Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seems to long for the good old days when the Soviet Union was our single adversary and defense strategy was more "tidy."
In an interview, Rumsfeld tells me of the challenge he faces after "the procurement holiday" taken by the Clinton administration. He indicts the previous administration for its inattention to defense: "The average age of aircraft has gone up about 10 years. We're getting eaten up by high maintenance costs and are having to cannibalize aircraft. The ship building budget at the current rate is on a trajectory from 310 ships to 230 ships."
Top military brass believe the proposed spending budget is too low, given the modernization they deem necessary. Rumsfeld tells me it will be necessary for Congress to provide "every penny" of the money that's been requested, and he hints that even that amount will not be enough, given the size of the task.
The need isn't only to acquire new hardware, he says, but also to retain and attract good people who, in an all-volunteer military, are less likely to stay (or enlist) if they believe they don't have adequate support.
Intelligence gathering today is more difficult than in the past, says Rumsfeld. "When you worried about the Soviet Union, you could look at a single country and their ships, guns, tanks, ballistic missiles, etc. You could reasonably predict what they were going to do. (Now) you're looking at a lot of countries." He says the use of fiber optics and the ability to bury cables out of sight make it more difficult to learn what countries and terrorists are doing. Rumsfeld worries that we may be depending too much on space technology to detect and deflect danger, while other threats, such as jamming our computers, may be a less clear but more present menace.
On China, Rumsfeld says the damage assessment of the U.S. spy plane forced down and searched by the Chinese is ongoing and that it will be "a few months" before the process is complete. He says that while the crew worked hard to destroy classified things, they were unable to destroy everything.
Rumsfeld is optimistic about the future of China: "It is going to be difficult for the leadership to perpetuate itself in office, while simultaneously embarking on a path of freer economic systems." He believes, "a flow of information and computers and access to technologies will make repression more difficult...Over the coming 10-20 years, we'll see a communist system trying to have the benefits of a free marker without a parallel of having a free political system and a free press. Can they pull this off? I don't know. Their leadership will have to make an assessment of what they're putting at risk - the future of the regime - by gaining a stronger economy." Rumsfeld says, "money is a coward" and won't flow into China if the Beijing government continues to stifle freedom. "There are other opportunities in the world where people can invest," he says.
On the use of American forces for purposes other than fighting wars, Rumsfeld rejects the Clinton-era concept of "nation-building," saying that cannot be done by outsiders. He worries that in Bosnia, "the longer you stay, the more dependent they become and the less likely the outcome will be what they and the outsiders had hoped." He says the Bush administration is pressuring local civilians and our NATO allies to quickly establish an infrastructure that will allow U.S. forces to withdraw at a more rapid pace while insuring stability on the ground.
There's still no clear post-Cold War vision for America's role in the world and there hasn't been since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. That's because the threats and challenges to America and American interests have diversified. For the Bush administration, the challenge is convincing Congress to supply the money necessary to fix what has been neglected for eight years while spending to improve the prospects of a solid defense against known and unknown future challenges. That's going to cost a lot of money and it's going to demand leadership with foresight.