He was a hero going into the Pentagon job. How did it go so wrong?
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEJanuary12007
A few kind words for poor Rummy
He was a hero going into the Pentagon job. How did it go so wrong?
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
Donald Rumsfeld walked out of his Pentagon office for the final time last week, 10 days before he could claim to have been the longest-serving defence secretary in U.S. history. The 74-year-old never sat on the job. He did his work standing for up to 10 hours a day, a fact he pointed out in a hand-scrawled note on a memo signing off on interrogation techniques that included forcing prisoners at Guantánamo to stand for four hours at a time. He was demanding, conniving, and cantankerous. He departs office shouldering the blame for America’s military troubles in Iraq, and leaves behind an army pushed to the breaking point by two wars—Iraq and Afghanistan— with no end in sight.
Villain? Perhaps. Some say a tragic figure. “It’s like a .750 hitter striking out with the bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth in the last game of the World Series,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. “It’s tragic because a very talented person underachieved at the moment it was the most important. It’s almost Shakespearean.”
Aristotle wrote that a tragic hero must have
certain qualities. He must be great. He must have a tragic flaw, and it must cause him a reversal of fortune. And at some point, he must come to understand what caused his downfall. It may be hard to remember today, but Rumsfeld was once considered great. He was a navy fighter pilot, a congressman at 30, and an ambassador to NATO before president Gerald Ford made him White House chief of staff and then the youngest defence secretary in U.S. history. (Rumsfeld leaves office as the oldest.) He launched a hugely successful private sector career as a CEO who turned around troubled companies, earning numerous awards
SOME ARE CALLING HIM A TRAGIC FIGURE. `IT'S ALMOST SHAKESPEAREAN.'
and a spot on Fortune magazine’s list of America’s “Toughest Bosses.” When George W. Bush picked him to head the Pentagon in 2000, his hometown Chicago Tribune called it “a stellar choice,” the Los Angeles Times pronounced him “a keen-eyed manager,” and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said “his experience is reassuring.”
At first, he looked heroic. Rumsfeld won respect for his hands-on response to the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, helping save the wounded as the building burned. The swift invasion of Afghanistan that seemed to succeed where the Soviets’ couldn’t made him a media star. His press conference swagger, today considered arrogant and combative, was then seen as candid and alpha-manly. He was called sexy and a “babe magnet.” Fawning books were rushed to press, including The Rumsfeld Way: The Leadership Wisdom of a Battle-Hardened Maverick.
Yet talk of his imminent resignation started almost immediately—well before the terrorist attacks of 9/11—as the new defence secretary ran afoul of the generals. Behind the scenes, Rumsfeld was turning the Pentagon upside down. He was implementing what military analysts labelled a “revolution in military affairs,” “transforming” the military from a Cold War force to an agile hightech force poised to take on new threats. The vision called for less emphasis on ground forces, more focus on technology, smart bombs, quick invasions, and smaller forces. He didn’t come up with the idea. George W. Bush campaigned on this policy when he ran for president in 2000, although Rumsfeld became its enthusiastic executioner and its public face. But the revolution meant killing some of the generals’ pet projects.
The former college wrestler’s in-your-face leadership, relentless questioning and decisive style seemed just what was needed to pull it off. “There are entrenched interests inher-
ent in a bureaucracy, and transformation sought to unseat these interests,” says David Schenker, who until last year worked as a policy adviser to Rumsfeld and is now a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That’s going to create enemies.” It did. By 2002, Rumsfeld had killed a Cold-War style, US$ 11-billion 40-tonne mobile artillery system, unhappily named the Crusader, that had been eight years in development. The army was livid. Last spring, six retired generals made international headlines by publicly calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation on account of Iraq; they had also just been informed about a US$25-billion budget cut.
Nor did Rumsfeld win any friends when he gave himself more power over promoting generals; nor when he overhauled Pentagon civilian employment policies, linking pay to performance and to market wages and sparking lawsuits by labour unions; nor when he oversaw the biggest base closure and realignment program in U.S. history. Add to the mix his mistrust of the generals and reliance on a small coterie of civilians, and his attempts to supplant the brass as the president’s top military adviser, and it becomes clearer how he alienated many military leaders well before U.S. troops set foot in Baghdad.
“That style of leadership was in many ways what a civilian should try to do in the military—the basic role of the civilian secretary is to shake up the debate, challenge conventional wisdom, and to empower military reformers,” says O’Hanlon. Analysts applauded some of his changes. For example, Rumsfeld ditched the practice of keeping the navy in its three main overseas theatres, thereby giving it unpredictability. He created more flexible combat units in the army. His insistence on a lighter, smaller land force enabled the Americans to
topple Saddam Hussein with 140,000 U.S. soldiers—not the 380,000 planners initially said would be needed. But after the speedy invasion, he ignored warnings that more forces were needed to control the border, secure arms depots, and clamp down on the budding insurgency. As the situation spiralled out of control, he was stubborn and deaf to criticism, say his critics. Rumsfeld dismissed looting in Iraq with, “stuff happens.” He focused on hightech weaponry instead of buying more body armour for troops. He allowed the Iraqi army to disband, creating a prime recruit pool for insurgents. For a time, he signed letters to families of the fallen with a signature machine.
“Rumsfeld will go down in history as a tragic figure,” says Fred Kagan, a former West Point military historian now at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “Because his priority has
been to transform the military, he has consistently attempted to defend transformation programs even in the midst of this war. I think the tragedy is that, unintentionally, he is going to leave us with armed forces that are less well-prepared to meet future challenges.” In fact, the army’s chief of staff warned last week that the army “will break” under the strain of Iraq and Afghanistan. Former secretary of state Colin Powell said last Sunday that it is already “about broken.”
Yet Kagan says the problem is much bigger than Rumsfeld. In a new book, Finding the Target, he argues that for decades the best U.S. military thinkers have been conceptualizing military transformation too narrowly—as winning wars from the air with smarter weapons and fewer men—while failing to think through the more important question of how to use military power to achieve political aims, such as a stable, democratic Iraq. “This goes beyond the Defense Department. We don’t have organs in the American government to do the broad-based political planning we need. This is not just Rumsfeld’s fault,” Kagan argues. Others say that, in the case of the Iraq war, it was so ill-conceived that it would have led to disaster—no matter who ran the Pentagon.
Either way, it’s unlikely Rumsfeld will ever follow Aristotle’s model and blame his downfall on himself. In fact, he’s eager to share the blame. “There is not a single important decision of any magnitude at all that the chairman and the joint staff and the combatant commanders, where appropriate, and the services, where appropriate, have not been involved,” Rumsfeld said at a farewell town hall meeting at the Pentagon. Of the disastrous effort to train an Iraqi police force, he said, “There was no line item for the Department of Defense to do anything about police. It was over in the State Department. And they didn’t have the people to do it. And the Congress didn’t authorize the money to do it.” As for the controversy of detainee treatment at Guantánamo? He blamed it on “grossly uninformed and irresponsible charges in the media from almost every quarter.”
The closest we might get to contrition may be this: “I wish I could say that everything we’ve done here has gone perfectly, but that’s not how life works,” he said. “Regrettably.” M
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