Washington -- a delegation of Saudi diplomats attended a meeting at the Pentagon with deputy secretary of defence Paul D. Wolfowitz in the spring of 2001, shortly after the Bush administration had taken office. As the meeting was breaking up, one of the attendees, Harold Rhode -- Wolfowitz's Islamic affairs adviser -- approached Adel Al-Jubeir, a soft-spoken Saudi diplomat who is foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah.Rhode told Al-Jubeir that once the new administration got its affairs in order there'd be no more pussyfooting around, according to a source familiar with the meeting. The United States would take care of Saddam and start calling the shots in the region, and the Saudis would have to fall in line. Al-Jubeir demurred.
Rhode then shoved his finger in the diminutive Saudi's chest and told him, "You're not going to have any choice!"
The incident set the tone for the Bush administration's relations with the Saudis, which were deeply troubled well before September 11.
After the Washington Post reported recently that a Pentagon advisory board listened to a speaker who describe Saudi Arabia as America's enemy and suggested military action against the desert kingdom, Pentagon officials were quick to insist that such views were by no means those of the Pentagon or the Bush administration.
But the touchiness of the response underscores a reality that the Saudis and high-level administration officials well understand: many, perhaps most, of the Bush administration appointees at the Pentagon today are only slightly less hostile to the Saudis than the speaker at the briefing.
And it spotlights an unsettling problem among the men deciding whether we should wage war: the relationship between career military officers and their civilian bosses at the Pentagon is the worst it's been, some insiders say, in more than 20 years, even more divided than it was during the Clinton years.
When most people think of neo-conservatives at the Pentagon, they think of men like Wolfowitz. But the second tier of civilian appointees at the Pentagon is stacked with Wolfowitz proteges who are in many ways even more conservative in their views than their mentor.
In the minds of these second-tier appointees, taking out Saddam Hussein is only part of a larger puzzle. Their grand vision of the Middle East goes something like this: stage 1: Iraq becomes democratic; stage 2: reformers take over in Iran. That would make the three powerhouses of the Middle East -- Turkey, Iraq and Iran -- democratic and pro-Western. Suddenly the Saudis wouldn't be just one more corrupt, authoritarian Arab regime slouching toward bin Ladenism. They'd be surrounded by democratic states that would undermine Saudi rule both militarily and ideologically.
As a plan to pursue in the real world, this vision seems little short of insane to most of the career military and civilian employees at the Pentagon. But to Bush's hawkish Pentagon appointees, the real prize isn't Baghdad, it's Riyadh. And the Saudis know it.
In his new book, Supreme Command, Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen argues that the best wartime civilian leaders are those who don't take the generals' word for it. They prod and question and don't hesitate to overrule their chiefs.
Cohen's thesis got some confirmation in last fall's Afghan war. The U.S. central command responsible for Central Asia and the Middle East "wanted very much to wait until the spring to start the operation," says one defence policy analyst in close touch with military and civilian defence department officials. "The civilians just said, "No. We want to start in October. We can't let 30 days pass since September 11.'"
But Afghanistan was one case. And while nearly everyone agrees that civilians should prod the chiefs for better answers, there's a fine line between a willingness to overrule military advice and an unwillingness to listen to it at all. And on the (Israeli-Palestinian) peace process, Saudi Arabia and -- most pressingly -- Iraq, Bush Pentagon appointees are increasingly opting for the latter course.
One staff officer who worked under high-level officials in both administrations says, "You have to look (a civilian defence appointee) in the eye and say, "Sir, do you understand that you cannot control the outcome of the enterprise in which we are about to engage?' If he moves his head up and down to that, then you can ask him the second question.
"In the Clinton administration, they'd look at you with that bovine stare. And then their head would start moving vertically," the retired officer said. "But these (Rumsfeld's) guys seem to believe they can control the outcome. Every man in uniform knows that's not true."
Now many on each side are viewing the other through a prism of caricatures and clichés. The uniformed officers and civil servants see the difficulties and problems in relations with countries like Saudi Arabia, but are more interested in bettering relations with those regimes than ousting them from power. These career professionals see the civilian appointees as uninformed zealots who've spent most of their time in think tanks and have no actual military experience. The civilians tend to see the generals they command as unimaginative bureaucrats who lack the will to fight.
And the antagonism between civilians and military at the Pentagon is actually far greater than it was under Bill Clinton. No one is more surprised than the military itself.
Clinton-era defence officials, some of whom simply lacked confidence in their grasp of military affairs, were seldom in a position to go head-to-head with the generals on truly important matters. Because of that they were often ready to defer to those in uniform. Out of necessity, defence officials reached a modus vivendi with the military, and the two sides ran the Pentagon by consensus.
But Rumsfeld and company "thought the uniformed military had run roughshod over the process at the Pentagon," explains one retired Marine with long service at the Pentagon. "They thought the civilians really needed to take over, and that attitude became very evident in the first couple of weeks."
And that accounts for the case of whiplash that the Pentagon brass has suffered for the last 18 months.
What makes civilian control so important is that military officers build careers around war-fighting doctrines that are often outdated by the time they become heads of their services. Civilians bring a fresh set of eyes to the problems of fighting wars. But if the civilians themselves are hidebound ideologues, then much of the benefit of strong civilian control is lost. And in Iraq that could get us into a heap of trouble. From Salon