Don Rumsfeld's Army

Posted: May 01, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Don Rumsfeld called Secretary of the Army Thomas White into his office last Friday afternoon for something the defense secretary had wanted to do for months. He fired White. The news leaked around 5:30 p.m., then was officially released at 7 o'clock. That timing guaranteed minimal news coverage, avoiding Friday night's TV network newscasts and limiting newspaper attention to Saturday morning's editions. Rumsfeld wasn't around Saturday, leaving that morning for Iraq.

An unstated purpose of Rumsfeld's mission was to interview combat generals for impending vacancies of Army chief of staff and vice chief of staff. With the Army secretary's post now also vacant, Rumsfeld can put his own people in charge of the nation's senior service as he proceeds with downsizing. His personal war against the U.S. Army is ending with a victory as complete as Saddam Hussein's defeat. It is now Don Rumsfeld's Army.

Rumsfeld is forcing a thinner Army, and does not want a service secretary allied with "dinosaur" generals backing "heavy" forces with plenty of armor and artillery. That makes Rumsfeld unpopular with Army generals, but they are not alone. He has antagonized other services' officers, senators and House members, Secretary Colin Powell and his State Department colleagues, Pentagon journalists and even White House aides. Only the people idolize Rumsfeld as a victorious war minister, pushing his popular appeal over 70 percent.

Tom White hardly bargained for so ferocious a septuagenarian defense secretary. White had won combat decorations and a brigadier general's star during 23 years in the Army and was independently wealthy after a second career in business. At age 58, he wanted to cap his life by helping the American foot soldier.

Instead, White found himself in the middle of Rumsfeld's struggle with the Army high command, headed by Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. Instead of backing Rumsfeld or ducking for cover, White sided with former fellow Army officers in their futile effort a year ago to save the Crusader mobile artillery system. White was in opposition against Rumsfeld's overriding efforts to lighten the Army as he sent it into Afghanistan without tube artillery.

So, when the Enron scandal broke and Democrats assailed White's blameless record as CEO of Enron Power Corp., he received little support from his Pentagon civilian superiors. A call for White's resignation from Eliot Cohen, a defense intellectual close to the Rumsfeld circle, signaled trouble.

In planning the Iraq campaign, Rumsfeld and the generals argued behind the scenes over how many troops should fight the war and in public over how many should occupy the country. Rumsfeld was angry enough when Shinseki predicted "several hundred thousand" soldiers needed for occupation duties, but became incensed when White did not contradict the general. On the eve of war in mid-March, Rumsfeld was ready to fire White but was dissuaded because of poor timing. The war would be short enough for him to wait.

Rumsfeld had defied precedent by announcing 14 months in advance Shinseki's retirement as chief of staff in June 2003, making him a lame duck. Shinseki's highly regarded heir apparent, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Keane, recently announced his retirement for reasons of family illness.

That clears the board for Rumsfeld to pick generals who will not oppose reducing Army strength by the equivalent of two combat divisions. The word at the Pentagon has been that Rumsfeld on his visit to the Gulf will ask the theater commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, to become chief of staff. Franks, who publicly supported the secretary in the Afghanistan artillery debate but privately insisted on more troops for Iraq, is expected to decline. Rumsfeld could interview Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, commander of coalition ground forces, and Lt. Gen. Scott Wallace, commander of the U.S. 5th Corps, for possible long trips up the chain of command.

No previous secretary of defense has approached Don Rumsfeld's authority or audacity. He brought exile Ahmad Chalabi to Iraq against Colin Powell's wishes and without his knowledge. He is regarded as the hidden hand behind the assault on Powell by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has become Rumsfeld's confidante. Now, Rumsfeld's Army adversaries soon will be gone.