Friday, November 10, 2006

The Donald: Rumsfeld & his way of thinking

Like a lot of people in the media and in government, I’ve shaken hands with Donald Rumsfeld, the departing secretary of defense.

He was on the board of directors of Tribune Company in the mid-90s, while I worked there, and the one thing that the higher ups always said about Rumsfeld is that he wasn’t likeable.

He asked a lot of questions that the senior executives didn’t want to answer. He challenged their assumptions and that made them uncomfortable.

But Rumsfeld took his job as a board member seriously. In fact, looking back on it now, Rumsfeld was ahead of his time as a board member.

Given all the corporate scandals that have been uncovered and adjudicated recently – Enron, WorldCom, Tyco – anyone who sits on the board of directors of a publicly held company knows that they’re going to be held far more accountable for their actions today than they were 10 years ago.

Rumsfeld knew that 10 years ago.

He made it a point, through his questions, to understand the plans and the marketplace. He likely signed off on a lot of actions that Tribune executives went on to execute but that didn’t stop him from gaining as much of an understanding as possible of these plans during a board meeting.

There’s likely no bureaucracy in Washington that’s more set in its ways than the Defense Department. Generals and admirals are often accused of using obsolete strategy and tactics to fight the war effort they’re leading.

Rumsfeld challenged his subordinates to think differently about how they’d fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than one senior officer likely didn’t appreciate these questions. They probably would have preferred a defense secretary that would rubber stamp their war plans.

That’s not Rumsfeld. He doesn’t rubber stamp anything.

The results in Afghanistan were startling. The United States was the first western army to conquer Afghanistan. Compare that to the British, who lost an entire army in Afghanistan in the 19th century and, later, the Soviet Union, which decided they couldn’t successfully occupy or pacify the country.

There are a lot of questions that need to be resolved about Afghanistan. But the victory orchestrated by Rumsfeld can’t be dismissed.

The same is true with the Iraq War of 2003. The basic tenants of the plan weren’t all that new – the British basically went in the same way in the early 20th century – but the results were no less outstanding. Even military historian John Keegan confirmed that.

The mistake that Rumsfeld made in Iraq was not planning for the postwar occupation. There’s every reason to believe that he never thought about an insurgency.

Still, in the course of executing these war plans, Rumsfeld forced the generals and the admirals to think about fighting wars far differently. For some of them, it was probably the biggest challenge they’d had since they attained their high ranks.

Some of the thinking that Rumsfeld instilled in his officers will likely remain around for decades, and, yes, it could, one day, be criticized as being obsolete.

Perhaps had Rumsfeld come across as a nicer man he wouldn’t have been forced out of his job. We’ll never know. And, yes, Rumsfeld does deserve a lot of the criticism he’s received. Even he would admit that.

And while I’m sure Robert Gates, the defense secretary-designate, is a capable executive, I wonder if he’ll bring the same level of intellectual energy to the job as his predecessor.

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