Insider Interview: Defense expert Michéle Flourney

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a Ford administration Pentagon official who spent the past 24 years in the private sector, has publicly committed himself to bringing a new leadership style to the Pentagon. NationalJournal.com's Lauren Mandell talked to Michéle Flournoy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Clinton-era deputy assistant secretary of Defense, about Rumsfeld's changes and their effects on the military.

Q. What does it mean that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is setting up the Defense Department like a corporation?

A. I think it's a different leadership approach than what we've seen in the past. And indeed, some commentators have likened it to a hostile takeover. But I think that may be too strong. I think he is certainly drawing on his own experience both in the private sector and also, I think, his previous experience as secretary of Defense.

It is an approach to leadership that really believes that leadership comes from the top and that if you want to fundamentally change the direction of an organization... you have to have leadership mechanisms that essentially impose your vision on the organization and then move forward. So I think it's a very different leadership philosophy than some of his predecessors have had.

Q. How does President Bush's Defense Department compare with President Clinton's?

A. I would start by saying you have to look not so much at the president's leadership style [as] the individual secretaries of Defense. And let me choose one of the three during Clinton's term and that's Bill Perry [who served from 1994-1997]. Bill Perry also had corporate experience, and he also understood the importance of management and leadership in the Pentagon. But I think he also took an approach where he engaged with his military counterparts -- both the chairmen and also the service chiefs -- to try to get them to buy into his vision. And he did that in a number of ways. First, he listened to what was important to them: what are their core values, their goals, their objectives, what did they think was going well in the Defense Department, what was not. And he then tried to draw on the sort of core consensus on basic values, basic mission, and build change from that, as opposed to imposing it from above or directing it from above.... So it's just a very different approach.

Q. Rumsfeld has taken steps to create a super committee -- composed of the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force -- to coordinate major Pentagon policy. Was there anything comparable under Perry's leadership?

A. No, I think they are taking very different approaches to the roles of the service secretaries. I think what Rumsfeld is doing is trying to… treat the service secretaries almost like division managers, where they are first and foremost representatives of the President to the services.... What [Rumsfeld]... is saying is you are my point person for that service... and you are going to help me implement change that's coming from the White House and from the third floor of the Pentagon in each of your service domains.

Frankly, under Clinton, the service secretaries were not empowered. Well, it depends. It depended on the individual. But I would say that the chiefs were, relatively speaking, much more powerful than the service secretaries. My sense is that Rumsfeld comes into the Pentagon with a deep distrust of the military in terms of their willingness to change and to adopt and pursue his priorities. And so he is trying to put civilian leaders who he trusts who are "with the program," and put them in positions where they can help make the change he wants happen. He doesn't believe that he can rely on the military leadership to do that.

Q. Pentagon sources have said that the Joint Chiefs are upset about not being consulted. What is the implication for policy?

A. I think the real question is how will it affect implementation. At some point, the military leaders and the services have to implement whatever the Rumsfeld plan is. And if they don't buy into the plan, they will fight it at every turn -- every step of the program review, every opportunity to sidestep or undermine or ignore or simply stall his plan, they'll take those opportunities....

They could also, by the way, go to Congress... as a court of appeals. Now, whether this Congress will actually allow them to do that is an open question. You have a lot of Republicans in Congress who will want to support their President. You have some Democrats in Congress who are not particularly sympathetic to the military in the wake of the last election and the campaign season.... Congress has not been prepared for implementation either, and if they see pet programs being cut left and right they may well be sympathetic to some of the military's complaints. The implementation road is going to be difficult, I think, because the services have not been brought in.

Q. It has been reported that certain representatives and senators, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., are equally upset about not being involved in the reorganization. Have you seen that? What kind of effect would that have on policy or implementation of policy?

A. I think there are a number of folks on the Hill who feel that they have been... kept in the dark. Frankly, that's what happens during Defense reviews. On the other hand, they're sort of biting their tongues... and biding their time because they say, we ought to let the Secretary have a chance to review things, to set his plans, to decide on his priorities, and then we expect full consultation and engagement.

I think what Warner's comment was related to is that some of what Rumsfeld seems to be trying to do organizationally with the service secretaries and so forth is really at tension with what Congress really envisioned with Goldwater-Nichols [the 1986 Department of Defense Reorganization Act]. If he's going to move beyond policy review to fundamental organizational change, I think Congress, given their history of involvement on the subject, will want to very much a partner in that enterprise....

Another thing on... implementation with the military: One thing that I think Rumsfeld will likely do is to... use personnel changes as a way of finding military folks who are willing to kind of work his agenda.... [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Henry Shelton will be leaving his post in the summer. You know, I think there are some service chiefs that are being considered to be replaced. So I think he'll use personnel changes to try to bring in people that he believes will support his agenda.

Q. Critics have compared Rumsfeld to Robert McNamara, who ran the Pentagon in the late 1960s and brought in civilians from industry and academia. He then received a lot of the blame for the United States' disappointing performance in the Vietnam War. Does that comparison have any merit?

A. I think it's too early to draw a comparison. And because a comparison comes with so much baggage depending on one's views of McNamara, positive or negative, I think it's too soon to say that. I think what you can say is he's bringing in a lot of people with a lot of talents and a lot of experience. And he's clearly intending to run a tight ship and empower the people who he personally chooses to lead the various organizations. That is very clear.

I think the biggest challenge he faces is how is he going to work with the military -- because in the end, if he's going to make this change happen, they're the ones who have to actually implement it. He's got to find a way of getting it by [the military]... He either has to, as I said, make personnel changes that put particular individuals in key positions that will toe his line, or he's got to think about what deals is he going to strike to give these services the incentive to swallow some painful medicine... and go along. He's gotta be thinking about what's that incentive structure…. The risk otherwise is that he has beautiful policy, compelling vision, and no ability to get it implemented, or a very difficult time actually getting it implemented.

Q. On policy, how would the reorganization affect the big Pentagon issues -- especially weapons procurement and missile defense?

A. I think streamlining the process is the goal, and, frankly, empowering the secretaries to ride herd on their respective services to implement Rumsfeld's priorities -- investment priorities, acquisition priorities -- that's really the objective.

This is one of the areas where I think there really is a tension with the vision that has grown around Goldwater-Nichols.... You have a whole military requirement-setting system that feeds back into acquisition priorities, and if those folks are disempowered and made irrelevant, I think there's going to be some resistance to this.... Again, there is the possibility that the military will go to folks on the Hill, particularly those who feel they have a hand in putting Goldwater-Nichols in place, and raise the red flag.

Q. Are we already seeing the effects of the reorganization? If so, what are they?

A. I don't think we've seen effects yet, no, because the secretaries are... just getting in the saddle. I think the main difference is that they've been normed as part of the secretary's inner circle as opposed to as representatives of the different services. And that's a key... mindset difference. So we are likely to see the effects of that down the road. Again... they are going to play a completely different role than we've seen in the past. But I think specific effects -- it's too early to tell.

Q. Is this shaping up into the kind of Defense Department Bush promised in his campaign?

A. In his Citadel speech and other campaign statements, he promised transformation, promised a very different kind of military on the one hand. On the other hand...Dick Cheney in particular made statements -- remember the "help is on the way" campaign pledge -- that was all about near-term readiness and capability issues. And that seems to have gone by the wayside.... There's no attention being given to those near-term issues, at least not to the extent one would have expected given the theme that was sounded during the campaign. [It] leaves me to believe that that was more of a political theme than a serious, substantive concern about the state of readiness of the U.S. military....

So yes, in that sense that he called for dramatic change and that seems to be what they're trying to do. But this theme of readiness and the theme of improving near-term war-fighting capabilities has dropped by the wayside.

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