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Rumsfeld’s Missed Opportunities

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One of the few things I respect Donald Rumsfeld for has been his attempt to reform the structure and bureaucracy of the military. Killing the Crusader self-propelled artillery program, for example, was a smart move. It hurts double to say that, because I was a tanker (making the Crusader kin of a sort) and much of the work would have been done here in Minnesota. But the Crusader was a hulking Cold War relic, unsuited for the sort of lighter, nimbler, more flexible military that I agree we need to build.

That’s why this essay from the Armed Forces Journal caught my eye. It argues that whatever his intentions, Rumsfeld has (once again) messed up the execution, missing his big chance to make a difference in how the military operates.

Every four years the Pentagon does something called a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which is supposed to outline what the military’s situation and structure will be in the coming years. That, in turn, is supposed to guide assembly of the military budget.

But it doesn’t.

The QDR calls for greater mobility, but the budget terminates both of the Air Force’s airlift programs. The report says America is engaged in a “long war” against terrorism, but the budget cuts back the Army’s planned number of combat brigades. The report says the Pentagon needs to rely more on market forces in its business practices, but the budget proposes creation of a monopoly for producing the most popular military engine in the world.

That disconnect between rhetoric and reality is a bad start, but luckily we can write it off as irrelevant. That’s because this QDR — Rumsfeld’s last opportunity to radically reshape the military — doesn’t really matter. It comes too late in the budget and political process. The Bush administration’s influence is on the wane as 2008 approaches, and if Rumsfeld wanted to make lasting changes he had to start last year. He didn’t.

2001 was wasted on strategic reviews and staffing decisions. Then came 9/11, followed by Afghanistan, Iraq and Abu Ghraib — all distractions that meant no traction for the 2001 QDR. When Bush won a second term and it was time for another QDR, Rumsfeld hadn’t accomplished anything “transformative”.

As it turned out, much of 2005 was consumed by the review itself. The sixth year of Bush’s eight years in office has commenced, and time is running out for military transformation. Two years ago, it was common for policymakers to say that hard choices would need to be made in the 2006 defense budget. When that didn’t happen, it was predicted that truly momentous shifts would unfold in 2007. Now, people around Rumsfeld are predicting real change in the 2008 budget. However, 2008 is the president’s last year in office, so nobody on Rumsfeld’s team is likely to be around to enforce the priorities contained in that budget.

Translation: Rumsfeld was too slow, and now it’s too late.

Even if Rumsfeld had moved more decisively and submitted an ambitious QDR that matched his rhetoric, plenty of other self-inflicted obstacles remained: his alienation of Congress, an inability to rein in military entitlements, a detached and indecisive leadership style, and a poor appreciation for the threats facing us.

One quote strikes me as particularly appropriate:

In retrospect, it seems that despite all the talk about asymmetric threats, Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and others had a rather unimaginative view of how unconventional the danger might become.

In a way, Rumsfeld sums up much of what I think history will say about the Bush administration: soaring and determined rhetoric sprinkled with some good and principled ideas, but based on an unrealistic view of the world and executed with almost stunning incompetence.

It’s too bad, because the military needs what Rumsfeld promised to deliver. We can only hope that the next Secretary of Defense has the same priorities and better management skills.

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