This is Washington, after all — where “20-20 hindsight” is a highly developed skill — and it’s perfect timing for retired generals with political ambitions to align themselves with the opposition, so they are contenders for big jobs in a new administration. While Wes Clark has beaten them all to the punch in this department, this latest splurge of retired general officer criticism of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is probably more personal than anything else, and the murkiness of the situation in Iraq only serves as a convenient vehicle for it.
Most Americans probably don’t realize what a bargain we are getting with Mr. Rumsfeld as our “SecDef.” He’s a truly remarkable leader, whose strong suit is dealing with uncertainty with almost actuarial-like precision. While good “Saturday Night Live” humor is made of his “known-knowns, known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns,” such is also a good example of his keen insight into today’s Byzantine national security issues.
Here’s what the man does extremely well:
Is very suspicious of “the way we’ve always done it.”
a Is not afraid of saying he’s not sure what he wants in the early stages of a complex situation.
Continually evaluates alternatives with meticulous skill.
Gets the very best out of the very best people.
Expects his decisions to be carried out — and sees to it.
Believes in maximizing his options until the last.
Monitors the longer-term implementation of his policies.
Nobody’s perfect, and there are some things he does that even big fans of his wish he wouldn’t do, but that doesn’t change the big pluses that he has brought to the job.
Generally, his most vocal — and until now mostly anonymous critics — are former high-ranking Defense Department officials, who got that way because they didn’t take him seriously for one thing or another. And, in this regard, we should be suspicious about the motivations of a retired senior military officer who says he or she retired because of opposing something. This is most always “BS,” as the GIs say: The usual reason for the retirement of a senior military officer is they realize they are “done” as far as their military career is concerned.
And Mr. Rumsfeld has made this abundantly clear to a few senior officers. It happened in a number of ways, and these career “flameouts” were sometimes public, insofar as they occurred at well-attended meetings in Mr. Rumsfeld’s office.
There was the occasional senior officer who made the mistake of not knowing as much as the junior officer in his organization who was at the meeting to brief Mr. Rumsfeld — the secretary occasionally invited the senior officer to leave the briefing, saying, “If you don’t know any more about this than I do, why are you here?” While his interpersonal skills might reflect more patience, the leadership message is clear: If you worked for him, you had better know everything going on in your organization — not an unreasonable thing to expect from the secretary’s most senior people. However, such perceived humiliation sometimes proved more than the fragile ego of an ambitious general could stand.
By far, most of the generals who got themselves in trouble with Mr. Rumsfeld committed a far simpler sin: They simply didn’t do what he wanted them to do — not out of some principled opposition but because they just didn’t take him seriously or ignored his directions and policies.
This was a very big mistake, and it usually got them replaced.
There have been other great defense secretaries: the late Caspar Weinberger was exactly the right man for the job during the most important part of the Cold War — the winning part — and he was probably the most significant player in that, other than Ronald Reagan.
All these great leaders had something in common — tenacity — and Donald Rumsfeld has shown again and again that it remains the core skill for the top job at the Defense Department.
There is another skill great leaders have: Neither Donald Rumsfeld nor Caspar Weinberger suffered fools well, nor did they empower their generals to do any part of the job of being the defense secretary. Just the opposite: they ran the Defense Department from the top, set the final policies themselves, and expected them to be carried out by their generals. And, both interfered with the career ambitions of more than a few generals who objected to new policies by forgetting — or simply ignoring — the “to be carried out” part of their jobs.
So, Mr. President, let’s keep Mr. Rumsfeld in the job as long as he can stand it — we really need him to continue his important work of restructuring the Defense Department. The recent and transparent criticisms of the secretary from a few irrelevant — but still ambitious — generals with fragile egos do not amount to a whit.
Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. He was former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s representative to the defense and space talks with the Soviet Union and was special assistant for policy for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.