The age of Rumsfeld

Posted: Apr 08, 2003 12:00 AM

Stop the lynching party! Donald Rumsfeld was briefly being pilloried as another Robert McNamara, the disgraced Vietnam-era secretary of defense who interfered with the military. With American tanks now in Baghdad, Rumsfeld criticism feels -- as the kids say -- like, so four days ago.

The charges against Rumsfeld, and his creative war-making, always had a counterintuitive ring. He was being accused by liberals of not being hidebound enough, and by critics of the U.S. military of not showing enough deference to military officers. Why can't this dinosaur from the Ford administration start acting like a dinosaur from the Ford administration?

A frequent lament has been that generals are cowed by Rumsfeld. Well, guys with stars on their shoulders aren't supposed to be so easily intimidated. But if they are rocked on their heels by Rummy -- good. The defense secretary's charge through the Pentagon China Shop represents a necessary adjustment in civil-military relations.

For the past 15 years, the military has been shown extreme deference, to the point of giving generals control over foreign policy. The first President Bush allowed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to dictate his own -- disastrously generous -- surrender terms to the Iraqis. And the generals ran roughshod over Clinton administration officials, intimidating them, for instance, out of an early intervention in Bosnia.

The post-Vietnam U.S. military was risk averse, haunted by the failure of the Desert One hostage-rescue attempt in Iran and eager always to fight the last war, namely the rumbling, 500,000-troop-strong cakewalk over the Iraqis in 1991.

Rumsfeld's sin has been to confront that innate conservatism. When initial airstrikes weren't effective in the Afghan war, Rumsfeld challenged the military to get Special Operations spotters closer to the action.

He has been trying to wrench the Pentagon toward a "Revolution in Military Affairs" that emphasizes a lighter, more mobile force, taking advantage of technological innovation and preparing for new, unconventional military actions. Critics say this approach, which seemed vindicated in Afghanistan, made Rumsfeld skimp on ground troops in Iraq (where, it must be noted, Rumsfeld's prized Special Forces and precision weapons have performed brilliantly).

Was the Iraq invasion plan the most militarily effective imaginable? No. As Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic argues, that is not because Rumsfeld wanted to prove his theory. It was mostly because political considerations -- minimizing civilian casualties, making a quick assault on the seat of Saddam Hussein's power in Baghdad -- trumped the military advantages of weeks of bombing followed by a deliberate armored advance.

Army officers might not like it, but a war can't be separated from its political ends, and it's the country's civilian leadership that decides what they are. Enter Rumsfeld.

He is conservative by conviction, but radical by temperament, probing old assumptions for their weaknesses. In his words, the Pentagon needs "a more entrepreneurial approach -- one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and behave less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists."

His style is relentlessly old school: in the way he talks ("Oh, my goodness!"), in his trademark pinstripes (asked by the press at President Bush's ranch why he wasn't in casual clothes, he shot back: "I don't own any casual clothes. Next question."), and finally, and most importantly, in the way he leads.

He is decisive and tough, with no time for the touchy-feely conventions of contemporary America, an Eisenhower Man preserved in the Age of Oprah. When the world is changing before our eyes, when America's power has been directly challenged by the forces of terror, he is ready to risk the new and forcefully hit back against our enemies -- without hesitation or apology.

This makes him a target for allies of the status quo at the Pentagon and anyone who doesn't like Bush's aggressive foreign policy, here or abroad. So be it. It beats wishy-washiness, which, as one of "Rumsfeld's Rules" points out, has its own risks: "If you try to please everybody, somebody is not going to like it."