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The transformation of Donald Rumsfeld
By Ehsan Ahrari

The man who is arguably the father of the notion of military transformation, United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, appears to be undergoing his own sort of personal metamorphosis in response to the changing realities of global events involving the United States. In fact, he is undergoing this transformation unabashedly, even with gusto.

In an interview on the eve of an informal meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) defense ministers in Colorado Springs, Colorado on October 8, Rumsfeld unveiled the latest evidence of his personal transformation by stating he believes that NATO has a central role in global security.

This is the same Rumsfeld who coined the phrase "coalition of the willing", which really meant "coalition of countries who would toe the US line in all conflicts without asking hard and probing questions". For instance, countries that follow the examples of the UK and Australia. He is the same man who derided France and Germany as part of "old Europe", while condoning the compliant and diffident members of Central Europe and the Baltic states as part of "new Europe", largely because the former two countries were highly critical of the US invasion of Iraq, while the latter group of countries either acquiesced or endorsed it.

Rumsfeld's harsh denigration and derision of America's European allies, who opposed the Iraqi invasion, will long be remembered as one of the main reasons for the newest round of trans-Atlantic rifts. And those rifts have not dissipated even now, as France, Germany and Russia continue to reject the US policy of asking for help from the UN and the international community of nations, while still rejecting any suggestion of assigning the world body a major role in governing Iraq and refusing to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi Governing Council.

Now Rumsfeld is portraying himself as a "committed Atlanticist". Is "Mr Unilateralism" having a real change of heart ? Alternatively, is he really growing up in his job (he is serving as US Secretary of Defense for the second time) and coming to realize that multilateralism - which served the US so well during the Cold War years - is still the right way to pursue its interest in the post-Iraq years? Or, is it merely a tactical maneuvering on his part?

One might come to the conclusion that Rumsfeld has decided to burnish his Atlanticist credentials partially because of the setbacks that his country is encountering in Iraq, but also largely, and most significantly, because NATO as an alliance has been moving in the direction favored by the Bush administration. In this sense, he envisions that alliance as a fulfillment of his own vision for a politico-military transformation, thereby emerging as a highly relevant entity to serve US global strategic interests.

In the Colorado Springs interview, Rumsfeld listed some of those changes: In the past three years of the Bush administration, he said, NATO brought about a complete restructuring of its command structure (by emulating the command structures of America's military) and by establishing a new rapid reaction force it has been in charge of its first outside Europe military effort by taking control of peacekeeping in Afghanistan. Even regarding Iraq, despite the initial interalliance squabbling before the US invasion of that country, a number of NATO countries are involved in peacekeeping.

As Rumsfeld pointed out, "We now have 11 of 19 NATO nations with forces in Iraq." Turkey has recently agreed to participate in peacekeeping. This particular development has enormous symbolic value from the perspectives of growing US desperation for a visible Muslim presence in Iraq. But it also has tremendous potential to become an ominous development, especially if the Turkish peacekeepers were to come under attack by Kurds or by Sunni Arabs in the area that is popularly referred to as the "Sunni triangle".

Despite the participation of a number of NATO partners in peacekeeping operations in Iraq, the jury is still out regarding how cooperative the Alliance is likely to be in the near future. Its continued cooperation with the US version of peacekeeping depends largely on whether the security situation in Iraq improves or deteriorates. If the security condition were to improve, NATO is likely to accept even a larger role in Iraq. However, under a worsening security situation, one should not be surprised if a number of allies were to bolt. The Bush administration is hoping that the NATO's role in Iraq would follow the pattern of its participation in Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld's ostensible transformation may also be the result of a lot of criticism towards the office of the secretary of defense - the civilian portion of the Pentagon - regarding its handling of the security situation and nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President George W Bush's decision to restructure the handling of postwar Iraq and Afghanistan by enhancing the primacy and visibility of his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, may be viewed as dissatisfaction with the US departments of defense and state. In principle, that cannot be construed as a rebuke or even an expression of lack of confidence in Rumsfeld or Secretary of State Colin Powell. However, since the American media almost always portray the ascendancy and descent of political personalities in Washington as part of a ceaseless power game, there has been speculation that Rumsfeld's visibility might be noticeably tapered in the coming months.

Rumsfeld's own public reaction to the news of restructuring was interesting. He stated that Bush did not inform him that he was about to restructure the handling of Afghanistan and Iraq. That observation gives ample fuel for Washington punditry to speculate or look for further clues regarding "who's up and who's down".

Stepping back from this power game perspective, no sweeping generalizations can be made that Rumsfeld's star is about to lose its shine. He has proven himself to be the most important, and equally controversial, defense secretary since Robert McNamara of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. As such, Rumsfeld has more than his fair share of detractors.

Rumsfeld's greatest contribution is that he has been so determined on transforming America's military in such a way that no enemy forces would ever dare to challenge it on a force-on-force basis. Considering that no nation lastingly remains on top of the hierarchy of power, any attempt to defy that historical reality is a most laudable enterprise. At least for now, by seemingly transforming his own viewpoint on America's involvement in global affairs, Rumsfeld is proving that he takes his own outlook on transformation quite seriously.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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Oct 10, 2003

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