Defense Choice Made a Name As an Infighter

Published: January 08, 2001

Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Bush choice for secretary of defense, will come to the job with a history of having filled it once before, a history marked by sharp disputes with a forceful secretary of state. So one of the most tantalizing questions about the new national security team is whether Mr. Rumsfeld will collide again, this time with the four-star general who is the Bush choice for secretary of state, Gen. Colin L. Powell.

On contentious issues like national missile defense, the approach of General Powell, who has to sell the concept around the world, may clash with that of the more hawkish Mr. Rumsfeld, whose chief worry will be to make the system work. And if history is any guide, Mr. Rumsfeld is a master at outmaneuvering his political foes. In the Ford administration, he won out over Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and deprived President Gerald R. Ford of what would have been his only significant foreign policy success.

On Jan. 21, 1976, Mr. Kissinger was in Moscow in a final effort to coax an agreement from the Soviets on the landmark SALT II arms control treaty. But Secretary Rumsfeld, backed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was having second thoughts. Without Mr. Kissinger's knowledge, the National Security Council was convened, and by the time the two-hour meeting was over, the Pentagon had withdrawn its support.

''Surreal,'' was the way the national security adviser Brent Scowcroft described the meeting in a cable to Mr. Kissinger. Mr. Scowcroft added that the president ''was angrier than I have ever seen him. He ranted about the total inconsistency with previous defense positions.''

Mr. Kissinger was left to face the Soviets with no instructions. SALT II was dead for the rest of the Ford administration. Mr. Rumsfeld, who was traveling at the time, had stage-managed the outcome without even having attended the National Security Council meeting. The collapse of the treaty to limit strategic arms was both the most clever and forceful power play by Mr. Rumsfeld in his tenure as secretary of defense in the final 14 months of the Ford administration.

Now, as President-elect George W. Bush's choice for secretary of defense a quarter-century later, Mr. Rumsfeld is positioned to move into 3E880 in the Pentagon, the same suite of offices in the outermost elite ring where he worked so long ago.