Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Where is the rest of the story on the recent attacks on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by a few in the retired military? The news media will better meet its obligations to the public when it seeks more depth of experience and information about these generals-turned-Rumsfeld critics.

Having had the privilege of participating in Defense Department transitions now for four presidents, with my own experience in military affairs going back to 1967, I can offer such information.

The first observation to be made is that now that these generals have stepped out of their uniforms to make a personal and conscious entry into the political arena by calling for the resignation of a Cabinet official, they are opening their own records and their own performance — perhaps even their own motivations — to public scrutiny. This is not only fair game for the media, but absolutely essential for a public seeking to understand the full debate.

My experience points to several relevant issues — some of which I personally know apply to some of those making the attacks.

First, while Mr. Rumsfeld has worked within the long tradition of civilian control of the military to modernize and strengthen the promotion and assignment system for senior uniformed officers, there are some who have actively tried to obstruct his efforts and could be acting as an extension of that opposition. For instance, within weeks of Mr. Rumsfeld’s arrival in 2001, eight nominations — two from each service — were sent to the new secretary for one of the nine top senior military officers in command positions.

Upon examination, however, a simple fact leapt off the pages. The secretary had really been given one selection and seven non-comparable alternates, who, if not less qualified, were clearly less preferable than the one. When it happened a second time, the secretary instituted a new process. This new process has been in place for nearly five years and has required significantly more scrutiny, vetting and long-term planning.

Over that time, many generals who might have been promoted under the old system did not make it in the new one. The most telling indicator here is that of the top 40 senior military positions today, the Army now holds the fewest joint positions in its history. For too many years, the Army had simply not produced the needed talent for such critical positions. The effects of such cronyism had taken its toll. Mr. Rumsfeld’s changes corrected that problem; they also provoked the resentment of some top Army brass.

There are a group of Army officers who adamantly oppose change, modernization, rationalization, transformation or whatever one wants to call the move to create a military for the future rather than a battery of tank divisions for the past. Many of these former officers stick together on retirement. They obtain the highest-level briefings from the active Army and offer their opinions, if not more, on everything from weapons to promotions. The Army can gain greatly from their experience, of course. But this clique is effectively a powerful, hidden informal force outside the Defense Department structure and outside the national political system.

There is at least one of the attackers who was passed over for promotion because of personal behavior which did not clear a routine morals examination. Not a problem; that is why top officers are vetted at each promotion and eachassignment.But shouldn’t the public be permitted to know this information about those attacking the civilians in charge so that they may better judge the reasons behind the reasons?

Finally, there is the style issue. Anyone who has worked closely with this secretary will tell you that he is tough. What do they mean? He acts like a prosecutor. It is often said that you had better not present policy options to this secretary if you are not thoroughly prepared. I was held to the same standard — and it is the right one.

There is no way the secretary can be an expert on every single issue that comes before him. But he can ask questions and he can drive down into the facts and analyses as few others can. It is through that process that he gains confidence in those making the recommendations so he can put his stamp on them. Or the opposite. Some interpret the tough sessions as personally affronting. Others, such as I, believe it is in the best service of this country.

It will also be a service to this country when the media digs a bit below these attacks to examine the generals who wish to play a political role in our civilian society. The public can then understand who is making the attacks and why. Arguably, such an understanding is helpful in any public debate. It is inarguably essential in this one.

Stephen E. Herbits has served five presidents as a military affairs adviser since 1967, including the Defense Department transition in 2001 and post-September 11 reforms.

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