A Pentagon press lunch with the secretary of defense is a rare privilege, especially for a columnist from fly-over country.
I’ve watched Don Rumsfeld perform on television. He treats stand-up press conferences as sparring rings, where he’s the heavyweight champ and reporters are lightweight chumps with glass jaws.
Maybe lettuce and tomatoes mellow Big Don. Rumsfeld seems much less combative with a salad plate plopped in front of him. As the lunch and conversation progressed, I noticed he never picked up a knife, but I’ve no doubt the man can wield sharp cutlery. The glint in the eye is the clue. Sgt. 1st Class Bowen — the Korean War vet who taught Cadet Bay how to use a garrote — had the same steely gleam.
I left it to the Beltway journalists to ask those personality-juiced queries that generate sensational gossip. Here’s an example: "Mr. Rumsfeld, are you going to resign after the election?"
Since my scribbled notes include a splotch of asparagus soup, I’ll have to paraphrase the SecDef’s snarl, "I certainly wouldn’t tell you if I were."
Undeterred, I decided to ask a question that goes to the heart of America’s ability (or inability) to win long-term, multidimensional 21st century wars.
My question: "Mr. Secretary, based on our experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the limited interagency and non-governmental organization (NGO) participation in that operation, how do you see ‘Unified Action’ evolving for future conflicts?"
Forgive the military jargon — at one time I was Col. Bay — but the question is essential. It also altered the luncheon ambiance. As I asked it, I saw our very steady chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Peter Pace, pass Rumsfeld a careful stare.
"I’ll tell you we’re better at it now than we were five years ago," Rumsfeld replied. He acknowledged that "challenges remain" in achieving Unified Action and that effective Unified Action is critical to winning 21st century wars.
He’s right — we are better at it than we were. However, I know we aren’t as good at it as we need to be.
The politically deft SecDef finessed the question — and it was finesse, not dodge. The military jargon masked a heavy political hand grenade I was rolling toward the Beltway. You think Harry Reid’s land deal or Mark Foley’s messages are big stories? How about a stinging pre-election turf battle between Defense and the departments of State, Treasury, Justice, Commerce and Agriculture, complete with zinger accusations of who is or isn’t contributing to the war effort?
I know, that’s quite a claim, which is why I need to translate the mil-speak: Unified Action means coordinating and synchronizing every "tool of power" America possesses to achieve a political end — like winning a global war for national survival against terrorists who hijack economically and politically fragile nations and provinces.
People understand the role of soldiers and cops in a war, but in 21st century wars where economic and political development are determinative, an arborist at the Department of Agriculture and a Commerce Department trade consultant can be powerful contributors to "Unified Action."
Restoring Iraqi agriculture provides an example. Saddam Hussein’s economic and political policies damaged agriculture in the land that eight millennia ago spawned the Agricultural Revolution. (Heck of an achievement, huh?) Agriculture, Commerce and several NGOs have expertise and programs that are helping revive Iraqi farms. Still, problems occur when trying to tailor programs to meet specific local needs — like, who pays for the program and who is ultimately in charge of oversight and coordination.
While serving in Iraq in 2004, I met a young U.S. Army captain who was running a successful small-scale date palm restoration project. What we really need are joint development and security teams, where agricultural and economic specialists work with that captain "in the field" on a sustained, day-to-day basis. We need to decide who is in charge of that team (the captain or the arborist?) and how we fund it.
Our system for "Unified Action" is still largely a Cold War, 20th century relic designed to prop up governments (so often corrupt and ill-led), instead of helping individuals and neighborhoods become economically self-sustaining and self-securing. Winning war in the Age of the Internet means improving neighborhoods and individual lives. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and micro-finance whiz Muhammad Yunus understands this.
We are in a long, global war, where economic and political development programs must reinforce security and intelligence operations — and vice versa.
We’ve been improvising "joint development and security operations," and we’ve learned from our improvisation (Rumsfeld’s "we’re better than we were").
But it’s time to quit improvising. Effective "Unified Action" requires re-engineering 20th century Beltway bureaucracies — which means thoughtful, sophisticated cooperation between the executive branch and Congress.
That means getting past the sensational gossip and confronting an essential issue.