The surprise selection of Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary provides a clear signal of President-elect George W. Bush’s intent to transform radically the military policy of the United States. Of all the candidates considered for this position, Rumsfeld is the most ardent advocate of ballistic-missile defense and a tougher stance toward Russia and China. A longtime Republican activist with markedly conservative views, Rumsfeld is also known for his opposition to all arms-control measures and for favoring the deployment of weapons in space.
Along with other members of Bush’s national security team–Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice–Rumsfeld can be expected to push hard for the establishment of a full-scale National Missile Defense system. In 1998 he authored a report on ballistic missile threats that ignited the Republicans’ current drive for a national missile shield. Now, as Defense Secretary, he will be in a strong position to lead the charge for NMD.
But while NMD deployment will be Rumsfeld’s top priority, it is by no means his only major objective. With the blessing of President-elect Bush, Rumsfeld will campaign for a wide range of policy shifts. These will include a greater emphasis on warfare in space, the accelerated procurement of high-tech weapons and a diminished commitment to UN peacekeeping operations. It all looks depressingly like the cold war era, when “national security” meant distrust of all other states and the pursuit of ever more potent weapons.
Rumsfeld’s service to Republican Presidents (and presidential hopefuls) goes back to the Nixon Administration, when he became director of the Office of Economic Opportunity after several terms in Congress. While at the OEO, Rumsfeld impressed the White House staff with his managerial skills, and in 1970 he was made counselor to the President. (It was at this time that Rumsfeld developed close ties with Cheney, who had served as his special assistant at the OEO.)
Fortunately for Rumsfeld, Nixon appointed him ambassador to NATO in 1972, thus sparing him from possible association with the Watergate scandal. When Nixon was forced to abandon the presidency, Rumsfeld was brought back to Washington by the new President, Gerald Ford, to serve first as White House Chief of Staff and later as Defense Secretary. Although not remembered for any major innovations during his fourteen months at the Pentagon (late 1975 to early 1977), Rumsfeld shielded the military from any major penalties following its defeat in Vietnam and laid the groundwork for procurement of a wide range of new weapons systems, including the B-1 bomber and M-X missile.
Following the election of Jimmy Carter, Rumsfeld left Washington for the private sector. From 1977 to 1985 he served as chief executive officer and then president of G.D. Searle, a major pharmaceutical corporation later acquired by Monsanto. Several years later, he took control of another large company, the General Instrument Corporation. As at Searle, he slashed costs (mainly by eliminating staff) and boosted profits, giving him a reputation as a skilled, tough-minded corporate manager.
During his years in the private sector, Rumsfeld retained his links to the military establishment (serving for a time as chairman of the RAND Corporation, a prominent military think tank) while developing new ties with conservative figures in the corporate world. Among his close confidants is Theodore Forstmann, a corporate buyout specialist who owned Gulfstream Aerospace (in 1999 he sold it to General Dynamics for $4.8 billion) and managed the buyout of General Instrument, giving Rumsfeld a paper profit of $11 million. Forstmann is also the major figure behind Empower America, a political advocacy outfit boasting many prominent Republicans (Rumsfeld among them) on its board of directors. Described by the New York Times as “a home for Washington’s conservative elite,” Empower America has campaigned for big tax cuts, space defenses and school vouchers.
Urged no doubt by his conservative buddies, Rumsfeld agreed in September 1996 to take over management of Bob Dole’s failing presidential campaign. Although he was unable to secure victory at the polls, Rumsfeld did breathe some life into the campaign by persuading Dole to promise mammoth tax cuts and to adopt a tougher stance on military policy. Under prodding from Rumsfeld, Dole lashed out against President Clinton on his handling of the Iraq situation and called for the deployment of a national missile shield by the year 2003. In this sense, Rumsfeld laid the foundation for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign against Vice President Al Gore.
After the 1996 election, Rumsfeld returned to the corporate world–he took over Gilead Sciences, a biotechnology firm, and sat on the board of several corporations (including Asea Brown Boveri, a giant European electrical firm, and the Tribune Company)–while continuing his support for right-wing military causes. Especially significant was his close association with the Center for Security Policy, a think tank established by former Reagan Administration official Frank Gaffney Jr. to campaign for the deployment of “Star Wars” defenses.
Having gained renewed stature among the Republicans in Congress for his hard-line views, Rumsfeld was selected in 1998 to chair the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. Composed of six Republicans and three Democrats, the Rumsfeld Commission (as it came to be called) examined classified intelligence data on the ballistic missile programs of Iran, Iraq and North Korea in order to calculate their future capacity to attack the United States. By employing worst-case reasoning to the often contradictory data on these countries’ military capabilities, the commission concluded that one or another of the “rogue states” could deploy missiles capable of striking the United States in as little as five years–half the time predicted by the CIA.
Although these findings were challenged by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and prominent figures in the arms-control community, the Rumsfeld commission’s report was seized upon by Republican activists as incontrovertible evidence that the United States must proceed rapidly with the development of a full-scale missile defense system. This is the “most important warning about our national security system since the end of the cold war,” House Speaker Newt Gingrich asserted at the time.
Fearful of being portrayed by Congressional Republicans as ignoring a major threat to US security, President Clinton agreed in early 1999 to proceed with development of a limited NMD system–one aimed at protecting the Western United States against a hypothetical North Korean missile attack–while putting off a decision on actual deployment. But this did little to satisfy the hawks on Capitol Hill, who sought to develop a much more robust system covering the entire nation. At Rumsfeld’s urging, moreover, Bush made this a central theme of his campaign.
While a candidate, Governor Bush articulated other themes originally crafted by Rumsfeld during the Dole campaign of 1996. These include a promise to get tougher on Saddam Hussein and other “rogue state” leaders, to pursue the development of new high-tech weaponry and to abjure involvement in UN-sponsored peacekeeping missions. Together, these themes came to represent the skeleton of a new approach to national security–one that favors protection of the United States and its overseas assets rather than, say, the construction of a stable world order or the enforcement of international law.
Throughout the campaign, Bush declared his intention to undertake a sweeping transformation of US military policy. At the very least, this would entail the development and procurement of new high-tech weapons and a greater emphasis on war in space. But more than this, it would involve a shift in the very orientation of US strategy. “Our military requires more than good treatment,” he declared at the Citadel in September 1999. “It needs the rallying point of a defining mission.”
Although unclear on the details, Bush sketched out the broad outlines of this new mission. In place of the “vague, aimless and endless deployments” of the Clinton era (read: Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo), US military power would henceforth be reserved for more pressing objectives–to protect US national interests around the world and to defeat any power that might be so foolhardy as to threaten these key interests. More emphasis will also be placed on “homeland defense,” meaning the protection of the United States from missile attack and other hypothetical threats from rogue states and terrorists.
In announcing Rumsfeld’s selection as Defense Secretary, Bush made it clear that he expects his top military official to carry out this strategic transformation. “We must work to change our military to meet the threats of a new century,” Bush declared on December 28. “And so one of Secretary Rumsfeld’s first tasks will be to challenge the status quo within the Pentagon, to develop a strategy necessary to have a force equipped for warfare of the twenty-first century.”
In his response to Bush, Rumsfeld indicated that he has every intention of conducting a major overhaul of military policy. “It is clearly not a time at the Pentagon for presiding or calibrating modestly. Rather, we are in a new national security environment. We do need to be arranged to deal with the new threats, not the old ones.”
It is still too early, of course, to calculate all the consequences of this shift in outlook. Many of the initiatives favored by Bush–the development of high-tech weapons, the acceleration of research on ballistic missile defenses–have already been undertaken by the Clinton Administration. But there is no doubt that Bush and Rumsfeld will push much harder for deployment of a national missile shield and for the deployment of weapons in space. They are also likely to abandon the ABM treaty, which prohibits missile defenses of the sort they favor.
In pursuing these policies, the new administration will inevitably inflame US relations with Russia and China, thereby precluding any further progress on arms control. It is very likely, in fact, that Russia and China will respond to US initiatives by expanding their own nuclear arsenals and by forging a closer military relationship. Relations with China will become particularly tense, especially if–as is expected–Bush approves the delivery of new warships and antimissile weapons to Taiwan. The result will be a more unstable and polarized environment, producing exactly the sort of world in which the Republican’s instinctive preference for cold war-like policies will find a natural outlet.
The pursuit of missile defense and the abrogation of the ABM treaty will also alienate many US allies, most of whom oppose NMD. One likely result is the further development of an autonomous European military posture, with all that this entails. And, of course, we can expect diminished US support for the UN. Where all this leads is anybody’s guess, but it is hard to believe that the final outcome will be a more peaceful world.