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Rumsfeld on High Wire of Defense Reform

Military Brass, Conservative Lawmakers Are Among Secretive Review's Unexpected Critics

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2001; Page A01

In his first four months at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has launched a score of secretive studies and posed hundreds of tough questions as he has tried to create a new vision for the American military, looking at everything from missile defenses and global strategy to the flaws of a Truman-vintage personnel system.

Yet, in that short span, he has also rallied an unlikely collection of critics, ranging from conservative members of Congress and his predecessor as defense secretary to some of the generals who work for him. In dozens of interviews, those people expressed deep concern that Rumsfeld has acted imperiously, kept some of the top brass in the dark and failed to maintain adequate communications with Capitol Hill.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says his review of the military is rational and inclusive. (James A. Parcell - The Washington Post)

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"He's blown off the Hill, he's blown off the senior leaders in the military, and he's blown off the media," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the conservative Project for the New American Century. "Is there a single group he's reached out to?"

The criticism has focused on Rumsfeld's score of study groups, staffed by retired generals and admirals and other experts who are probing everything from weapons programs to military retirement policies. In Pentagon hallways, "the Rumsfeld review," as the studies are collectively called, is mocked by some as a martial version of Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care plan, which failed spectacularly in 1994 when it was offered up to Congress.

"It's arrogant theorists behind closed doors," said one person offering the Clinton analogy, retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, now a prominent writer on military strategy.

The military is already responding in significant and striking ways. On Thursday, the Joint Chiefs of Staff held a closed-door meeting in the "Tank," their secure conference room at the Pentagon, where they posed scathing questions about Rumsfeld's intentions on strategy and possible cuts to the Army, defense officials said. Yesterday, retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff, delivered an angry speech assailing the apparent direction of Rumsfeld's reforms as "imprudent."

One point on which both Rumsfeld and his critics agree is the gravity of his reform effort. Reshaping the military to meet the new threats of the 21st century -- and to keep the U.S. armed forces by far the strongest in the world -- was a key campaign pledge of President Bush. To be successful, Rumsfeld must not only come up with specific answers but also find enough support in Congress and across the military to fund them and carry them out. The job will be made all the more difficult because the reforms could anger members of Congress by closing bases, terminating major weapons programs and shifting some spending from tanks, ships and aircraft into newer areas such as space and missile defenses.

In an extensive interview in his Pentagon office last week, Rumsfeld argued that his review has been necessary, rational and inclusive, involving more than 170 meetings with 44 generals and admirals. "Everyone who wants to be briefed I think has been briefed," he said. "Everyone cannot be involved in everything."

Far from reaching concrete conclusions behind closed doors, he said, he simply has been posing questions about how to change the military to deal with a world where even Third World nations can buy long-range missiles, terrorists have attacked sites inside the United States, and the American economy is increasingly reliant on vulnerable satellites. "I've got a lot of thoughts, but I don't have a lot of answers," he said.

Overall, Rumsfeld swung in the interview between being conciliatory toward his critics and being dismissive of them. "Is change hard for people? Yeah," he said sympathetically. "Is the anticipation of change even harder? Yeah."

But a moment later he added: "The people it shakes up may very well be people who don't have enough to do. They're too busy getting shook up. They should get out there and get to work."

Brusque Style

Rumsfeld, a bright, impatient man who is not a schmoozer by nature, spent years as an executive in the pharmaceutical industry and honed a top-down management style. That approach may be the only way to overhaul America's huge and conservative military establishment. But his brusque manner has exacerbated anxiety about change in the Pentagon and could, in the end, undercut his effort.

Generals who have met with him report that communications tend to be one way. "He takes a lot in, but he doesn't give anything back," one said. "You go and you brief him, and it's just blank."

Neither that general nor any other Pentagon official critical of Rumsfeld would agree to be quoted by name. Indeed, one said Rumsfeld's aides would "have my tongue" were it known that he had talked to a reporter.


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