By David Von Drehle
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Secrets in Washington can get you in trouble. Seasoned bureaucrats prefer to make incriminating disclosures themselves, but in a way that assures they won't grab headlines. They float their revelations amid the cloudy verbiage of official government documents.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and company showed last week how it's done.
If you read closely in the barrage of weighty tomes they put out in recent days, you might discover that the Rumsfeld era is over, and Rumsfeld lost.
The secretary had staked his tenure on two ideas. He wanted to change Pentagon culture, and he wanted the military to drive American foreign policy. Neither idea survived the week.
Example one: The signature effort of Rumsfeld's historic tenure -- his "transformation" of the world's most powerful military -- melted away under the cover of the imposing Quadrennial Defense Review. In 92 dense pages it revealed that while America's troops will be called to perform new missions in countries around the globe, the entrenched forces in Washington, the contractors and the members of Congress, have survived Rumsfeld virtually unscathed.
As government documents go, the QDR came wreathed in glamour, like a new novel from Tom Wolfe, grand and rare. Every few years Congress demands "a comprehensive examination . . . of the national defense . . . expressing the defense strategy of the United States and establishing a defense program for the next 20 years."
Furthermore, this QDR was the sequel to a blockbuster. In his first effort, Rumsfeld promised futuristic transformation. This one offered a chance to see how Rumsfeld's thinking had been shaped by the dramatic events since September 2001.
The document revealed that Rumsfeld has changed a lot. Four years of war against a highly unconventional enemy have persuaded him to maintain every conventional weapons system in the pipeline. No longer does the secretary talk about canceling major purchases to direct our money to a smaller, lighter, faster high-tech force.
The QDR speaks pulse-poundingly of an enlarged cadre of Special Forces trained to sneak into dangerous countries to tag, track and even disarm nuclear weapons. There was no explanation of how these thoroughly modern missions connect with the many billions of dollars programmed for more dogfighting jets and a doubling of submarine production.
What remained of "transformation" was a combination of changes conceived before Rumsfeld arrived, like the reorganization of the Army into interchangeable combat brigades, and changes made when his ax was still sharp, like the downsizing of Cold War garrisons in Germany, South Korea and elsewhere.
If the secretary caved to the old "iron triangle" of contractors, Congress and the brass, his fall was cushioned by another major document -- the 2007 budget. When Rumsfeld suggested in his first QDR that the United States must choose between the status quo and the future force, he didn't reckon on an ocean of new money that would provide for both.
Another secret hidden in plain sight in last week's $439 billion Pentagon request -- up nearly 7 percent from the wartime budget of fiscal 2006 -- was that the real sum is much higher. Military spending in the coming months will pass the half-trillion-dollar mark. That $439 billion doesn't include the ongoing costs of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, for which the Pentagon will soon seek a "supplemental appropriation" of at least $70 billion for the rest of this fiscal year and another $50 billion to start next year.
Which leads to last week's third secret. Iraq remains the urgent focus of America's largest deployed force; it is a key to U.S. foreign policy and determines the political terrain at home. But it has been reduced to the status of a troubled subsidiary in the corporate flow chart of Rumsfeld's Pentagon: off-budget for accounting purposes, and, apparently, incidental to future strategy.
The same day the QDR was delivered to Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff formally released "The National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism." This 40-pager, long in development, was intended to settle a number of disputes inside the military over exactly who we are fighting, and how. The NMSP-WOT, as the chiefs call it, is "the authoritative document to describe the nature of the war, the nature of the enemy, and the military strategy to face the enemy."
The Iraq effort was mentioned precisely once in the plan, in passing, in what sounds like the past tense. "In extreme circumstances," the plan explains, "the military leads efforts toward cessation of state and nonstate support of terrorism, as exemplified by operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to oust regimes that supported terrorists and stabilize the countries afterward."
True, strategic plans are supposed to soar far above tactical specifics. General discussions in the strategy about building up "moderate" Islam as a way to isolate and discredit extremists had obvious applications for Iraq.
Still, the strategy won't ease the frequent complaints, off the record, by officers home from Iraq, that visiting the Pentagon can be like visiting a distant planet where the war is just a speck in the sky.
But at least the military folks are thinking about such matters. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, charged last week that the civilian agencies are just about AWOL. "We're not pulling together, all elements of our government, with equal force," Warner said at a hearing on the Pentagon budget.
The detail from last week that may reverberate most powerfully is that the "long war" against bin Ladenism cannot be waged only with troops. An article in Policy Review, written by a former State Department brain named Tony Corn, landed on a number of desks last week. Conservative, chewy, cantankerous, the piece was a bid to focus feuding Washington institutions on a common mission as big as the Cold War.
"The State Department as an institution appears unable to make the transition from a bureaucratic to a strategic way of thinking," Corn observed, while the Pentagon has trouble dealing with the cultural abyss that underlies Islamic extremism.
Plucking a stunning statistic from yet another bureaucratic report -- a 2002 study by the United Nations of the sad state of development in the Arab world -- Corn noted that "the number of books translated by the whole Arab world over the past thousand years is equivalent to the numbers of books translated by Spain in one year." It's no wonder that a few rich and purposeful leaders in the Islamic world can exercise great influence over countries that modernity has so dramatically passed by. That's a problem created over decades and centuries.
His conclusion summed up the subtle revelations of the week: America has the money, the might and even the thinkers to find its way through this mess. But do we have the time and the patience?
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David Von Drehle is a Washington Post staff