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By Stan Crock One of the surprises of the Bush Administration is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dismal performance so far. "That's frankly a mystery," says one of the Secretary's friends and admirers. But a conversation with a longtime Washington hand -- who has been involved in the review process at the Pentagon -- paints an unsettling picture.
Truth is, Rumsfeld, an experienced corporate chieftain, may have been hobbled from the beginning because of the perception that he was the second choice for the job, notes this Washington veteran, who requested anonymity. Most of Washington expected former Senator Dan Coats, a conservative Indiana Republican, to get the post. Coats evidently rankled then-President-elect Bush during the job interview with his position against gays in the military. Perhaps Bush remembered Bill Clinton's faux pas in making that issue the subject of one of his first major decisions.
OUT OF THE LOOP. Instead, Bush turned to the ill-prepared Rumsfeld, who had been out of the Washington loop for a quarter of a century. True, he had been on a couple of blue-ribbon Defense Dept. panels and had been chairman of the board of RAND, which does a lot of defense work. But he had been away from the nitty-gritty of the Pentagon since his last tour ended in the Ford Administration. That was back in 1976, and things have changed since then.
Rumsfeld hadn't had any say in then-candidate Bush's major defense speech at the Citadel last September, in which W. talked about a "revolution in the technology of war" and the possibility of skipping a generation of weapons. What exactly had he meant? Rumsfeld didn't know. Bush aide Richard Armitage might have known -- he had written the words. But by the time Rumsfeld came aboard, Armitage was headed for a different billet: the State Dept.
Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, had participated in writing the speech, too, according to another source. But Armitage evidently was the main man. And once he was at State, he was tied up with one foreign-policy crisis after another, such as the downed flight crew in China, and the Middle East, and could offer little help.
WORSE THAN HE THOUGHT. So Rumsfeld ordered up a bunch of studies to see what he should do -- and to stall for time. That's because it was clear to Rumsfeld that he would be working with only one political aide -- Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz -- for months before the confirmation process slowly spewed out more help. The studies were aimed at keeping everyone at bay until the staff was in place.
According to those who know Rumsfeld, the studies taught him a number of things, much to his chagrin. One is that the infrastructure problems are a lot worse than he had thought. Housing, utilities, and other capital items are being replaced on a cycle that would take nearly two centuries to update everything. Rumsfeld wants to move to a 67-year cycle -- still longer than the 50 years or so that is standard in private industry. The cost of accelerating replacements is huge, as is the multibillion-dollar tab for a new medical-benefit plan for retirees.
Meanwhile, the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines' programs have been retooled for the post-Cold War era, meaning there weren't many Cold War relics that could be jettisoned, or generations of weapons to skip. If you think air superiority will ever matter, for example, you need the F-22 Raptor. There's no other option -- though maybe you don't need all of the 339 that the Air Force wants.
Result: The combination of higher expenses and the inability to cut weapons costs has left Rumsfeld high and dry. The tax cut, combined with the slowing economy, has only made matters worse by limiting the amount of money the Office of Management & Budget and Congress want to pour into Defense. Rumsfeld hopes for some savings from moves such as base closings. But they actually aggravate the problem in the near term because of the immediate costs for severance and environmental cleanups. He might try to save money by cutting ground troops, but then whom would he send into southern Iraq to help change the regime in Baghdad?
AN UNCLEAR MISSION. While the review strategy seemed like a good one, it backfired, partly because Rumsfeld played a poor hand badly, making the situation even worse. When Rumsfeld denied he knew what he planned to do when he came into office, he wasn't lying. Trouble is, six months into his tenure, he probably still doesn't know. The military and Congress keep asking for a progress report, and there's none forthcoming.
Nor has the Defense chief's authoritarian, sometimes brusque, manner helped. "This corporate approach to management is a euphemism for autocracy," says one defense consultant. "That style doesn't work in this town." Still, Rumsfeld isn't totally to blame. The Secretary is in the same budgetary bind as his predecessors. Republicans who blasted the Clinton Administration for failing to pay for their ambitious plans are now under attack for precisely the same reason by the Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. The dirty little secret is that the Pentagon is in a tough spot these days, with its mission for the post-Cold War world still fuzzy and its budget subject to increasing pressures. And no one has found a good way out. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views twice a month, only on BW Online