Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hosted a meeting for our retired military media analyst group. Afterward, he gave us a tour of his personal workspace, a space reveals a lot about the man, the way he runs the Pentagon and why he must remain on the job.

His giant office is both historic and utilitarian. An oil painting of George Washington hangs between windows that overlook the Capitol. There are a number of military statutes from last century wars. A long, antique waist-high table against the wall is neatly organized with work papers and a raised television is tuned to Fox News.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s genuine sense of history was evident in our meeting. He explained that the last time he was defense secretary, in 1975-1977, the opposition dug graves in his front lawn. He dismissed his detractors saying, “You can’t toss in the towel when people fuss” and labeled some of the Iraq criticism as “shallowness.”

Mr. Rumsfeld has a round table with a glass top covering a ballot signed by Prime Minister Jaafari from the December 2005 election in Iraq. Next to the ballot is a night satellite photograph of the Korean Peninsula — the southern half brightly lit while the north is dark. For Mr. Rumsfeld, the photograph says it all. Nearby on a coffee table is a tangled part of the airliner that struck the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The scrap of twisted metal and the half-lit Korean Peninsula photo symbolize the secretary’s dogged determination to push his staff, believing there is hope against oppression. The Iraqi ballot is tangible evidence that despite challenges, there is hope where there is a will.

Mr. Rumsfeld exudes great confidence in our military leadership and understands the tension between encouraging the Iraqis to provide their own security and establish a new government as opposed to our inclination to do it for them. He acknowledges there is “no guidebook” for what we are doing in Iraq.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s desk, which noticeably had no chair, boasts a picture of his wife sliding down a fireman’s pole to the cheers of the audience below. Mr. Rumsfeld explained that Joyce, his 73-year-old wife, and he were at Vail this winter for a ski trip with wounded service members. He cares deeply for our soldiers as evidenced by his numerous townhall meetings, his frequent trips to the battlefield and a work ethic that outpaces that of much younger men.

I asked the secretary how the current round of criticism affected him and the military? He focused his response on the press. The “center of gravity” in the war is the “capitals of Western countries.” Our enemies have media organizations that affect the body politic in America and have become “part of the debate.” He volunteered that the 24-hour news networks have created a media battleground and we are “not skillful at ” performing in this new arena. His frustration was evident.

He led us into a small room full of pictures of him with distinguished people as well as framed political cartoons that poke fun at him. The newspaper caricatures represent some of his most challenging times while the photographs include Mr. Rumsfeld with famous people such as President Eisenhower and German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. He was proudest of a letter found among his father’s personal effects from former Navy Secretary James Forrestal, which he read to us. The letter praised his father during World War II. It is clear Mr. Rumsfeld has a rich sense of history as well as a view of how he sees the future unfolding, though he is frustrated as to how to get that message out.

He listened to the analysts’ recommendations on how to get the message out about the seriousness of the threat. He took notes as we spoke and he welcomed our ideas.

A recreated poster featuring Uncle Sam in red-white-blue pointing his finger outward enjoys a prominent place in the office. It reads, “We’re at War… are YOU doing all you can?” The poster communicates a feeling common among soldiers, Marines and some civilian leaders that the military — especially the ground forces — are alone in the current war.

Mr. Rumsfeld explained he has consistently tried to communicate a message about the serious threat America faces. It’s a complicated message that comes out in paragraphs but can’t be effectively conveyed in 30-second sound bites. One analyst quoted Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who commanded military forces during Hurricane Katrina relief, who said the press is “stuck on stupid.” Mr. Rumsfeld chuckled but refused comment.

Our meeting was likely prompted by criticism from a number of retired generals of the Iraq policy. On that, Mr. Rumsfeld rightly said he intends to “let time walk over it. Change is difficult and necessary.”

Time is his ally. Mr. Rumsfeld has experienced serious criticism but despite this he and his team are rapidly preparing our armed forces for a complex and uncertain future. He admits to mistakes but remains firm in his commitment to finish the job he started and constantly asks himself, “What ought we to do today to avoid another September 11.”

Despite his detractors and Herculean challenges, he frequently reminds those around him that there are “no indispensable men. We serve at the president’s pleasure.” Fortunately, America has the right man at the helm of the Pentagon.

Robert Maginnis has participated since 2001 in the Pentagon’s “Retired Military Analysts” group that meets with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Maginnis is a retired Army officer and a television and radio analyst.

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