Rummy rebellion

Donald Rumsfeld

General uprising

Until the mid-20th century, the Defense Department was called the War Department, and the Secretary of Defense was the Secretary of War. That's a useful distinction, because it's turning out that Donald Rumsfeld might have been a good Secretary of Defense, but he's been a terrible Secretary of War.

In recent days, several retired generals have publicly called for Rumsfeld to resign because of his botched conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and general unhappiness with his leadership.

Some of the attacks have been blistering. Marine Lieut. General Greg Newbold, the top operations officer in the Pentagon, ultimately retired from the Marine Corps, partly because of his opposition to the Iraq war. He faults not only Rumsefld but also military leaders who did not speak out:

Those are men who know the hard consequences of war but, with few exceptions, acted timidly when their voices urgently needed to be heard. When they knew the plan was flawed, saw intelligence distorted to justify a rationale for war, or witnessed arrogant micromanagement that at times crippled the military's effectiveness, many leaders who wore the uniform chose inaction. A few of the most senior officers actually supported the logic for war. Others were simply intimidated, while still others must have believed that the principle of obedience does not allow for respectful dissent. The consequence of the military's quiescence was that a fundamentally flawed plan was executed for an invented war, while pursuing the real enemy, al-Qaeda, became a secondary effort.

In response, the Pentagon and the White House have launched public relations campaigns in defense of Rummy. GWB declared that contrary to what some might think, Rummy is exactly the right person to lead the defense department and said in a written statement, "He has my full support and deepest appreciation." Retired General Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hit the Sunday talk shows to deny that Rummy was an autocratic, micro-manager who didn't listen. He also took aim at the outspoken generals, calling their public comments "inappropriate."

On ABC, George Stephanopolous tried to pin Myers down, "Why is it inappropriate?"

"It's inappropriate because it's not the military that judges our civilian bosses. That would be a [unintelligible], and a horrible state in this country, in my opinion if the military was left to judge the civilian bosses, because when you judge Secretary Rumsfeld, you're also judging the Commander in Chief, because that's the chain of command."

Myers went on to say that everyone had had their chance to speak out, and cited General Eric Shinseki as an example, saying that after Shinseki's congressional testimony that "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed to occupy Iraq, "he never mentioned the number again."

Well, duh! The words were hardly out of Shinseki's mouth before Wolfie and Rummy publicly slapped him down, ridiculing Shinseki's estimate as "wildly off the mark." Soon, Shinseki's planned retirement was accelerated, and he was marginalized. Now who in their right mind would express a contrary opinion after that? It didn't take a genius to get that message.

There is a lot to be said for a "shut up and salute" attitude once decisions are made and action begins. To use a sports analogy: When the quarterback calls the play and the team moves from the huddle to the line, everybody's job is to execute the play as best they can. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't look at the game films to see how the play worked or could be done better.

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times (16-Apr-06), notes that Rummy is a classic Anti-Organization Man: "He never met an organization he didn't try to upend.... Anti-Organization Men like Rumsfeld value the traits needed to mount frontal assaults on vast bureaucracies: first, unshakable self-confidence; second, a willingness to stir up opposition and to be unmoved in the face of it (on the contrary, to see it as the inevitable byproduct of success)."

Brooks notes that Rummy took direct aim at the Pentagon: "On Sept. 10, 2001, Rumsfeld held a town meeting in the Pentagon that almost perfectly summarizes his career. There is an organization that threatens the security of the United States, he warned. 'With brutal consistency, it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas.' The adversary is close to home, he concluded: 'It's the Pentagon bureaucracy.'"

Many people, myself included, liked and appreciated Rummy for his analytic, even cerebral, approach to his job, and there is no doubt the military was in need of restructuring, which Rummy called "transformation."

But "9/11 changed everything," as GWB is fond of reminding us. And the problem seems to be that Rummy has kept on following a playbook based on defeating one enemy, the Pentagon bureaucracy, instead of a playbook to defeat a different enemy, terrorism. Rummy may know organizations, but when it comes to armed combat, his generals surely know more. Rummy's shortcoming has been his inability to shift from being Secretary of Defense to Secretary of War.

Nick Anderson cartoon
Nick Anderson

Myers was right about one thing: to judge Rumsfeld is to judge Bush. And there's the rub. People have judged Bush, and poll results show they don't like how he's doing his job. In that context, changing personnel at the DOD might have a salutary effect on morale, at least temporarily, but the real issue is changing policy. And that chain of command leads directly to GWB, cozy in his bubble surrounded by yes-men and yes-women.