The Rumsfeld Death Watch

The Rumsfeld Death Watch

The Rumsfeld Death Watch

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Aug. 7 2001 5:29 PM

The Rumsfeld Death Watch

At the start of the Bush administration, the only question Chatterbox had about Donald Rumsfeld was when he would assume control of the entire operation. (This was, after all, the killer bureaucrat who a quarter-century ago terminated Henry Kissinger, no mean Machiavelli himself.) Five months later, Rumsfeld is being excoriated for mismanaging the Defense Department--so much so that it's rumored there's a pool at the Pentagon to guess when Rumsfeld will go. The heavy betting is sometime after February, but Chatterbox wonders if Rummy can stick it out that long. Time to start a Rumsfeld Death Watch!

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What's especially odd about Rumsfeld's fall from grace is that it was brought about not by liberal Democrats but by conservative members of Congress and uniformed officers of the United States military. The guy can't even mothball the B-1 bomber! In the Aug. 1 New York Times, James Dao ran through a litany of the B-1's drawbacks:

Even before the last B-1 rolled off the assembly line in 1988, the Air Force had determined that the plane was vulnerable to Soviet air defenses. A 1991 study found it could not fly in snow because it had no effective de-icing equipment. Engine problems sidelined it during the Persian Gulf war. And in 1999, the Pentagon delayed using B-1's over Yugoslavia until enemy defenses had been suppressed by aging B-52's and other aircraft.

When Rumsfeld, who is well aware of all these problems, proposed getting rid of about one-third of the 93 existing B-1s, the Armed Services Committee in the Republican-controlled House promptly voted to block any cuts in the B-1 force.

The degree to which Rumsfeld's enemies feel free to take potshots at him and his allies is fairly surprising. In a July 16 New Yorker article on Rumsfeld's proposed Revolution in Military Affairs  (which would basically concentrate strategy on a few centrally controlled high-tech weapons systems, including missile defense), Nicholas Lemann has former Joint Chiefs Chairman William Crowe saying of Rumsfeld, "If he thinks he's going to change the culture of the military overnight, he ain't seen nothing and he ain't been nowhere." Lemann notes that when Crowe spoke of Andrew Marshall, the Pentagon veteran who is leading Rumsfeld's comprehensive military review, Crowe actually rolled his eyes. In a Page-One story in the Aug. 7 Washington Post, Thomas E. Ricks quotes Larry Seaquist, who worked at the Pentagon when Dick Cheney was Defense secretary, saying: "How bad is it? I think it is pretty bad." Career Pentagon officials, Seaquist says, "fear they're shackled to incompetence."

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Ricks offers up various explanations for why Rumsfeld occasions such disrespect. He alienated natural allies like Richard Armitage, who wrote the Bush speech that embraced the Revolution in Military Affairs. (When Rumsfeld told Armitage he had "less than a 50-50 chance" of becoming his deputy, Armitage got angry and became Colin Powell's deputy at the State Department instead.) He annoyed the Joint Chiefs by initially excluding them from his comprehensive military review. He's been sold out by a White House that cared more about its $1.35 trillion tax cut than about helping Rumsfeld fund missile defense. And of course, the very idea of a Revolution in Military Affairs, which inevitably challenges existing weapons programs and lines of authority, is bound to enrage anybody with a stake in the status quo. (Chatterbox sympathizes with Rumsfeld's desire to reorder the Pentagon but, as a fellow traveler to the military reform movement of the 1980s, doubts the answer is a bunch of hugely expensive high-tech weapons operated by remote control from the White House.)

Possibly the decisive factor, and surely the most frightening one, is that the military culture no longer much respects or obeys even conservative civilian authority. This is, as it happens, the theme of Ricks' recently published novel A Soldier's Duty, in which renegade U.S. military officers use e-mail to coordinate a mutiny against a peacekeeping operation initiated by an inept conservative president. Even those who remain loyal to the government have little affection for it. Note, for example, this passage describing the thoughts of the good-guy fictional Army chief of staff:

This president was trouble--worse thanClinton, in some ways. At leastClintonhad vulnerabilities like draft-dodging, he thought, that had enabled the military to push back a bit. The Pentagon had been able to hit up Clinton for more money, had been able to make the policymakers trim their sails on how aggressively to go after war criminals in Bosnia, and had utterly defeated him on gays in the military.

But President Shick didn't have those chinks in his armor. This guy, a conservative Republican with a goddam Beatle haircut, didn't know much more about the military thanClintondid. ... But because of his conservatism he was able to do more damage.

In the novel, the civilians win. In real life, Rumsfeld is probably toast.