Donald Rumsfeld’s skillful mix of reason and regret before the congressional armed services committees may briefly restrain his critics, but his future as defense secretary remains uncertain. Military sources say there is more to come concerning the abuse of detainees in Iraq. As new revelations trickle out, they will provide a pretext for revisiting every mistake Rumsfeld has allegedly made over the last three years. Eventually he may decide he’s had enough, and resign (Bush won’t fire him). But what would it mean if he left?
1. Strategy. Rumsfeld is the most persuasive proponent of the Bush Administration’s muscular approach to global security. Dick Cheney is too partisan, Colin Powell too conflicted, and Condoleezza Rice too junior to fill the gap created by his departure. The President’s grasp of geopolitics is more intuitive than analytical, and he is so inarticulate that aides run for cover whenever he speaks freely. A few Republican statesmen such as Senator McCain can match Rumsfeld’s rhetorical skills, but the White House has managed to alienate many of them. So while the strategy of preemption and democracy-building wouldn’t change immediately, it could be even harder to sustain both at home and abroad.
2. Forces. Rumsfeld has pressured the military services to make themselves more relevant in an era of unconventional warfare. The combination of a compelling vision, a forceful personality and a post-9/11 mandate has enabled him to achieve steady progress. But he is barely halfway through the process, and if he left now the military would probably begin reverting to its former practices. Other than some incremental (and probably temporary) increases to the Army, the nation doesn’t need a bigger military — it needs one that is better organized. If Rumsfeld departs, the administration might default to simply throwing money at the problem rather than fixing it.
3. Weapons. Rumsfeld has made the right calls on which weapons to kill and which to keep. New initiatives such as a “transformational” communications network would be valuable additions to the military arsenal, while Crusader was no loss to anyone. Rumsfeld should have been more supportive of key near-term investments such as the F/A-22 fighter and Stryker armored vehicle, but the fact that both programs remain on track indicates he’s a better listener than critics claim. There are other people in the administration who understand technology well enough to carry his modernization plans forward (such as Navy Secretary Gordon England), but whether they would have the standing with Congress to make their decisions stick is unclear.
4. Management. Rumsfeld exhibits many of the flaws seen in other senior managers from industry. He prefers obsequious subordinates; he micromanages; he takes too long to make program and promotion decisions. His current problems have less to do with a secretive style than the fact that he is spread too thin to keep up with everything that comes his way. But with the exception of a few bright and energetic executives like Under Secretary Stephen Cambone, Rumsfeld doesn’t have a lot of people he can trust with major issues. Welcome to the federal government. It isn’t likely any successor could manage the Pentagon better.
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