Some years ago, I approached a senior executive of a major defense contractor with a project idea. Wed explain the basic concepts and basic complexities of 21st century defense to a general audience. The mans response was commendably direct. Youre wrong. All the American people need to know is, Spend Money.
Take out the American people, trope in Donald Rumsfeld, and youve got an OK description of the Pentagons attitude toward the current secretary of defense an attitude abetted and encouraged by a surprising number of otherwise thoughtful conservative analysts and commentators. And for the past few weeks, this tandem has put on a show that, for sheer ugliness, rivals anything the Clinton years turned out.
No one really expected defense to become a major campaign issue. George W. Help Is on the Way Bush and his running mate, a man of some experience in the field, made it so. Everyone assumed that help meant cash lots of cash up-front. Best of all, the new secretary of defense, whomever Bush named, would probably be some novice, destined to spend his first six months (hopefully, more) deferring to the bureaucrats and the brass and signing papers he didnt understand . . . when not out hustling for bucks.
It didnt quite happen that way. The man who got the job knew, as most generals and admirals will admit after that third bourbon or Martini or whatever, that a Reagan-style build-up a lot of cash spent quickly on known and mature technologies to be used against a known and predictable foe in a relatively stable world wasnt appropriate. Nor was beefing up forces that might not be needed. Ergo, no immediate large supplemental in January (and a highly small one going to the Hill in June). Then Don Rumsfeld launched the Rumsfeld Review, a klatch of independent, low-viz panels to consider every aspect of defense and submit their reports on a rolling basis.
Conservatives, both the America Must Lead Because America Must Lead crowd and those who never met a weapon they didnt like, felt betrayed. The Pentagon felt blindsided. Congress quailed. Then the incredible happened. For weeks, nothing leaked. And then, beginning in April, the predictable response: an intense media campaign to discredit (pre-emptively) the panels and reports, perhaps to cripple Mr. Rumsfeld himself.
Even by Beltway standards, its been bizarre. Publicly, nobodys even sure how many panels there are, or what theyve turned out. But this hasnt stopped endless criticism of reports and panels that might not even exist. The rumor mill runs 24/7. Everythings on the table; everythings safe. Rumsfelds standing by his people; Rumsfelds backing off. Unnamed senior officers complain that the military, which should have been hard at work on the legally-required 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, has been excluded. Named and unnamed legislators and staffers carp about their lack of input, as though they had no committees of their own and would not ultimately get to debate and vote on everything.
Mr. Rumsfeld first tried to assure everybody that this process was meant to help him with his own thoughts, and that in time theyd all have their say. Then he took the unusual step of revealing to the Washington Post how much contact hed actually had with everyone: 91 meetings in 115 days with Gen. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; 170 meetings with senior officers; face-time sessions with 125 legislators (plus phone calls), etc. On several occasions, hes attempted to reaffirm the obvious that all these reports, whatever they might turn out to be, are starting points only.
But if the final quality and disposition of the Rumsfeld Review remains uncertain, two things have become abundantly clear. First, thinking outside the box is great, unless it happens to be the iron-clad lock box that contains your appropriation. And second, within the Beltway, the only thing that matters more than money is ego.
Is this what the American people need to know about the common defense?
It is not. What they need to know is this:
The United States faces a situation unprecedented in human history. The most powerful nation on Earth, a nation without a single mortal enemy, nonetheless faces an array of ever more deadly threats from many old and new sources. To counter these threats, especially those posed by weapons of mass destruction and cyberwar, the United States must exploit technological revolutions in everything from computers and robotics to directed energy weapons and nano-technologies, on land, at sea, and in the air and space above. This will in turn require revolutionary and across-the-board changes in structure, organization, and procedures.
Yes, its going to take cash. Lots of cash. But its also going to take thought and patience, and ultimately the approval of the American people. And that requires a bit less Beltway narcissism. Its worth remembering that Narcissus problem wasnt that he fell in love with his image in the pond. It was that he couldnt distinguish where he ended and reality began.
As Zeus once said to Narcissus, Watch yourself.