In the autumn of 2001, when U.S. officials were feverishly trying to enlist other nations in the newly declared war on terrorism, President Bush promised the republic of Georgia critical assistance in training and equipping Georgian troops.
Nearly eight months passed, however, before the administration could sort out U.S. legal provisions and begin the project.
Now that episode is frequently cited by Pentagon officials still trying to dispatch military assistance to other countries more quickly and more extensively. Having repeatedly stressed the need to build "partnership capacity" in Africa and other underdeveloped regions as a bulwark against international terrorism, defense officials complain of a lack of legislation and a dearth of resources to carry out the mission.
To address the problem, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is pressing Congress to grant the Pentagon new authority -- and contingency funds totaling $750 million -- to bolster counterterrorism, border security and law enforcement forces in other nations.
But the proposal has run into resistance from lawmakers worried about vesting such military assistance powers in the Pentagon rather than in the State Department, where they have traditionally resided. The argument for keeping such authority with State, advocates say, is that it ensures the military programs remain in step with U.S. foreign policy.
Among key senators still wary of Rumsfeld's initiative is Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. "He has expressed strong concerns that are widely shared in Congress about foreign assistance programs being run by somewhere other than the State Department," an aide to Lugar said.
Significantly, the State Department, which had been cool to the Pentagon proposal, recently threw its support behind it. The shift, according to State Department officials, came after Condoleezza Rice replaced Colin L. Powell as secretary of state and agreed during the summer to co-sign a previously unpublicized letter with Rumsfeld urging congressional approval.
Aides to Rice said she overruled lower-ranking staff members who cautioned against expanding the Pentagon's powers and said that existing laws provide sufficient leeway.
"There are some in the bureaucracy who think you could get the same effect without new legislation," a senior State Department official said. "But we will certainly line up behind the secretary and carry out whatever it is she wants us to."
In a larger context, Rice's change in direction for the department on this issue is cited by some current and former administration insiders as representative of a smoothing of the stormy relations between the State Department and the Pentagon during Bush's first term.
A number of outside observers have attributed this reduced tension to the departure this year of such controversial senior Pentagon officials as former deputy defense secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and former defense policy chief Douglas J. Feith. But Feith and others credit the change in climate to Powell and his deputy, Richard L. Armitage, stepping down.
"In the first half of this year, while I was still at the Pentagon, there was a noticeable improvement in relations between State and Defense as a result of Condi becoming secretary and bringing in her new team," said Feith, one of whose final acts before leaving office in August was to help arrange the Rumsfeld-Rice letter.
In any case, the senior State Department official said Rice, in her previous post as national security adviser, developed a greater appreciation for the Pentagon's ability to get things done overseas. The official said Rice is thus "more open to the idea" of granting the Pentagon more flexible authority.
But the State Department has placed two conditions on its support, the official said. One is that any Pentagon use of the proposed drawdown authority be taken only with Rice's concurrence. The other is that some money be available for the State Department to pay for contract trainers or other assistance.
The idea of transferring funds from the Pentagon to the State Department, however, presents political problems of its own. Lawmakers on both the defense authorizing and appropriating committees usually object to such shifts as potentially complicating congressional oversight of how money is spent.
The issue has stymied a second initiative that Rumsfeld has packaged with the train-and-equip proposal, wrapping both into an amendment to be attached to the Senate's 2006 defense authorization bill.
This other initiative would transfer as much as $200 million to fortify a new State Department office for assisting in postwar reconstruction. By facilitating the deployment of civilian assistance teams, defense officials say, the money could help relieve the burden of recovery operations on military forces.
Such Pentagon-to-State fund transfers are not unprecedented. Under strong White House lobbying last year, Congress approved the shift of $80 million in defense funds to State to provide training and logistical support to forces in nations willing to participate in international peace operations.
"Ultimately, the bottom line to this whole issue is: One U.S. government department has authorities and not enough money, and the other has money but not the authorities," the State Department official said.
After failing in the Senate Armed Services Committee to get the initiatives written into the 2006 defense authorization bill this spring, the Pentagon intends to make another push when the bill reaches the Senate floor. Senate action on the bill has been stalled for months by disputes over other potential amendments, but indications are that movement could come soon.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who plans to sponsor the amendment containing both initiatives, drafted compromise language this week in hopes of gaining passage.
Even if the expanded authority is approved, some administration officials wonder whether the Pentagon, which is overextended by the conflict in Iraq, would have enough troops for new assistance missions. In the case of the peacekeepers' initiative approved last year, initial plans to use uniformed trainers have been shelved.
"They're so busy elsewhere that we've been using contractors to do a lot of that training," the State Department official said.