The meanest thing a veteran can say about a defense secretary is to compare him to Robert Strange McNamara, detested by everyone who has worn a uniform.
So you can imagine my distress when my friend Ralph Peters compared Donald Rumsfeld, who I think is the best defense secretary ever, to McNamara, whom we agree was the worst ever ("McNamara's Ghost," Post Opinion, Oct 30).
By and large, Peters repeated criticisms of Rumsfeld made by anonymous general officers in a Washington Post story Oct. 16: "Many senior officers . . . describe Rumsfeld as frequently abusive and indecisive, trusting only a close circle of advisers, seemingly eager to slap down officers with decades of distinguished service," the Washington Post said.
There are four broad reasons for friction:
* Many military leaders are less sanguine about war with Iraq than Rumsfeld is.
* Rumsfeld is sticking his nose into matters military leaders regard as their turf.
* When Rumsfeld thinks something a general said or did is stupid, he says so. Generals aren't used to that.
* Rumsfeld and service leaders disagree profoundly on the types of weapons the military should be buying.
The last is by far the most important. Most marriages which founder do so over money, and the fights over money in the Pentagon these days are ferocious.
Rumsfeld inherited a budget crisis. Defense budgets plummeted during the Clinton administration. But - thanks to peacekeeping missions in Haiti and Bosnia, and the Kosovo war - military "op tempo" surge d. Weapons purchases were deferred to pay for current operations. Estimates of the capital shortfall go as high as $400 billion.
War is expensive. Last year, the War on Terror cost the Pentagon $16.8 billion more than had been budgeted. Congress has raised military spending, but not by nearly enough to pay for the war we're fighting, and to modernize the force.
Rumsfeld and the service chiefs want to spend what little money is available for modernization on very different things. Each of the services wants to buy new and improved versions of the weapons it was buying during the Cold War. Rumsfeld wants to spend procurement money on systems which take full advantage of modern technology, and which would be more useful in the war we're fighting now.
So Rumsfeld has put a sacred cow from each of the services on his chopping block. He's canceled the Army's Crusader artillery system. He wants to reduce the buy of the Air Force's F-22 stealth fighter, a terrific airplane that guards against a threat no nation is posing, and to delay or cancel the Navy's next generation aircraft carrier.
Analysts who have less emotion and prestige invested in these systems than do the service chiefs have difficulty disagreeing with Rumsfeld. The Crusader would have been the finest howitzer ever. But the gun and its ammunition carrier weigh 70 tons. It couldn't be moved by air, and wouldn't be of much use chasing guerrillas through the hills even if it could. The F-22 is designed chiefly to shoot down enemy fighters. But no air force in the world has fighters which can match the ones we have now.
Peters agrees with Rumsfeld about the Crusader, and his chief criticism of his approach to the F-22 is that Rumsfeld isn't planning to cancel it outright. As a career Army officer, Peters shares the view of serving Army generals that the Army should be larger, and that more of it should be used if there is a war with Iraq. As a former Army officer myself, I sympathize with that view, but there are some Special Forces officers and many Air Force generals who back the Rumsfeld approach.
Rumsfeld has more impressive credentials than any defense secretary save George Marshall. A former naval aviator, he had been SecDef for President Ford and chaired two defense commissions before President Bush picked him for a second Pentagon tour.
Rumsfeld may well be arrogant, as McNamara was. But McNamara was a terrible defense secretary not because he was arrogant, but because his Vietnam policy was disastrously wrong, and he lied about it.
Rumsfeld isn't lying, to his generals or to us, and, so far, he hasn't been wrong. The war in Afghanistan was fought his way, over the objections of many in the Army. It worked out pretty well. He's been doing a good job. The squealing in the Pentagon is proof of it.