WASHINGTON -- As the Pentagon prepared to go to war, it was considered a 100 percent certainty there in the middle of last week that Thomas White would be sacked forthwith as secretary of the Army. Sober second thoughts prevailed, however, about taking that step on the eve of battle. Even so, nobody can guarantee White's survival.
White's problem is not last year's pseudo-scandal concerning his disposal of stock options earned as an Enron executive. His difficulty is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who desires total control over his vast realm. Rumsfeld has experienced trouble with the Army, especially its chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki. The retirement of Shinseki was announced long ago and will take effect in June. White's departure date is undetermined, and his critics in the Office of the Secretary of Defense want to change that.
In his latest policy disagreement with Rumsfeld, Shinseki on Feb. 25 testified to Congress that "several hundred thousand soldiers" might be necessary for post-war occupation of Iraq. White last week did not join the Pentagon's civilian leadership in contradicting Shinseki's estimate but endorsed the general's credentials. Not only did this undermine Rumsfeld's efforts to gain control of the officer corps that he felt
ran wild during the Clinton days, but it raised the specter of a long and difficult occupation of Iraq.
Until George W. Bush brought him to Washington, Tom White had a storybook career as a highly decorated Army general who entered private life after 23 years to become a well-compensated Enron executive. He found himself in the middle of Rumsfeld's determination to discipline the Army by killing the Crusader mobile artillery system. White appeared publicly with Rumsfeld to express solidarity with the Defense secretary's decision, but his body language betrayed disagreement. Rumsfeld later made clear to him he was not at all happy with White's performance.
The Crusader is the tip of the iceberg. Uniformed officers resented failure to use tube artillery in Afghanistan, with Shinseki publicly testifying that the Crusader could have saved American lives at the battle of Anaconda. Rumsfeld also crossed the Army by eliminating funding for high-tech Army brigades. Nothing better reflected the split than Shinseki's most recent appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Breaking all precedent, Rumsfeld had announced 14 months in advance that Shinseki would be stepping down as chief of staff. Thus, the general was a longtime lame duck Feb. 25 when Sen. Carl Levin, senior Democrat on Armed Services, asked him how many troops would be needed to occupy Iraq.
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.