A Test Case for Bush's Military Reform Pledge?
By Thomas E. Ricks
When the Bush administration came to Washington determined to radically change the military, no one was more receptive than Army Col. Douglas Macgregor.
One of the Army's leading thinkers on innovation, Macgregor has written for years about how the military needs to adjust from its aging Cold War posture and become a more agile, creative force able to intervene quickly anywhere in the world. He was one of the first people tapped by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his team to work in a new office on military transformation.
But now Macgregor finds himself transferred to an Army staff job, where friends say he feels muzzled. Instead of working on a vision of a new Army, he is contemplating retirement.
"I think it's horrible" the way the Army has handled him, said Maj. Donald Vandergriff, a career tank officer and the author of a book on reforming military personnel policy. "He's exactly the type of officer the Army needs in the 21st century, especially in combat."
In addition to raising eyebrows in the officer corps, Macgregor's situation is stirring unusual interest at the top levels of the Pentagon. It may be shaping up as a test of President Bush's vow to protect and encourage military innovators, since some allies are pointing to his case as a textbook example of how the military bureaucracy stifles internal critics and, in doing so, undercuts reform. It also seems certain to raise questions on Capitol Hill about the wisdom of giving the largest budget increase in two decades to a Pentagon that often seems mired in old ways of doing business.
Macgregor, 49, became prominent inside the Army in 1995 when he published "Breaking the Phalanx," a treatise that advocated radical change in the Army. Most notably, he called for doing away with divisions, the basic building blocks of today's Army, and replacing them with smaller units that combine all the combat arms -- infantry, armor, aviation and engineers -- in one fast-deploying package. They would resemble Marine units but would wield more firepower and would deploy not by sea but by air.
But Macgregor's strong views and his sometimes abrasive manner have irritated some top Army generals. Among other things, he has pained the Army by being sharply critical of some aspects of its effort to create a new, medium-weight, fast-deploying brigade.
Two years ago he was shunted aside into a dead-end position at the National Defense University. Despite a distinguished 25-year career during which he earned a doctorate in international politics, fought in the Gulf War, and helped plan the U.S. peacekeeping effort in Bosnia and the 1999 Kosovo air campaign, it looked as if he would ride out his Army career alone in an office at the school, where he was given no teaching responsibilities.
Then the Bush administration arrived, having made "transforming" the military a key theme in its campaign. Rumsfeld followed through last year by creating an Office for Force Transformation. Macgregor was one of the first people selected by the head of that office, retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski.
Cebrowski's request for Macgregor revived the Army's interest in its dissident colonel. Not long after Macgregor went to work for Cebrowski, the Army's personnel command informed the colonel that the Army was planning to transfer him to a plush post as a general's aide at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
It was a plum move, but it wasn't welcomed by Macgregor. He went to Cebrowski, who in turn complained to Rumsfeld's office. Rumsfeld dispatched his top military aide, Vice Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, to ask the Army leadership about what it was doing. People familiar with the situation say the Army responded that there had been a misunderstanding and that the Brussels transfer had only been tentative. At any rate, the transfer was withdrawn.
But the Army can be persistent. A few weeks later it came up with another idea. This time it said it needed Macgregor in its own office looking at military change. Macgregor fought that, too. Again, Cebrowski went to Rumsfeld's office seeking help, Pentagon insiders say. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a fan of Macgregor's reformist views, also intervened on his behalf with Rumsfeld.
But this time the Army was adamant, and the transfer went through. For the last month Macgregor has been on the Army staff, where he declined to be interviewed. "The Army has successfully got him locked in a corner," a defense analyst said.
Several of Macgregor's allies in the Pentagon said the Army's treatment of Macgregor calls into question the seriousness of a promise made by Bush in a speech last May at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. "As president, I am committed to fostering a military culture where intelligent risk-taking and forward-thinking are rewarded, not dreaded," he said. "And I'm committed to ensuring that visionary leaders who take risks are recognized and promoted."
One officer said, "It is going to be very interesting to see how Rumsfeld handles this, as a test case of how innovators at the lieutenant colonel and colonel level are treated. I think a lot of Army officers at that level are watching this."
The episode also is unusual because of the high-level attention it has won. Outside Washington, colonels often are a big deal, some commanding thousands of troops. But inside the Beltway, they and lieutenant colonels are the cannon fodder of the military bureaucracy. It is highly unusual for senior generals and top civilian officials to get involved in the question of where to assign one colonel.
"The Army's treatment of Macgregor is one of the stupidest things I've ever seen them do," said Williamson Murray, an expert on military innovation who frequently consults at the Pentagon.
Not everyone sees Macgregor as a downtrodden dissident. "With him the glass is always three-quarters empty," said one Army officer working on transformation issues. "It gets annoying." He said Macgregor has "an arrogance of attitude." Now, he said, the colonel is getting a chance to prove he is on the team. "I don't think the Army is trying to silence him," this officer said.
Friends say Macgregor believed until early this month that Cebrowski would reverse the Army's latest move. "Doug was hoping that the admiral would intervene on his behalf," said one officer familiar with the situation. "I think Cebrowski has made it clear that he wants Macgregor, but isn't ready yet to get into a huge fight over it."
In an interview, Cebrowski was guarded in discussing the Army's treatment of Macgregor. "My policy is that I will not interfere in another organization's personnel policies," he said. Asked if Macgregor is being silenced by the Army, he was noncommittal: "It remains to be seen, doesn't it?"
But, Cebrowski said Thursday, "so far as I can tell, it is breaking the way I hoped it would," with no evidence that the Army is silencing Macgregor.
Macgregor's new boss on the Army staff is Lt. Gen. John Riggs, whose title is director of the "Objective Force Task Force." In plain English, said Riggs, that means his office looks at how the Army needs to adapt to the future.
Riggs said he is "elated" to have Macgregor transferred to his office. "From my perspective, it was an opportunity to get Macgregor on the team," he said. And he insisted he isn't out to silence the colonel: "The bottom line is, let Macgregor's views be aired, let him be heard."
The impact of Macgregor's case on the rest of the officer corps remains to be seen. "When he leaves the Army, it's going to be a blow to a lot of people in the Army, because the Army has made an example of him," said the person at the National Defense University. "Here is an intelligent, aggressive officer who sticks his head up -- and he gets it shot off."
But Gingrich, a friend of Rumsfeld's with a longtime interest in military reform, said that there still may be some surprises in the case. "I believe that the Macgregor story is only half done, and I think that Rumsfeld intends to be transformational and to use smart officers to the country's advantage."
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