Skip to main content
The Web      Powered by
powered by Yahoo!
Inside Politics

Secretary of war


Story Tools

Donald Rumsfeld comes alive in battle, which made him a brilliant architect of the Iraq war. But is the sharp-elbowed fighter ready for the peace?

For a moment in early December, Donald Rumsfeld took the point in the hunt for Saddam Hussein. Leading a convoy of unmarked suvs through the broad, flat streets of Kirkuk, he heads for an outpost of the 4th Infantry Division, which has been rolling up resisters in the most dangerous swath of Iraq, running north and west of Baghdad.

Rumsfeld is warm and engaging as he enters the makeshift U.S. Army headquarters—hailing soldiers, shaking hands, working the room like the old Chicago pol he is. But after a few minutes his face darkens, and the more notorious Rumsfeld emerges.

Sitting at a briefing table, Major General Raymond Odierno, the 4th Infantry Division commander, is flashing a laser pointer back and forth from maps to charts to flat-screen displays when Rumsfeld abruptly cuts him off.

"What's happened since I was here [in September]?" Rumsfeld demands to know. Odierno rattles off an answer, but the flak intensifies. "How many people are you capturing or killing in a week?" Rumsfeld asks. Two hundred captured, up to 100 killed, Odierno responds. "Of those captured, how many do you throw back?" Ten percent. "And the rest we're locking up?" We've locked up probably over 4,000, sir. "Are you getting any decent intelligence?" Sometimes, but a commander always wants more. "How much of the information you get is someone getting even with their next-door neighbors?" About 10%. "How many Americans or coalition have been killed in the last three months in your area?" About 20. "And the Iraqi security forces?" Less than that. "Do you feel we're effectively using the reward money to track down the remaining senior people?" Yes, it's helping a lot. Rumsfeld then wonders aloud why someone hasn't ratted out Saddam for the cash: "I'm dumbfounded when I think about it. I mean, the chances of us stumbling on one of these top three or four people is about zero. The chances of us using that kind of money to find somebody who wants that kind of money, who does understand that kind of money, to figure out how to invest some time and develop a network and produce the information that would do it—I mean, that ought to be doable."

As it turned out, it was doable—whether money mattered or not. Seven days later, at 2:45 p.m., on a cold, quiet Saturday in Washington, an aide interrupted Rumsfeld in his Pentagon office with word that U.S. Central Command boss General John Abizaid was on the phone from Qatar. Rumsfeld took the call standing at his desk and learned that Saddam was in captivity.

Rumsfeld had no advance notice of the raid; he had devoted more than two hours that morning to discussing how to retool the military for the 21st century with the Joint Chiefs, eaten a quick lunch and spent 45 minutes chatting with two TIME correspondents, all the while unaware of the drama unfolding along the Tigris 6,200 miles away. Now, taking notes as he listened to Abizaid, Rumsfeld showed no emotion.

The two men discussed the possibility of having mistakenly nabbed a double and not Saddam himself—both had been down that road before. But this time Abizaid was virtually certain, and Rumsfeld rang off to telephone the President with the news. Rumsfeld's late-afternoon schedule was scrubbed, a hoped-for game of squash canceled. At a holiday party that night at his home, he gave no hint that he had the ace in the hole.

In 2003 Donald Harold Rumsfeld, 71, was the very word of war: he planned it, he sold it, he strutted through a postwar landscape that is still far from tidy. Armed with a new doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, he spurred the military to fight lighter and faster than it had ever fought before, rewriting the battlefield playbook for perhaps a decade or more.

Energized by hard work and spurred by his stubborn refusal to bend, he has extended the Pentagon's clout on all kinds of nonmilitary matters, from civil liberties at home to the conduct of diplomacy abroad. His power has at times verged on the absolute, and even some White House officials wonder whether anyone can rein him in.

Yet for all his apparent certainty, he found a way, in his exquisite fashion, to make clear that he was under no illusions about the limits of America's new global war on terrorism. As a result, his campaign to transform the military is just beginning.

In the old days, Rumsfeld might have been called the Secretary of War, and it would have better fit his style and sensibility. To be in his presence or, worse, in his employ is to risk being lulled, lured, ambushed, bludgeoned and, always, conquered in the end. "It's the wrestler in him," says a former Pentagon aide. "It's how he thinks. It's all about positioning and sizing you up. It's there every time you meet him. He's friendly; he's got that toothy grin going. But then it's like a light switch is thrown, and it's war. Even in a group of people, he'll go around the table and take each man on, one at a time. It's like he's testing himself."

It is tempting to see Rumsfeld as an emblem of war itself, like Achilles or Ajax, lost in the calm, found in the fray. He is always fighting, always feinting, ever in conflict with something or someone or some idea. He's that way even when there's not much to fight about. Literal to a fault, Rumsfeld can spend a morning tangling over the interpretation of a poorly chosen word. He goes through periods when he takes on even friendly Senators and Representatives for sport. Devoted to trifocals, he seems to prefer to see things in conflict. You sometimes get the sense that Rumsfeld needs to fight to survive, the way sharks need to swim.


The session with odierno in kirkuk was vintage Rumsfeld, and Odierno, a rising star inside the Army, passed the test easily. "When it happens to someone who can't hold his own against the boss," says an aide, "you just want someone else to come along and put him out of his misery." Rumsfeld laughs at this report when he hears it a few days later. "I was doing my thing," he says of that day in Kirkuk. "It's what I do all day, every day."

Rumsfeld doesn't have a name for his habit of withering cross-examination, but he does have an analogy. "My theory in skiing is, if you're not falling, you're not trying, and that's worth remembering. I teach that to my grandchildren." The former Navy instructor pilot tries a different metaphor: "You've got to work the edge of the envelope."

What feels like sport to Rumsfeld is more like a blood sport to those who have to face him. They describe a man who "listens aggressively," who wants to watch you take a punch and see how you react. "He really does want to smack you," says an aide. "From that, he thinks, ÔI will learn something I don't know and you weren't planning to teach me.' The truth might not tumble out of you otherwise."

It was in a series of such back-and-forth sessions that Rumsfeld crafted the war on Iraq. Normally, combatant commanders like former Centcom chief General Tommy Franks would take their plans to Washington for quick approval; under Rumsfeld, Franks had to redraw them repeatedly. Other generals were alarmed to see a Defense Secretary get so far down in the weeds of a military operation. Not since Robert McNamara's Pentagon had civilian authority reached so deeply into the order of battle.

Both men played down this back-and-forth at the time. Franks has since told his fellow generals that the early sparring with Rumsfeld was about building trust. Once the shooting started, it enabled him to make hundreds of instantaneous calls without having to run each one by Washington.

Still, as it took shape, Rumsfeld left his marks on the war plan—and then slapped a new coat of paint on the thing when he was done. Rumsfeld's notion was to do more—and do it faster and deadlier—with less. So he mixed in a larger number of special forces than the Army had originally envisioned, giving the commandos a central role. He shortened the soften-'em-up air war to just a few days instead of the more traditional few weeks.

But the final surprise belonged to Franks: he opted to begin the ground war before the air war to preserve tactical surprise. Finally, he forced the Army, Navy and Air Force to do something they had more or less avoided for 50 years: fight together instead of carving up the battlefield and reserving each slice for a different service. One contingent of Army troops in western Iraq was even under the command of an Air Force colonel.

But where Rumsfeld really jerked the Army's chain was in reversing the long-held faith that the U.S. must apply overwhelming power overseas—or none at all. That doctrine, named after Secretary of State Colin Powell, was one of the lessons taken away by the men who fought as young officers in Vietnam.

When those lieutenants and captains ripened into colonels and generals, they made the all-or-nothing Army the only kind America would field. By the early 1990s, as the U.S. began to face peskier enemies overseas, the doctrine began to unravel.

Discussing how to apply force to Bosnia in 1994, Madeleine Albright, then Bill Clinton's U.N. ambassador, famously asked Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Rumsfeld too saw the problem when he returned to the Pentagon after a 24-year absence. He told Bush in early 2001 that the U.S. should stop being afraid of "leaning" into problems overseas, shouldn't shy away from getting involved.

He believed the Powell doctrine gave a President fewer, not more options. He also recognized that the Pentagon he had run at the age of 43 for Gerald Ford in 1976 had not changed very much since then. His initial campaign to remake the Pentagon by shrinking the military went nowhere until 9/11. But after that, there was no stopping him, though his ambitions for reform would change as well.

"Rumsfeld was the first to see after 9/11 that security could be defined broadly and could be used to justify almost anything," says John Hamre, a Deputy Defense Secretary under Clinton and now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He was the first to realize the shift of power in Washington from the Congress back to the Executive Branch.

No one moved so spectacularly, so systematically at a time when everyone else was just confused and scared. Remember: when the plane attacked the Pentagon, Rumsfeld ran toward the accident. He is very perceptive in the midst of chaos. That's when he gets his best results."

So as Iraq came into his sights, Rumsfeld pressed Franks to shrink the invasion force, speed the drive to Baghdad and forget about the more traditional, mile-by-bloody-mile invasion tactics that meant stopping at every step to consolidate the coalition's gains. Rumsfeld sold the war in a series of almost daily Pentagon briefings that centered not on the risks of besieging Baghdad but on the risks of not doing so.

"We just suffered 3,000 dead in Sept. 11," he mused during a television interview in early February. "If the U.S. were to experience a Sept. 11 with a biological attack ... we would see not just 3,000 potentially but 30,000 or 300,000 people [dead]. And that's the test ... It seems to me ... that we, each person, has to answer that question, Are we willing to put that at risk?"

When they were done, Rumsfeld and Franks invaded a nation 25 times the size of nearby Kuwait, with roughly half the troops used in 1991—a revolution in the way the U.S. fights wars. Baghdad fell in 21 days, and the U.S. suffered 103 combat fatalities. The plan, according to retired Marine Lieut. Colonel Jay Farrar, "proved to the Army that it can go in lighter and sustain itself longer than it ever imagined."


Ask top pentagon officials whether Rumsfeld is a strategic or a tactical thinker, and they reply yes. For every blue-sky conversation in Rumsfeld's office about, say, the limits of technology, there is another about ensuring that Pentagon officials adhere to ethics rules when accepting honorary gifts from foreign leaders.

Given that depth of field and Rumsfeld's deft handling of the war, it's hard to escape the question, Where was he on the peace? How could a man with trifocal vision fail to see that the peace would need as much planning as the war? As a senior Pentagon officer put it, "The war gets an A-minus, but postwar is more a C-minus or D-plus."

Those questions are the biggest mystery of Rumsfeld's year. Part of the problem, ironically, was the brilliant war plan itself. Rumsfeld and Franks so stripped down the invasion force for speed that the occupation army that came out the other end was too small for the job of peacekeeping. The military suddenly found itself having to protect banks, arms dumps, even gas stations, with just a handful of divisions. But there were other problems too.

Administration officials, including some close to Rumsfeld, were suffused with the convenient belief that Iraqis would welcome the U.S. as a liberator the moment G.I.s landed. The Pentagon, after almost two years of nonstop rivalry with other agencies, had become almost genetically incapable of—some said uninterested in—working with the State Department on anything Iraq related, including postwar planning, which was one of State's strengths.

Rumsfeld would never admit that he made a mistake, says an aide, who adds, "That's a good thing when selling a policy or a war. But if the choice turns out to be wrong, he probably won't acknowledge it until it's turned into a disaster."

Indeed, Rumsfeld answers the question of whether he misjudged the postwar challenges with a trademark Rumination. "Let me give you a perspective," he says. "You come into these jobs—there's not a lot of time for reflection—you better know two-thirds of the things you're gonna need to know when you get in here, 'cause you're not going to have time to learn three-quarters.

You can learn an eighth or a quarter or a third, but you can't learn it all. And the same thing is true in a big, massive project like a war. You've got to get into as many of the key pieces, pick the right pieces that are most important and then pass them off to somebody."

In this case, that somebody was Jay Garner, a retired three star Rumsfeld knew since the two had worked together studying U.S. space policy three years before. This was probably Rumsfeld's first misstep: giving a retired general the job of organizing postwar Iraq—a job in which Garner would have to compete for money and manpower with a dozen other active-duty four-star generals. Rumsfeld didn't have a lot of great options.

The Pentagon doesn't have an agency for peacekeeping or nation building or anything in between, and neither the military nor the White House regarded those chores as terribly important. As a consequence, Garner's show was always a second- or third-order problem inside an institution that counts waging wars—and keeping its troops alive to fight them—its first 10 priorities.

But Garner faced another challenge: the Bush Administration wasn't keen to acknowledge what he was doing. Before the shooting started, the White House was at pains to disguise any indication that a war was inevitable. The decision to go to war was Baghdad's, not Washington's, went the daily talking point.

Job one was to position the President as a reluctant warrior. Any emphasis on what would come after the war would have put the President in a public relations bind. That didn't mean Garner couldn't do his job in secret. It simply meant that no one was inclined to give his job a very high priority, at least in public. A top Pentagon official explained the balancing act this way: "It was all perverted.

The government was still going through this charade that we were going to solve it peacefully, so we couldn't get too far out there on the postwar. It was a cost-benefit analysis: Was the fig leaf of diplomacy as important as getting it right on the ground? It was decided that it was."

And where was Rumsfeld in all this? Looking back a few days ago on this complicated minuet, Rumsfeld half conceded only that the U.S. was trying to avoid any impression that war was unavoidable. "We didn't want that inevitability," he said, pausing slightly before quickly editing himself, "because it wasn't inevitable! We were hoping it wouldn't happen."


If Rumsfeld had initially handed over the postwar planning to Garner, once Baghdad fell he didn't relinquish control. And that places Rumsfeld in the vicinity of one of the great miscalculations of the year: the decision in late May to disband the Iraqi army, which basically put hundreds of thousands of young men out on the Iraqi streets without work. The story of the demobilization makes clear that even when Garner did have a blueprint for what was to follow, the U.S. couldn't or wouldn't stick to it.

All through last winter, the big worry had been the life-and-death stuff, not schools and sewers. Garner's to-do list read like the table of contents from the Book of Apocalypse: food panics; blazing oil rigs; a nuclear, chemical or biological exchange with wmd-contaminated provinces to quarantine; water shortages; a three-month siege of Baghdad; cross-border refugee flows; and ethnic conflict or cleansing. It was lucky that none of those things happened, but nobody gets credit for the bullets they dodge. The U.S. authorities were left less prepared for the different kind of chaos that followed.

Garner wanted to preserve a portion of the 400,000-man Iraqi army in part to help keep the peace when the shooting stopped. The U.S. expected thousands of Iraqi troops to surrender, as they had in 1991. "We had planned on keeping the army together and using it pretty actively in the reconstruction of Iraq," Garner tells TIME . "But our planning was somewhat flawed in that the army didn't surrender."

Instead, it just disappeared. Douglas Feith, a top Rumsfeld aide and the Pentagon's policy chief, says, "The army in effect disbanded itself" as the U.S. swept into Baghdad. But within a few weeks, soldiers began to reappear, looking for work. They started showing up in May, Garner recalls. "We had planned to use them for a variety of things. They had skill sets we needed for reconstruction, clearing rubble, working on roads." The idea was to pay each of them $40 a month. The funds would come from the nearly $1.7 billion in Iraqi money frozen by the U.S. "I briefed everybody on that—[Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and the President—and nobody said no," Garner says.

Retired U.S. Army Lieut. General Paul Cerjan, who had been hired to oversee this effort for Garner, says, "Our plan was designed to put them to work in footprints around the country, keep them at home, pay them every night so the next morning Mama would kick their ass out of the house and tell them to go back and get another dollar. You have to get the angry young men off the street. If that had happened, we would have had a lot of people back to work, and the unemployment levels wouldn't be at 70%."

But instead of remobilizing the Iraqi army, Washington simply dissolved it on May 23. Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer arrived and did away with the Ministry of Defense and the plan to pay the Iraqis. "I don't lay that at Jerry Bremer's feet." Garner says. "He came over with a briefcase full of orders."

U.S. officials said at the time their hand had been forced because the old army had dissolved and the Iraqi army posts had been so thoroughly looted that the U.S. lacked the infrastructure to support a remobilized militia. Also, there were fears among the U.S. honchos in Baghdad that a standing national army would be as much a force for instability as for stability.

And there was another worry: in the days after Saddam fell and his circle of advisers disappeared, the U.S. had no idea whom it could trust in the Iraqi chain of command. Faced with those unknown unknowns, as Rumsfeld might say, Washington simply bagged the whole force.

Who made that call? White House aides finger Bremer. Bremer aide Walter Slocombe claims some responsibility, but it's unlikely that a Clinton-era Democrat like Slocombe would have been allowed to make such a big decision. Wolfowitz says the decision to disband the army was unanimous. Asked whether it was Rummy's call, Feith says, "You could say that."

Rumsfeld admits as much, in his way. Actually, he has three answers. Short: "I don't remember." Medium: "Everything that gets done—good, bad or ugly—is mine." And long: " It's perfectly right for people to debate whether it was a right or wrong decision. I haven't got time for that.

My interest is, Let's get more of these guys recruited, let's get on with building the Iraqi security forces, let's create the training. That's what I'm focused on." Besides, Rumsfeld hints that the back-and-forth about demobilization no longer matters because the "overwhelming majority" of the new Iraqi army is made up of conscripts and soldiers from the old force.

Perhaps, but the U.S. lost four to six months in the process of deciding that its initial plan was the best one after all. A Pentagon civilian close to Rumsfeld admits, "We shouldn't have disbanded the army."


In Rumsfeld's world, all that was long ago. For weeks he has been itching to get back to wrestling his real nemesis, not Saddam or Osama bin Laden but what he sees as the need to remake the military to fight villains like them for the next 25 years. Known as transformation, the initiative was the first fight he picked when he returned to Washington in 2001.

At the time, he wanted to shrink the military and reduce its footprint overseas, in part by cutting the Army by two or three divisions. There was talk of killing cold war weapons just entering production and buying lethal ones instead. Rumsfeld also earmarked additional billions to build a national missile shield. Transformation was meant to prepare the U.S. fighting machine for enemies that looked less like nations and more like groups of stateless terrorists. The military first tried to stall, then fight and then outlast him.

Rumsfeld reacted by dismissing the generals who didn't like his ideas and finding some who did. Resistance inside the Army was so deep that Rumsfeld brought back a retired four star, Pete Schoomaker, to be his Army chief of staff rather than promote an active-duty general—a move that still sends shudders through the service.

But even after 9/11 changed everything, it didn't change Rumsfeld's zeal to reform or the essential outlines of his plan. Some of his ideas are very specific. He is weighing whether to move U.S. military bases out of Western Europe now that the cold war is over and shift forces east to Poland and Romania to be closer to the hot spots of the Middle East.

He has asked the Navy whether its constant presence in, for example, the Mediterranean makes it harder to steam quickly to conflicts elsewhere. He wants the Air Force to think less about pilots in expensive jets and more about inexpensive unmanned drones carrying smart munitions. In a legislative tour de force in November, he pushed through Congress an overhaul of the Pentagon's civil-service rules that will allow Defense Secretaries far more leverage to hire, fire and shift people around in the military's entrenched white-collar bureaucracies.

The themes of all these moves are speed, stealth and efficiency—doing more with fewer people and fewer weapons—much as they were in the two wars he just fought. "Transformation is not about things, and it's not about technology," says General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Its about how you think about things and how you change cultures."

There are signs that Rumsfeld himself may emerge transformed from his battle for transformation. He has been under pressure from Congress to expand the military by at least two divisions, or 20,000 troops. The Secretary resisted that pressure over the summer and fall, but in his conversation with TIME , he said he was studying the plan more closely, opening the door to a deal. "We may need a bigger army ... I don't see any analysis or any studies that persuade me that it should be larger or smaller at the moment. I'm commissioning them. I'm getting them done. And if they say we need a larger one, I will, with alacrity, recommend it, and it may very well be the case."

But if Rumsfeld is flexible, it is only to a point. He remains firmly opposed to a return to the military draft. He has often said today's volunteers are smarter and more dedicated than conscripts. His feelings about this run deep: he was one of the original advocates of an all-volunteer force as an Illinois Congressman back in the 1960s. Transformation, it turns out, began long ago.


You would think, especially after the capture of Saddam, that Rumsfeld could pack it in, go out on top and settle down in that ranch in Taos, N.M., that he co-owns with, among others, Dan Rather. Boyhood chum Ned Jannotta, who ran Rumsfeld's first campaign for Congress in 1962, notes that Rumsfeld has never cared about staying anywhere very long.

"He doesn't look for security in his life," says Jannotta. "It gives him great freedom to do and try and risk and fail. He's prepared to go head to head—winner take all, no second-place money—and still fail. That runs through his life." Even in his government jobs, Rumsfeld has not stayed put for very long. "My theory," he says, "has always been, you put your head down and work hard, and good things happen."

At times he has operated with the impunity of a man who has nothing to lose. A senior official tells the story of a situation-room briefing to coordinate a policy decision last winter. At the top of an organization chart that had been passed around the table were the initials nsa. "What's nsa?" asked Rumsfeld, who had once been a White House chief of staff. "That would be me," replied Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, as jaws dropped quietly around the room at Rumsfeld's impertinence.

The Pentagon has often behaved as if it were on its own timetable, uninterested in or even ignorant of diplomacy or politics. Two weeks ago the Pentagon posted on one of its websites a previously released announcement that only the 62 coalition allies could participate in U.S.-funded postwar contracts, needlessly angering other nations at the very moment Bush had sent James Baker to some of those countries in search of debt relief for Iraq. White House officials have a name for the Pentagon. "It's Rummyland," said one aide. "They just do what they want."

But if you are looking for clues about whether he will stay, don't waste your time. You will find too many leads pointing in opposite directions. Rumsfeld is hardly oblivious to his image; at times it's his principal weapon. When he's preparing for press conferences, he limbers up, firing questions at aides, wondering aloud, What am I gonna get asked?

These pregame warm-ups, a former aide explained, are designed to get him in the mood to match wits with reporters and "are as much about psychology as content." Few believe his "long, hard slog" memo of October—in which he frankly warned of a much more difficult war on terrorism and his concern that Washington was still poorly organized to fight it—was leaked without his O.K. Many think it was written to put him on the right side of history in case he departs the government next year.

Rumsfeld once remarked to an aide that Washington is uncommonly generous to those with ambition. The capital offers those who like the game not just one or even two but three acts, with room for plenty of reprises. Having served in Congress in the 1960s and in the White House in the '70s, Rumsfeld is well into his third act, and it appears that he may be looking to extend his latest tour. He has recently purchased a weekend place outside Washington on Chesapeake Bay—an indication that he might like to re-up a few more years.

If so, he will be ready for any new fight that comes along. Near the end of his recent talk with TIME , Rumsfeld was asked how he has so much energy. There's coffee on the table and energy bars stashed away across the room, but before the question was even finished, he was dashing over to his formal desk, bending over and lifting two black-and-white dumbbells hidden under it, each weighing 15 lbs.

"They're nothing," he said, as he started to do curls. "Nothing!" After a few reps, he was on the move again, over to his stand-up desk. He whipped open a drawer and pulled out one of those little spring hand exercisers. And then he reached into the same drawer with his other hand and pointed to a small paper box the size of a jewelry box. With one hand pumping, smiling broadly, he lifted the lid. The music started, filling the vast room. It was Sousa, loud and brassy and in your face: Stars and Stripes Forever.

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Panel: Spy agencies in dark about threats
Top Stories
CNN/Money: Security alert issued for 40 million credit cards

International Edition
CNN TV CNN International Headline News Transcripts Advertise With Us About Us
   The Web     
Powered by
© 2005 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.
external link
All external sites will open in a new browser. does not endorse external sites.
 Premium content icon Denotes premium content.
Add RSS headlines.