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Rumsfeld boldly challenges status quo

| Saturday, Nov. 12, 2005

WASHINGTON -- In Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's war on the military culture, President Bush fired the first shot in January 2001. Standing alongside his new defense secretary, Bush promised that Rumsfeld would "challenge the status quo inside the Pentagon." This formulation appealed to Rumsfeld, who had spent the quarter-century since his first Pentagon tour in private business, making a fortune by shaking up underperforming companies.

Diving in, he found his marching orders in a speech given by candidate Bush at the Citadel in 1999, calling for a "transformation" of the great but lumbering U.S. military. The Cold War force was built around big foreign bases and heavy weapons "platforms," such as tank columns and aircraft carriers. With the Cold War over, Bush said, America should use the chance to "skip a generation" of weaponry and tactics to seize the future of warfare ahead of everyone else. A transformed military would be lightly armored, rapidly deployable, invisible to radar, guided by satellites. It would fight with Special Operations troops and futuristic "systems" of weaponry, robots alongside soldiers, all linked by computers. This force would be unmatchable in combat, Bush predicted, but it should not be used for the sort of "nation-building" that characterized Pentagon deployments to Haiti and the Balkans under President Bill Clinton.

Little of this was entirely new. Since Vietnam, Pentagon leaders -- including the younger Rumsfeld -- had been searching for more efficient, less entangling, ways to project U.S. power. Even the Army, perhaps the most hidebound of the services, had begun a complete reorganization to make itself easier to deploy. "Some things had been done since the end of the Cold War," Rumsfeld conceded in an interview.

But the Pentagon is the world's biggest, richest bureaucracy, with an annual budget larger than the entire economies of all but about a dozen nations -- bigger than Switzerland or Sweden. The leviathan managed to shrug off most deep and lasting changes. Thus, when Rumsfeld took office in 2001, he recalled, "we were located pretty much where we had been located, geographically, around the world. We still had the same processes and systems and approaches."

Some of the most important changes on Rumsfeld's menu were also the toughest, because of the entrenched interests involved. Weapons programs and bases provide jobs in nearly every congressional district. Republican or Democrat doesn't matter when it comes time to protect those jobs, so the programs and the bases endure even after the strategy behind them has expired. Some defense secretaries quail before this status quo, but not Rumsfeld. Shortly after taking office, he began questioning continued funding for the Crusader supercannon, an artillery piece designed to destroy Soviet tank columns that no longer existed, and the Comanche helicopter, another Cold War relic. Such efforts made him a hero in the military think tanks but earned him a lot of enemies on the Hill. By late summer 2001, Washington was buzzing with rumors that Rumsfeld would soon resign.

Then came September 11.

Rumsfeld dazzled the public and his troops with his cool courage on that fateful morning. When American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, he rushed to the sound and shudder of the blast and began rescuing victims. Vice President Dick Cheney later told a friend that this moment completely remade Rumsfeld in the eyes of the military.

For Rumsfeld, it was the moment in which he seized a second chance.

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