A Pentagon press lunch with the secretary of defense is a rare privilege, especially for a columnist from fly-over country.
I've watched Don Rumsfeld perform on television. He treats stand-up press conferences as sparring rings, where he's the heavyweight champ and reporters are lightweight chumps with glass jaws.
Maybe lettuce and tomatoes mellow Big Don. Rumsfeld seems much less combative with a salad plate plopped in front of him. As the lunch and conversation progressed, I noticed he never picked up a knife, but I've no doubt the man can wield sharp cutlery. The glint in the eye is the clue. Sgt. 1st Class Bowen -- the Korean War vet who taught Cadet Bay how to use a garrote -- had the same steely gleam.
I left it to the Beltway journalists to ask those personality-juiced queries that generate sensational gossip. Here's an example: "Mr. Rumsfeld, are you going to resign after the election?"
Since my scribbled notes include a splotch of asparagus soup, I'll have to paraphrase the SecDef's snarl, "I certainly wouldn't tell you if I were."
Undeterred, I decided to ask a question that goes to the heart of America's ability (or inability) to win long-term, multidimensional 21st century wars.
My question: "Mr. Secretary, based on our experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the limited interagency and non-governmental organization (NGO) participation in that operation, how do you see 'Unified Action' evolving for future conflicts?"
Forgive the military jargon -- at one time I was Col. Bay -- but the question is essential. It also altered the luncheon ambiance. As I asked it, I saw our very steady chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Peter Pace, pass Rumsfeld a careful stare.
"I'll tell you we're better at it now than we were five years ago," Rumsfeld replied. He acknowledged that "challenges remain" in achieving Unified Action and that effective Unified Action is critical to winning 21st century wars.
He's right -- we are better at it than we were. However, I know we aren't as good at it as we need to be.
The politically deft SecDef finessed the question -- and it was finesse, not dodge. The military jargon masked a heavy political hand grenade I was rolling toward the Beltway. You think Harry Reid's land deal or Mark Foley's messages are big stories? How about a stinging pre-election turf battle between Defense and the departments of State, Treasury, Justice, Commerce and Agriculture, complete with zinger accusations of who is or isn't contributing to the war effort?
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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