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Rumsfeld on High Wire of Defense Reform

Rumsfeld declined to comment on that incident. But he said that, generally speaking, miscommunications are "inevitable when people are new on the job."

Tensions With Congress

If anything, Rumsfeld's relations with Capitol Hill have been even more tumultuous. The military, after all, ultimately will follow orders. But Congress expects to have a big say in the orders.

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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Post interview with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
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"There really could be a huge collision between Rumsfeld, the services and Congress," predicted Harlan Ullman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There's an iceberg out there, and there's a Titanic."

Ullman said he thinks Rumsfeld has done a fairly good job, considering how understaffed the top of the Pentagon has been, with only a few senior officials in place.

But he also said that the Bush White House has badly miscalculated on the politics of defense. "I don't think the administration understands how much political capital it will take to change the U.S. military," he said. He and others warn that defense isn't a major issue on the Hill, and that no clear constituency exists for military reform. At the same time, there is a clear bloc against change, consisting of members of Congress who worry that bases and weapons plants in their districts could be closed.

Rumsfeld said he has devoted enormous effort to congressional relations, holding about 70 meetings with 115 lawmakers over the past four months. "I am on the Hill frequently," he said. "I frequently have breakfasts and lunches down here that include members."

But the view from the Hill appears to be different. "There are lots of members concerned about the lack of communications," a Senate staffer said last week.

One warning sign has been a spate of "holds" placed on Rumsfeld's nominees by angry senators. These holds, which prevent a confirmation vote from taking place, aren't made public. But it is striking that Republican senators appear to have held up some of the nominees of a Republican administration. The Senate majority leader, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), controlled two of the holds -- on the nominees to be the Pentagon's general counsel and assistant secretary for public affairs -- that were lifted late Thursday.

Rumsfeld's predecessor as defense secretary, William S. Cohen, took the unusual step last week of publicly criticizing Rumsfeld's handling of Congress. "However brilliant the strategy may be, you cannot formulate a strategy and mandate that Congress implement it," Cohen, a former Republican senator, told a group of reporters.

"The less they're involved in the beginning," Cohen warned, "the more they'll be involved in the end, and not necessarily in a positive way."

Rumsfeld appears to have strong backing not only from Bush but also from Vice President Cheney, his former protégé when Rumsfeld was a White House counselor and then chief of staff in the Ford administration. Earlier this month, a senior White House official said: "The vice president indicated to the secretary that he would be as helpful as he could. As a former defense secretary, he has a special interest in the Pentagon."

Where the White House stands on Rumsfeld's efforts should become clearer this Friday, when Bush is scheduled to speak about U.S. military strategy in a commencement address at Annapolis.

In the following weeks, Rumsfeld will engage Congress in hearings, then will begin making critical decisions on high-profile weapons systems and on whether to cut the size of the military to pay for new weapons. Every one of those decisions could antagonize members of Congress.

Rumsfeld said he looks forward to working with lawmakers to find the right answers. "Hell, I know what I can do and I can't do," he said. "I can do some things, but I can't simply stick a computer chip in my head and come out with a perfect answer to big, tough important questions like that for the country. Even if you could, change imposed is change opposed."

The transcript of Rumsfeld's interview is available at www.washingtonpost.com


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