General Ranked on Rumsfeld Campaign

Times Staff Writer

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers is preparing to leave public service with the distinction of being the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ever to preside over two wars. But inside the Pentagon, debate about his tenure focuses as much on a third front -- guarding the uniformed military services against a hard-driving civilian leadership.

Myers’ two military campaigns, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were considered combat successes. But after serving alongside Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the most powerful Defense secretary in recent history, Myers has confronted questions about whether he has maintained the military-civilian balance.

Rumsfeld, intent on transforming a hidebound military culture, has been called one of America’s toughest bosses by Fortune magazine. Crossing him has proved perilous for many. But when Myers has agreed with the secretary, he’s been called a toady.


“I don’t need Gen. Myers’ response,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Rumsfeld at a hearing last year. “I know it will be exactly the same as yours.”

After four years as the nation’s top uniformed officer, Myers is wrapping up a tenure in which many Pentagon insiders say the soft-spoken Kansan has successfully performed a precarious balancing act: curbing the perceived excesses of Rumsfeld and his staff -- subtly and behind the scenes -- while fighting dual wars.

By keeping a low profile, Pentagon strategists say, Myers avoided the tactics that cost other chiefs their jobs.

When Myers does challenge the Pentagon’s civilian leadership on an issue, he wins eight out of 10 battles, said a senior Defense official close to Myers who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Told of the comment, Myers countered, “I want to know what I lost.”

Myers differed with administration policymakers over treatment of prisoners held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, arguing for adherence to Geneva Convention standards. He repelled a proposal by Rumsfeld to close the military service chiefs’ legal and congressional offices. And, according to several Pentagon officials, he pressed the U.S. Central Command for more detailed planning for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

Critics say Myers has directed a Pentagon military policy that has ceded control of decision making to President Bush and Rumsfeld, eroding a firewall designed to leave military decisions to men in uniform. Among the results, critics say, is an Iraq war in which suit-clad Pentagon strategists have bungled life-and-death decisions on troop numbers and preparations for a postwar insurgency.

In wide-ranging interviews in his Pentagon office overlooking the Potomac River and at a Kuwait airport en route to Baghdad, Myers reflected on his role as chairman over the last four years and the balance of power between the Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders. He expressed dismay that some critics judged his influence by his public appearances.

“People who expect to see confrontation in a weekly press conference aren’t going to see it. That’s not where I’m going to make my stand,” Myers said. “We support the political will, and unless it’s illegal, immoral or unethical, we do what we’re told to do. That’s what the Constitution says and that’s really fundamental. You pick your times to have your arguments ... and it’s not going to be in public.”

The chairman’s role lies at the heart of an ongoing debate within the military on the job of the nation’s leading officer, a post created by legislation in 1949 and first filled by Gen. Omar Bradley.

Unlike former Chairman (and later Secretary of State) Gen. Colin L. Powell, who functioned as a policymaker during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Myers confines himself more narrowly to his constitutional role as an advisor outside the chain of command.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the low-key vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whom Bush nominated to take over for Myers in September, is widely expected to follow suit.

“I think it’s fair to say that Myers takes a less public approach than Gen. Powell. I don’t think he’s been any less influential,” said retired Gen. Joseph Ralston, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs who has known Myers for 30 years. “It is not proper, I don’t believe, for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to have a high profile.... You offer your arguments in private and you go and support the eventual plan.”

But some -- including Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former U.S. Central Command chief -- say Rumsfeld has turned the nation’s top military officials into “Stepford generals,” who have acquiesced in a transfer of power from uniformed officers to the Pentagon’s civilian managers.

“I think the chairman has to understand that he has to protect the prerogatives of the chairman.... He can’t let things that belong to him -- military issues -- slip away in control to the secretary of Defense and his staff,” Zinni said.

“We have a very strong-willed secretary,” Zinni said. “We went into a war where he took away a lot of the prerogatives of the military, made some military decisions on troop strength and postwar planning, and they did not do well, to say the least.”

Rumsfeld and Myers insist the chairman has played a role in every major Pentagon decision. Unlike previous secretaries, Rumsfeld said he had included Myers on all major decisions in daily meetings lasting anywhere from two to eight hours that usually included Vice Chairman Pace and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

“Dick Myers, I would say, has probably had as much influence in the affairs of the Department of Defense as any chairman has had, because of the model that I adopted to do the work of the department,” Rumsfeld said in an interview.

Asked about the contention that Myers has ceded control to Rumsfeld, the secretary said, “It would take a person who is significantly poorly informed to make a statement like that.”

The marriage of the Pentagon’s civilian and military leaders is a union of disparate styles. If Rumsfeld is stark gin, Myers adds a smooth tonic. Where Rumsfeld is blunt, Myers is diplomatic.

In live wartime broadcasts from the Pentagon briefing room, Rumsfeld -- the former Princeton University wrestler -- has earned a reputation as a self-assured and often-combative master of the sound bite.

Myers -- who rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and worked his way through Kansas State University belting out ‘60s rock cover tunes on keyboard and saxophone -- comes off as artless, humble and uninterested in making news. The 6-foot-4 Air Force pilot manages to tower over Rumsfeld without overshadowing him.

The relationship has marked a contrast to the friction between Rumsfeld and Myers’ predecessor, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, who routinely challenged Rumsfeld on the prospects for a war in Iraq and other issues, said senior Defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment about private meetings.

When Rumsfeld sought to limit war planning meetings in 2001 to a handful of top Pentagon officials, Myers spoke up. “It takes a lot of people to run a war,” Myers said, according to a senior Defense official who attended the meeting. In the end, the number of participants at the planning meetings rose dramatically, to nearly two dozen, the official said.

When Rumsfeld expressed concerns about Myers’ choice of Army Gen. George W. Casey as director of the Joint Chiefs, Myers prevailed, the senior Defense official said. Rumsfeld later made Casey the top ground commander in Iraq.

Occasionally, the two have clashed outright. Early in his tenure, Myers thought Rumsfeld was usurping military authority through appointments to the Joint Chiefs, two officials recalled. Myers stormed into the secretary’s third-floor office foyer and shocked his staff by barking, “Is he in?” -- then marched past without waiting for an answer.

Uncomfortable with some of the interrogation tactics at the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons, Myers refused to join discussions with Rumsfeld and others without military lawyers, a group that had questioned many administration policies, the senior Defense officials said. After Myers’ legal advisor was left out of the routine meetings, the general told the secretary he would not attend a meeting without the advisor, one of the officials said. Again without awaiting a response, the official said, Myers stormed out.

Past chairmen and service chiefs have disagreed far more publicly. In 2003, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki told Congress that the Pentagon would have to keep more than 200,000 troops in Iraq for years, contradicting top Pentagon officials. In 1998, Zinni, then U.S. Central Command chief, criticized the Clinton administration’s policy on funding Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi as “the stupidest thing we could do.” Both paid a price. Shinseki was assailed publicly and found himself unwelcome among top Pentagon civilians. Zinni’s political advisor was denied confirmation to become ambassador of Kuwait.

“I would think that Myers, given the circumstances, would be as effective as anyone,” former Army Secretary Thomas White said. “Rumsfeld would be difficult for any chairman regardless of who it is because he tends to take an adversarial stance toward the advice he gets from the military side. At least that was my experience.”

Rumsfeld fired White after the two tussled over the secretary’s ultimately successful effort to kill the Army’s program to develop the Crusader artillery system.

“I don’t think being adversarial or controversial with Don Rumsfeld gets you anyplace but a ticket out the door,” White said.