz then rebuked the nation's top soldier, saying that estimate was "wildly off the mark."

Of course, in retrospect General Shinseki was more right than Mr. Wolfowitz. Some experts worry that this and other examples show a deliberate attempt to antagonize high-ranking officers. Rumsfeld and his aides may be "deliberately ignoring their advice even when it's good advice," says Mr. Singer.

In this context, the target of the memo leaked this week seems to be elements of the military that are opposing Rumsfeld's efforts to slim down the military and effect a "transformation" (his word) of revolutionary proportions.

The memo - first described by USA Today - raises questions about whether the US is making progress in the war on terror.

It also cautions that the US "is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan" for the terror fight, and questions whether the Department of Defense is adapting to meet this flexible, shadowy threat.

"It is not possible to change DOD fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror; an alternative might be to try to fashion a new institution, either within DOD or elsewhere," reads the memo.

Rumsfeld is known to challenge subordinates with memos that ask tough rhetorical questions. That's what the memo in question does, said his spokesman Wednesday.

The memo is intended to preserve a "constant sense of urgency" about fighting the war on terror, said spokesman Larry Di Rita.

"I think it's good he's asking the right questions," says Michael Corgan of Boston University. "Inevitably someone will say, 'Why didn't he ask them earlier?' "

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