Sunday, April 23, 2006

Rumsfeld, transformation, inertia

Charles Krauthammer, in an as-usual spot-on column in the Washington Post, "The Generals' Dangerous Whispers," criticizes the recent generalissimos for helping to weaken yet another social norm--the traditional silence observed by retired military officers and ex-presidents.

It should be noted that Rummy has been subject to this sort of criticism before. Fred Hiatt in a Post editorial noted as early as Aug. 27, 2001: "The defense secretary was arrogant, out of touch and corporate." But Hiatt admitted he was doing this in the service of transformation, and he had no other option but bluntness; commentors like David Ignatius in the International Herald Tribune on Sept. 3, 2001 expressed exasperation at the brass's "aversion to change."

And lest it be lost on us what the consequences of Pentagon conservativism are, Gannett summarizes a Rumsfeld speech of Sept. 10, 2001:
Standing before several hundred stone-faced defense officials in a Pentagon auditorium Monday, he declared war on the Defense Department's bureaucracy, calling it as serious a threat to national security as the Soviet Union was, and even more "implacable."

It "crushes" new ideas, said Rumsfeld, places 17 layers of bureaucracy between the defense secretary and a front-line officer with an idea, and has so many counsels' offices that a central counsel must monitor what they all do.
Note the date. The resolution came too late, much like the belated Japanese declaration or war given to Ambassador Grew as the smoke cleared from Pearl Harbor. But the idea was exactly right. It is unclear whether Rumsfeld is the best man to lead an active war; I think the Krauthammer discussion eviscerates the generals' arguments that he is not, but that itself is not a positive endorsement of Rummy. I can say, from my fairly limited experience working for the Department of Defense for five years, that he was well respected as an able and tough advocate. Rumsfeld was and is a proponent of restoring military strength and enlistment levels to two-war sufficiency, or, failing that, one war and one stop-action. It's hard to fault him for military underfunding when from the first moment of his appointment he advised Bush to veto any appropriations bill that did not increase spending on manpower. And it's hard to fault his mannerisms when a soft-spoken Secretary of Defense is simply not taken seriously. William Cohen under Clinton had a habit of writing poetry--actual poetry, not Slate-isms--that lost him much military respect, as sadly macho as that might be. Lee Aspin had a "famously unmilitary bearing" and wishy-washiness that made him completely ineffective. (His shoplifting from a Fort Myers base exchange probably did not help.)

As for the political cycle of whispers, and their usefulness as prophecy, it also might be useful for perspective to recall Timothy Noah's Slate headline of Sept. 7, 2001: "Rummy Death Watch No. 3: Possible Replacements Named!" I wonder which Watch No. we are on now.

Finally, the thought of the New York Times interviewing young military officers and publishing anonymously their remarks is quite unfortunate. There is a strong internal debate going on, you can be sure. (And, as the Times shows, the debate strongly favors Rumsfeld.) But these officers know anonymous remarks are inappropriate, and almost certainly against orders; the Times should not excoriate Scooter Libby and then tempt people to become like him.

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