Andrew Cockburn’s unauthorized biography of Donald Rumsfeld is a “must read” for anyone interested in understanding the systemic and dysfunctional behavour of the US government and that of the current Bush Administration in particular. While much has been written of Rumsfeld’s failure as a wartime Secretary of Defense, and Cockburn adds much valuable information to this growing body of literature, less has been written about Rumsfeld’s disastrous record in managing the Pentagon’ programmatic and budgetary activities. Cockburn’s book is pathbreaking in that it also addresses this equally important subject, and this review will focus on this latter aspect of Rumsfeld’s record.
First some “truth in advertising:” I have known Cockburn for almost thirty years and consider him a close friend. I am an admirer of his earlier books, and I was a minor source of information in the Rumsfeld book (see pages 207-208).
I retired from the Department of Defense in 2003 after thirty three years, including twenty-six years in the Office of Secretary of Defense in Pentagon, where, as a staff analyst, I wrote numerous publicly available reports describing how the dysfunctional managerial problems plaguing the Pentagon, from the Carter presidency to that of George W. Bush, created a historical pattern of shrinking forces, aging weapons, and continual pressure to reduce combat readiness, all lubricated by corrupt accounting system that subverted the Accountability Clause of the Constitution. Most of these reports can be found on the internet at Defense in the National Interest and in my book “Defense Facts of Life: The Plans/Reality Mismatch.” The fact that our troops went to Iraq ill-equipped and untrained to a war of choice created by the Bush Administration is natural consequence of this dysfunctional history. Cockburn’s book is an essential reading for anyone trying to understand why the Big Green Spending Machine is now completely out of control.
Donald Rumsfeld cannot be blamed for the Pentagon’s managerial dysfunctions. In fact, when he entered office, he promised to transform the Pentagon’s management practices. To this end, he established several transformation panels, including a financial management transformation panel. The final report issued by this panel, Transforming Department of Defense Financial Management: A Strategy for Change, April 13, 2001, (aka the Friedman Report) correctly described the profound consequences of DoD’s unauditable accounting system when it said these systems do not provide reliable information that … “tells managers the costs of forces or activities that they manage and the relationship of funding levels to output, capability or performance of those forces or activities.” Put another way, the management information provided by DoD’s accounting system is so corrupt and unreliable that it is impossible to link budget decisions to policy intentions.
Nevertheless, while the Bush Administration shovelled money into the Pentagon jacking up spending to levels not seen since WWII, Rumsfeld chose to effectively ignore the findings of the Friedman Report, his rhetoric about tough-minded change notwithstanding. By ignoring the problems his own transformation panel correctly described, Rumsfeld demonstrated a level of incompetence and cavalierness that magnified the Pentagon’s decision making pathologies to a degree that I found and continue to find astonishing and unprecedented.
Cockburn’s well written book lays bare how this disaster is part and parcel of Rumsfeld’s character flaws: on the one hand, Cockburn shows how Rumfeld was a bully who surrounded himself with sychophants and yesmen, a fact that was common knowledge in the Pentagon before I left in 2003, and on the other hand, he shows how Rumsfeld was a dilettante and consequently afraid to make truly hard decisions, a fact that was also in evidence before I left. Combine these twin character flaws with skyrocketing defense budgets, and you have a prescription for a financial and programmatic catastrophe that will plague the United States for at least a generation and undermine the government’s ability to pay for the perfectly predictable costs of an aging population, not to mention a grotesquely mismanaged war. The only beneficiaries of this mess are defense contractors and the politicians who feed on defense expenditures. The soldiers at the pointy end of spear and the taxpayers and their children have been hosed.
One vignette from Cockburn’s book illustrates how Rumsfeld’s twin character flaws force-fed the natural impulse to chaos: Rumsfeld played the tough guy when he cancelled the Army’s Crusader self-propelled howitzer, a gold plated holdover from the cold war. To be sure, this hi-tech program was flawed and suffered from cost growth and should have been cancelled. In fact, it was the lowest hanging fruit in the Pentagon’s orchard of low hanging fruit. The Army and its congressional supporters howled at the time, but their howls quickly disappeared. Why?
Well, progammatically speaking, the answer is clear: Rumsfeld replaced the Crusader with the far more expensive, super hi-tech Future Combat System (FCS), a fantastical “system of systems” for the all-electric battlefield of the future. The end result of this cynical swap was that the same contractors were promised much more money and given a far longer period of time before they would have to deliver any new hardware to our combat forces. More money with less deliverables is manna from heaven to contractors on a cost-plus dole. And … it has the added benefit of increasing the pressure for higher Army budgets over the long term. Meanwhile, today, troops going to Iraq, particularly those in the National Guard, who don’t have the equipment they say they need. Multiply such decision-making modalities by hundreds of R&D and procurement decisions over the last six years, and it is easy to see how ground work has been laid for even higher defense budgets in the future, Iraq War of no Iraq War, threat or no threat, Democratic or Republican Administrations notwithstanding.
This is the programmatic and budgetary legacy of Rumsfeld’s tenure. To understand why, a good first step is to read Cockburn’s book.
Franklin C. Spinney is a former Pentagon analyst and whistleblower. His writing on defense issues can be found on the invaluable Defense in the National Interest website.