Does Rumsfeld Know What He Is Doing?

David Tucker

June 1, 2001

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has had a rough time lately. No one has a good word to say about him. The news is full of stories that Senators, Congressmen and senior military officers are mad at him because he is conducting a review of the national defense without consulting them. But the largely unnamed sources on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon who have criticized the Secretary complain not only of his secretiveness. They also do not like what he is saying. After a meeting with Senators, the Michigan Democrat who will now head the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, remarked that he was not sure where Rumsfeld was headed. He then added—a little twist of the knife—that he was not sure whether Rumsfeld knew where he was headed either.

Most explanations for Rumsfeld’s problems run something like this. Rumsfeld has set up committees to examine the enormously complicated business of the Department of Defense. The committees will look at everything from military housing to ballistic missile defense. But he set this review in motion without bringing in the military, which has the expertise and a lot of influence in Congress, or Congress itself, which controls the money. Congress in particular is a problem, since how the Department of Defense spends its money, the bases it runs, the weapons it buys, affects the interests of nearly every single constituent of every single Senator and Congressman. The Senators and Congressmen were not going to sit by and see those interests affected without having a say. By keeping both Congress and the military out of his review, the Secretary opened himself to all the criticism he has received.

There is some truth in this explanation. But it is not satisfactory. It makes Rumsfeld appear to be someone who did not know how Washington worked. But this is unlikely. Rumsfeld was previously the Secretary of Defense and has long experience in Washington. He knows how the city works. So why would he set in motion a review process that runs contrary to the Washington way? Is there an explanation besides ignorance or incompetence?

Rumsfeld may well have acted as he has for two related reasons. First, he believed that the U.S. military had to make fundamental changes, which it had not done since the end of the Cold War changed the world it had operated comfortably in for 50 years. Second, these changes were unlikely to be made if the usual process kept grinding on. Both Congress and the military have a great deal invested in how they have done business since World War II. In order to avoid being trapped by the established interests in Congress and the military, the Secretary of Defense needed an independent basis of judgment. So, he set up panels that were independent of Congress and the military.

In truth, it would not be fair to the military or Congress to portray them as recklessly devoted to the status quo. The military is currently doing a better job than in any comparable period of our history of adapting to a changed security environment and what the future might bring. And Congress has often spurred the military on. But is the military doing a good enough job of adapting? Many of its proposals appear to be simply bigger, more sophisticated ways of doing what it has always done, a faster fighter, a bigger artillery piece, another aircraft carrier. Are the weapons and the strategy that the military has proposed and Congress has supported the right ones?

If the Secretary of Defense is to assert proper civilian control of the military, control which eroded during the Clinton years because of Clinton’s poor relationship with the military, he must have a basis for answering such questions that is not simply a reworked version of what the military and Congress have already concluded. If Secretary Rumsfeld has bucked the Washington way to get that independent basis of judgment, then he knows what he is doing and deserves support.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.