As U.S. forces wind down the war in Iraq, Donald H. Rumsfeld stands astride the military establishment as few defense secretaries ever have.
After two years in office, he has his own people in top slots across most of the military establishment. He has triumphed in a military success in Iraq that featured an audacious war plan he helped to shape. He also looms large outside the Pentagon, injecting himself far more into intelligence matters than his predecessors and playing an unusually large role in shaping Bush administration foreign policy. He even has turned around a sour relationship with Congress.
He now is in position as never before to reshape the U.S. military along the lines he has talked about since taking office, "transforming" it into a more agile and precise force built not around firepower but around information, and willing to take risks to succeed.
Most notably, he is pushing the Special Operations Command from the sideshow niche it long has occupied to center stage in the "global war on terrorism" and other U.S. military operations. After the Iraq war, which featured one of the biggest missions ever for Special Operations forces, that command "is going to be the flavor of the month," said one defense official.
Rumsfeld still faces major challenges, most notably with respect to the Army, with which his office has had badly strained relations for more than a year. While the central role played by that service in the Iraq war may ease some of those strains, that campaign also has raised new questions about a key Army weapons program, the Apache helicopter gunship.
But few defense secretaries ever have had as much influence as Rumsfeld does now, coming off successful military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It seems to me that he is in a tremendously strong position," said Johns Hopkins University strategy expert Eliot Cohen, author of "Supreme Command," an influential study of how civilians lead militaries in wartime.
Smoothing the Way
A year ago, despite the success in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld had vocal critics in Congress. Even some Republicans said publicly they were chagrined by the dismissive way they felt he treated them, and concerned about his disputes with the top brass.
But when he spoke before the House of Representatives on April 9, the day that Baghdad fell, more than 100 members rose to give him a standing ovation.
Rumsfeld has changed the way he works with Congress, said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who was one of those unhappy with Rumsfeld last year. Since the two had a gloves-off 90-minute discussion last fall, Lewis said this week, "the relationship is much better."
During the 2001 Afghan war, the Pentagon conveyed little information to members of Congress, causing considerable disgruntlement, recalled Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. By contrast, he said, over the last month, Rumsfeld and other officials briefed members frequently and thoroughly. "It's night and day," Skelton said. His bottom line on Rumsfeld: "I feel better about him."
Rumsfeld also is winning more converts inside the uniformed military, which at first tended to resist his direction. "I am a Rumsfeld fan," said an Army intelligence officer, reflecting a common sentiment. "He put a boot in the rear end of some leaders who weren't known to be very audacious, and put his trust in some of our truly great general officers."
This is not to say that Rumsfeld has altered his basic operating style, which seems to range from blunt to blunter. "The way he treats people hasn't changed," said one retired general who butted heads with Rumsfeld while on active duty. "I still hear stories about how he abuses people." But now, this officer added, he seems to be doing it to better effect.
As key positions came open, Rumsfeld has been able to fill them with his own picks. Three in particular stand out.
Rumsfeld has turned what was once a military backwater, the Joint Forces Command, into his agent of change in the uniformed military. Last year he dispatched his military assistant, Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., to take it over. Now Giambastiani, a former submarine commander with a reputation as a consummate bureaucrat, has been put in charge of assembling the "lessons learned" in the Iraq war -- a function that in the past was done separately by each of the services. The document he produces is expected to shape next year's defense budget, and effectively has made him one of the most powerful figures in the military establishment.