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American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld astonished senior officers of his army this month when he appointed retired Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker as army chief of staff. Rumsfeld's decision to skip over officers on active duty and to re-enlist Schoomaker three years after his retirement was viewed as a vote of no-confidence in the most senior - and conservative - levels of the U.S. Army. It was also an opposite vote of no confidence, since previous nominees Rumsfeld offered the job to preferred retirement or another job. It was also a powerful demonstration of American civilian supremacy over the armed forces, something so badly lacking in the Israeli system.

The 70-year-old Rumsfeld, a former congressman, presidential advisor on social and economic affairs and former White House chief of staff, is not a defense technocrat and not the spokesman of the armed forces for the government. He's in the Pentagon for the second time - in 1976 he was defense secretary in the Ford administration - and his goal is to impose on career officers the policies of the president, the elected commander in chief. When it came to building the forces, he had to deal with narrow corps thinking; when it came to the use of force he had to deal with residues of the Clinton years.

He brought the hammer of appointments and the saw of budget cutting in his toolbox. When he pulled out those tools, people and organizations were hurt, but he is gradually achieving his goals. One of the measures of that success can be seen in the improvement of the armed force's functioning in the transition from Rumsfeld's first battle, in Afghanistan, to the second, in Iraq.

A more fluid and permanent measure of success will be the forces' ability to strip its old form and adopt a new one. Schoomaker, a veteran of the multi-branch Special Operations command, is an officer after Rumsfeld's own heart.

There is no chief of staff for the entire American armed forces. There's a chairman, who is a military advisor to the president and secretary, and there are chiefs of staffs of various commands - she supreme command is in civilian hands. He builds the force through staff commanders and the chairman, and operates the forces directly, through the arena commands, such as the Central Command and Europe, and through task commanders, such as transport and special operations.

But no single military figure is head and shoulders above all the rest. There are nearly 40 generals and admirals with the highest rank, four star general. The chairman is first among equals, and not all are eager to attain the job or even to be head of a branch. For many, their own arena command, far from home, is preferable.

The Israeli most like Rumsfeld was Moshe Arens in 1999. He was also a second term defense secretary, with the proper political equipment - a sense and knowledge of the system, but with no further ambitions for promotion - and he was at an age when he could look down on the officers from above. With another 10-15 years and a few more kilograms of steel in his backbone Dan Meridor might be appropriate.

The opposite of this model is the senior officer who recently left the army and came back to ride it with accounts and aides from the chief of staff's office. It's the "Mordefaz model" from the Yitzhak Mordechai-Shaul Mofaz series, a problematic recycling of the same situation as we had in the first intifada. Back then Yitzhak Rabin, also a former chief of staff and prime minister, ran the intifada directly with the generals of the Central and Southern commands, and chief of staff Dan Shomron chose to retreat to the wings of the stage.

Mofaz against Moshe Ya'alon, an officer as good and as soft as Shomron, and like Shomron lacking the wiles for street and corridor fighting, is further undermining the balance in the structure. Shomron's authority was also undermined by his deputy, heir and Rabin's declared favorite - Ehud Barak - who had competed with Shomron for the top army job and remained in the army to wait for his turn to arrive.

Ya'alon's Barak is air force commander Dan Haltuz, the favorite son of both Mofaz and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That's a prescription for tension, of which evidence could be found this week in the rare and indirect criticism leveled by Ya'alon at his predecessor, Mofaz.

Ya'alon expressed regret for the behavior of the army, meaning Mofaz, in its handling of the affair of the checkpoint at Wadi Harmiye, where seven soldiers and three civilians were killed by a lone sniper in March 2002.