Robert Novak

His "several hundred thousand" answer was so far from the official line that it confirmed Rumsfeld's view of Clintonite generals out of control. While Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz declared Shinseki "wildly off the mark" and Rumsfeld also disagreed, the general stuck to his estimate. That left it to the secretary of the Army in testimony before Senate Armed Services last Thursday.

White anticipated the inevitable question, and had carefully drafted an equivocal answer: "Gen. Shinseki has some experience in this, having run the stabilization force in Bosnia, and he's a very experienced officer." Pointing out that "there are others" who disagree, White concluded: "You have two views on this right now, and expertise in support of each view." That surely was no ringing affirmation of the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz line at an hour when White's future was shaky.

White and his closest associates were not aware of how close he came to being fired last week, and not even normally well-informed U.S. senators had any hint. Naturally, nobody at the Pentagon will confirm a possible sacking. Not speaking for quotation, White's critics in the Office of the Secretary of Defense portray him as an impediment in the goal of reforming the Pentagon. His admirers see him, in contrast to a long line of lackluster service secretaries, committed to the Army institutionally.

Actually, the 1986 Goldwater-Nickles Act took the Army and other civilian service secretaries out of the chain of command, so that White is largely a symbolic figure. If he is dismissed on the eve of war, it will happen because Don Rumsfeld insists on the symbol of everybody at the Pentagon singing the same song without dissent.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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