Rumsfeld vs. Everybody

Overhauling the military could be his toughest fight yet

Donald H. Rumsfeld is on the march. Again. He's rattling sabers at Iran, pushing for leadership change in North Korea, and fending off charges that his Defense Dept. minions politicized intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Rumsfeld's critics -- including some inside the Bush Administration -- accuse him of acting like a shadow Secretary of State and Director of Central Intelligence. But the snipers have done little to slow the Energizer Defense Secretary. Fresh from victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 70-year-old former CEO of G.D. Searle & Co. is trying to exploit his exploits by pulling off the most sweeping management overhaul of America's war machine since the beginning of the Cold War -- one many defense experts believe is long overdue.

Rumsfeld is proposing to reshape radically just about everything the Pentagon does, from hiring and firing workers and buying arms to deploying troops and reporting to congressional overseers (table). In the political equivalent of a four-day rush to Baghdad, he introduced many of his proposals in April -- and pushed for legislative action before the Memorial Day congressional recess. His attitude in trying to transform the way the Pentagon does business, says Defense Dept. Comptroller Dov S. Zakheim, is: "Let's take it all on."

But just as the Third Infantry Div. outran its supply lines in southern Iraq, Rumsfeld may be outrunning his political support. The Republican Old Guard on Capitol Hill -- fearing that Rumsfeld will boost his clout at their expense -- is offering far more effective resistance than Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard ever did. Besides Hill barons intent on protecting their turf, he is up against an officer corps clinging to tradition and labor unions out to retain their clout.

So while Rumsfeld's gung ho personality and caustic responses to an insatiable media may have made him a folk hero to many in Middle America (and the subject of skits on Saturday Night Live), they've earned him a surprising number of bipartisan enemies on the Potomac. After Iraq, it was expected that lawmakers would "bow down and give him a blank check," says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a liberal watchdog group. "It clearly isn't happening."

That may be an understatement. Lawmakers blithely ignored his Memorial Day timetable. Now, in defense bills headed for House-Senate negotiations, one chamber or the other has crimped his plans to do everything from shutter bases to develop mini-nuclear weapons. Even Rumsfeld's plans for transforming the military's weaponry got nicked.

Certainly, Rumsfeld is notching some victories. Congress is giving him the $400 billion he requested for 2004, including $9.1 billion for missile defense. The fundamental obstacle he faces, however, is a classic clash between policy and politics.

Defense analysts say the secretary, who did not make himself available for this story, wants to improve efficiency and squeeze costs to free up cash for the innovative weapons he thinks will be needed in the 21st century -- from aircraft carrier-size blimps to small satellites to superfast ships. But for legislators, efficiency isn't the top priority. It's jobs. "I understand why businessmen think [his approach] makes sense," says defense consultant Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington (Va.) think tank. "But what the Administration wants to do in terms of efficiency is politically naive."

Before September 11, Rumsfeld's brusque style with lawmakers prompted predictions that he would be the first Cabinet member to be dumped. Then the hunt for al Qaeda, the Afghanistan operation, and victory in Iraq won him grudging admiration as a war secretary. Now, he is dissipating that political capital by trying to reduce congressional oversight of the Defense Dept. Rumsfeld is out to eliminate 150 reports mandated by Congress -- studies one top Pentagon official derides as "barnacles" that are "just weighing us down." The Senate repealed 22 of them, including one on security-clearance waivers. But legislators preserved scores more, including disclosures of politically embarrassing cost overruns and schedule delays. "He's challenging congressional prerogatives and power," says Stephen M. Saideman, a political science professor at McGill University. "Even if you're a Republican, you're going to find this to be a problem."

Rumsfeld's star is also losing a bit of its luster because while the war in Iraq went well, the peace is far messier. Perhaps the most serious indication of Rumsfeld's sour relationship with Congress is the prospect of a bipartisan investigation into charges that the Pentagon relied on exaggerated or manufactured evidence in the runup to the war against Iraq. CIA and State Dept. officials say such allegations are baseless. But CIA analysts are still bristling at the second-guessing by the intelligence-analysis shop that Rumsfeld created to look over the shoulders of other spooks. In addition, he is taking heat for the failure to find the caches of chemical or biological armaments that he and other Administration officials assured Congress the military would uncover.

Distrust of Rumsfeld's unrelenting hard line may prompt reservations about some of his proposals. For example, he is asking for a repeal of a law banning research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons -- the kind that earlier Administration reports advocated to bust bunkers. Congress is likely to give him no more than a partial victory, allowing the study of such weapons but nothing more without additional legislative approval. Critics fear moves toward new nukes would undermine the White House's efforts to bolster nonproliferation.

Beyond such major strategic issues, Rumsfeld has stepped on land mines on micromanagement issues. Lawmakers slapped down his attempt to deny them the power of the purse by allowing him to shift money among various Star Wars programs without congressional approval. Worried about sweetheart deals with contractors, the Hill rejected a proposal to make it easier to give private firms weapons-maintenance work. And flag-wavers in Congress not only nixed Rummy's proposal to ease "Buy America" provisions -- and encourage local purchases in places where troops are stationed -- but actually made it tougher to buy foreign items. The legislation will "create work for our struggling manufacturers," brags Representative Donald A. Manzullo (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Small Business Committee.

Even weapons transformation, the hallmark of Rumsfeld's tenure, is moving slowly. The Pentagon hadn't asked for any money to upgrade the heavy old Abrams M1 tanks used in Iraq and instead wanted to plow resources into new weapons systems. But the House approved $727 million for modernization of the older vehicles. Explains Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee: "Many of our troops survived firefights in Iraq thanks to our M1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles."

Closer to home, Rumsfeld's plan to jettison what he considers outdated civil-service protections for 680,000 civilian workers is facing unexpectedly fierce resistance. "In an age when terrorists move information at the speed of e-mail, money at the speed of a wire transfer, and people at the speed of a commercial jetliner, the Defense Dept. is bogged down in the bureaucratic processes of the Industrial Age -- not the Information Age," he griped to a Senate Appropriations panel on May 14.

The secretary's drive to rewrite union rules is backed by some prominent Democrats, including John P. White, the No. 2 Pentagon official in the Clinton Administration. "While the fighting force is in good shape, the back office is broken," White says. Government employee unions out to maintain the protections enjoyed by the largest group of organized workers in any federal agency are battling back. Although the House has approved such changes, the Senate has deferred action.

Challenging organized labor is one thing, but Rumsfeld, a former Navy aviator, is taking friendly fire from his own troops. With the military likely to face more fast-paced action in the Middle East, he is considering moving G.I.s from Germany, where they live with their families in normal housing, to more austere, expeditionary deployments into the new NATO countries of Eastern Europe, where troops would be separated from their loved ones for months. The troop alignment in South Korea and Japan is also expected to be significantly altered. And much to the dismay of the brass, Rumsfeld would slow the rotation of officers -- a system that is key to advancement.

Rumsfeld also intends to shut down a quarter of domestic bases, a move most defense experts think is justified and in line with the smaller number of men and women in uniform. But the GOP-controlled House wants him to maintain enough capacity for more soldiers -- even though there are no plans for future military growth. With long-term savings of billions of dollars a year at stake, Rumsfeld has threatened to recommend a veto if legislation undermines his ability to close unneeded bases. Considering his close White House ties, it is no idle threat.

Rumsfeld is a man in a hurry, trying to move light and fast politically, as he did militarily. But Washington is proving to be a quagmire. Rumsfeld's aides know that. "It's a lot of change," says Ken Krieg, a member of Rumsfeld's inner circle and head of program analysis and evaluation. "Change is hard."

Indeed, the seismic shifts Rumsfeld wants are likely to be achieved in the lengthy time frame of Iraq reconstruction rather than the warp speed of the Iraq invasion. "Most of the time, you lose, but you make a little progress," says ex-Pentagon official White. As large as Rumsfeld now looms over the Washington landscape, the opposition he faces on Capitol Hill and in the services means the battle to transform the Pentagon promises to be no digital drive to Baghdad but just plain old-fashioned trench warfare.

By Stan Crock in Washington

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