Chemistry In The War Cabinet

Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had been reading, with mounting irritation, newspaper articles pitting him against Secretary of State Colin Powell. Sitting on the dais during an international conference last summer, Rumsfeld listened to a reporter probing for substantive differences between the president's top foreign-policy advisers and thought to himself, "Oh, here we go." Rumsfeld braced the reporter: "Are you trying to find some daylight between Colin and me?" Another newsperson interjected, "Do you always agree on everything?" Rumsfeld shot back: "Except for those few cases where Colin is still learning." Telling that story last week, Rumsfeld seemed to relish his ability to trump the press while needling the secretary of State. The point, however, was not Rumsfeld's wit, but rather that he felt comfortable one-upping Powell before a large audience--and, equally important, that Powell laughed as hard as anyone.

Measured by the usual backstabbing standards of Washington, Rumsfeld and Powell--and the rest of President George W. Bush's war cabinet--have gotten along famously. Sitting in his vast Pentagon office last week, Rumsfeld ticked off the epic feuds that have paralyzed earlier administrations, including Secretary of State

Henry Kissinger vs. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger under President Ford and national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski vs. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance under President Carter. (Ford finally pleaded with his warring advisers, "I just can't go on like this.") Somewhat to the disappointment of the press gallery, which thrives on high-level conflict, the relationship between Powell and Rumsfeld has been a love fest by comparison. "I don't go outside and leak things," declares Rumsfeld.

It's not that the secretaries of State and Defense are always like-minded: Rumsfeld is widely and not inaccurately seen as a hawkish "go it alone" interventionist, while Powell tends to take a more cautious and "multilateralist" approach. But especially since September 11, their disagreements have been muted; concrete evidence of a split has rarely surfaced in the press. Some observers predict that the good feelings in the Bush cabinet will evaporate when the president has to make a final decision on whether to get rid of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But then again, maybe not. A senior administration official tells NEWSWEEK that a "general consensus" has emerged among Bush and his top advisers for a "regime change" in Iraq. But Saddam will not be attacked "tomorrow or unilaterally." Rather, this adviser predicts, Powell and Rumsfeld will work out a "compromise." The United States will step up pressure on Saddam to admit U.N. arms inspectors to look for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. No one expects Saddam to fully comply, but the process will buy time: to show Saddam's intransigence, get America's allies on board, find and support freedom fighters in Iraq, and prepare for an invasion, if necessary. The time line could take anywhere from six to 18 months, this official said.

It may be hard to keep up a united front along the way, but Bush's team seems determined. Last week NEWSWEEK interviewed Rumsfeld and Powell, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, along with several of their top aides, about how they achieved relative harmony, and how they plan to maintain it. All the "principals," as Bush's top advisers are called, credited the president with being decisive and setting a certain tone, which boils down to: tease each other ("mercilessly at times," says Cheney) but don't whine, leak or second-guess. At the same time, it is clear that Bush was wise, or fortunate, in choosing a team that has certain qualities and characteristics that are useful in times of crisis. Lately, he has not been shy about showing off its strength. It may not be a coincidence that the week after the Enron scandal brushed the White House, the administration made the entire war cabinet available to NEWSWEEK to describe how they're winning the war.

The first and perhaps most important attribute they share is confidence, in themselves and each other. All of Bush's top foreign-policy advisers have huge egos and reputations as skillful bureaucratic infighters. But they are a mutual-admiration society: "If they were going to pick an all-star team," says Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, "they'd pick each other." After working together--in some cases for decades--they trust one another to play fair and be discreet. "Contrary to other administrations, you don't have to watch your backside when you go down to the Situation Room," says Cheney. "What gets argued stays down there."

Their only agenda, the members of Bush's team all say, is "to serve the president." It is a conventional mantra, familiar to "West Wing" viewers, but they utter it with evident sincerity. At one time or another, Cheney, almost 61, Powell, 64, and Rumsfeld, 69, have all seriously considered running for president themselves. But now, says Rumsfeld with a sigh, "we're old." None of them "is reaching for fame for the first time," says Libby. Adds Powell: "We're not positioning ourselves for the next job." (Rice, who at 47 is much younger than the others, is rumored to be politically ambitious, but a close adviser predicts she will return to academic life at Stanford, where she served as provost from 1993 to 1999.)

It's not surprising that the press picked out Rumsfeld and Powell as rivals. Rumsfeld has strongly held views on America's global role. At about the time he was nominated to be secretary of Defense a year ago, Rumsfeld says he went to President Bush and warned him that the United States was seen as "risk averse" in the eyes of the world. "We're going to have a conflict, and there's going to be a need for a decision," Rumsfeld says he told the president. "I want you to know that I'm going to be coming at you. I am going to be telling you that I believe our country has to lean forward and not back, or else we're going to be encouraging others to do things to us." Rumsfeld says Bush replied, "You're exactly right. I agree completely." Colin Powell, on the other hand, had built his reputation as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by resisting armchair generals whose first instinct is to send in the troops. On his desk at the Pentagon was an inscription from Thucydides: restraint impresses men most.

"We argue," Powell concedes, "but we almost always find the answer. We have political views. I am considered moderate. But everyone knows where everyone else is coming from." Powell is not viewed as doctrinaire. "He's the least ideological man I've met," says an aide. "He works the problem." The secretary of State is not "knee jerk," Rumsfeld agrees, but rather "more practical." Powell is careful not to tell Rumsfeld how to run a military operation. Indeed, none of the group patronizes the others by playing elder statesman. "You never hear the phrase 'When I was national-security adviser...'," says an aide. Powell might have been expected to clash with Rumsfeld on missile defense (Rumsfeld is gung-ho, Powell lukewarm) and Iraq policy. But so far, scant proof of that has emerged.

Because they have stood in each other's shoes at one time or another, working at a variety of jobs at State, Defense and at the White House over the past 25 years, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice can appreciate the institutional pressures each faces. Beyond overlapping careers, they are bound by a web of personal ties. "I hired the vice president in 1969," says Rumsfeld, who was head of the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Nixon White House. But Cheney, a postgraduate fellow at the time, recalls that the two had hated each other at first. At an earlier job interview with the then Representative Rumsfeld (Republican of Illinois) in 1968, "I stomped out. He thought I was an arrogant academic. I thought he was a pompous congressman." But the two men, driven and acerbic, became close friends. (Cheney's wife, Lynne, noticed that hanging from their Christmas tree this year was a decoration given by the Rumsfelds back in 1974. "The ribbon is getting a little frayed," she noted.) When President Ford named Rumsfeld as White House chief of staff in 1974, Rummy brought Cheney along as his deputy.

Powell and Condi Rice share more than the experience of serving as national-security adviser (Powell had the job from 1987 to 1989, Reagan's last years in office). The two are not by any means policy clones. When Powell splits with Cheney and Rumsfeld, Rice sides with the hawks 60 percent of the time, estimates a Powell aide. But Rice views Powell as "almost an uncle," says a Rice assistant. The two are the first African-Americans ever to hold high-ranking foreign-policy jobs. Beyond that, Powell's wife, Alma, comes from the same proud black elite of pre-integration Birmingham, Ala. "Powell understands where Condi is coming from," says the aide. Cheney, for his part, says he spotted Rice as a comer more than a decade ago, when she was a young national-security staffer and he was secretary of Defense under "41." "I constantly tried to hire Condi. Drove [her boss, national-security adviser Brent] Scowcroft crazy," says Cheney.

In Washington, it is very unusual for cabinet officers to meet without a phalanx of advisers, usually arrayed in seats around the periphery of the meeting room. But since September 11, Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice have talked privately on the phone every morning at 7:15 and then at meetings and meals all through the day. The absence of aides cuts down on the potential for leaks. It also allows the principals to be more frank with each other, to feel each other out before sending directional signals to the bureaucracy. And "because they talk a lot, disagreements tend not to fester," says a Powell aide.

A lot of the talk is in jest. At a recent meeting of the National Security Council, Rumsfeld grew very severe. "Colin," he said, "you are the secretary of State of the United States of America. You are the senior diplomat. You are the spokesman for our policies. Everyone listens to you--and you're causing enormous confusion in the world because the president is saying 'Kabul' and the vice president is saying 'Kabul,' and you are saying 'Ka-bool.' Now at what moment are we going to get this sorted out?"

Some of the teasing has an edge. "Colin, you're not working for Clinton anymore," Rumsfeld once taunted Powell when the secretary of State was urging a go-slow, please-the-allies approach to an issue. But Powell just laughed. "Sometimes the needles go deep," he says, "but never with a sharp, malicious edge. I can assure you, I hold my own." One of Powell's lighter targets is Rumsfeld's sometimes oddly informal dress (during his NEWSWEEK interview in his grand office, Rumsfeld wore an old fleece vest, as if he were about to head over to the club for a game of paddle tennis). Scoffs the dapper Powell, with mock horror: "This guy wears hiking boots with a suit!"

President Bush, a fraternity towel-snapper from way back, "eggs on" the teasing, says Powell. While all the jokiness may seem sophomoric at times, it serves to defuse tension and add levity to life-and-death decision-making that, day in and day out, could become dark and grim. Though the president is dutiful about doing his reading homework, he appreciates and prefers the personal touch. At the CIA, grateful officials say that the smartest thing Director George Tenet did was to insinuate himself at the president's daily intelligence briefing from the very first. Past CIA directors went to the White House at most once or twice a week; Tenet is there virtually every day. Loose and engaging, the CIA director, who has been known to sing Motown tunes at the top of his lungs in his office and bounce a basketball down the secretive corridors of the agency, likes to call people "pal." After the massive intelligence failure of September 11, Tenet may have saved his job just by being the president's good buddy. (Tenet has spent more face time with Bush at Camp David and the Crawford, Texas, ranch than anyone but Rice.) The other principals respect Tenet, who has also been shrewd about regularly courting them at private lunches.

The president abhors leaks, especially self-serving ones. A Rice aide who also worked for 41 recalls "peeling W off the ceiling" after rival factions working for his father aired their differences in the newspapers. "The president is not someone who's willing to put up with problems for the sake of ego," says Rice. "That's just understood."

Bush's foreign-policy advisers, particularly Rumsfeld, say they ignore what is being written about them. If anyone becomes too much of a media celebrity under "43," they are in for it. After getting badly cut up by leaks from the uniformed military who were resisting his attempts at reform before September 11, Rumsfeld has emerged as a gruff but reassuringly macho presence at the Pentagon's televised midday briefings. Bush has recently begun calling the secretary of Defense "Matinee Idol." ("Yeah," chipped in Cheney, "for the AARP crowd.")

The one woman in the mix, Condi Rice, comes in for her share of verbal abuse. When she used the word "conflate" at a principals' meeting, she was mocked for academic jargon. "I don't even know what the word means!" exclaimed Rumsfeld. Rice recently showed off her new hairdo and a stylish gown at the Kennedy Center Honors. "Every single one of them came up to me and said, 'God, you looked great at the Kennedy Center. Like a model," said Rice. "Well, I thought, I must have looked pretty lousy before."

Rice plays down her role as a mere "coordinator," but Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, a sometime participant in the war cabinet, says she is much more. "She's really talented at dealing with people who are not timid about voicing their opinions, at coaxing us in a way that isn't grating," says O'Neill, who is known for his outspokenness. "Strong personalities don't have to clash--they can reinforce each other," says Rice. "The hard thing is when you have people who won't say what they think." Rice does not always shoot for consensus. "She will know when we're not going to agree," says O'Neill. "She'll say, 'Let's sharpen the debate, put it on paper, and let the boss decide'."

Bush is perfectly willing to entertain sharp disagreements, say his advisers. "Everything doesn't have to be prechewed like baby food before it comes to him," says Rumsfeld. But once Bush has decided, he doesn't want to engage in endless reappraisal. In late October, says one of Bush's advisers, when "things were moving slowly" in the bombing campaign against the Taliban, the discussion at one meeting of the war cabinet took on an uncertain, even doubting tone. "There was this discussion, people were musing, 'Do we have to think of something else?' " said this adviser, who was present. No one was eager to contemplate the "something else": a large force of U.S. ground troops, fighting guerrilla warfare in the Afghan mountains during wintertime. Bush told his advisers to buck up and be patient, to not lose faith in the original plan of employing U.S. warplanes and Special Forces working with the local tribesmen. "We did agree on this strategy, didn't we?" asked Bush. The group rallied round--and the strategy soon began to pay off.

Bush's aides have no doubt that the campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein will have equally difficult moments. There are a host of tough decisions to come involving balky allies and dubious surrogate forces on the ground. Last week, for instance, it was reported that Saudi Arabia is considering asking U.S. forces to exit Saudi soil. That could mean giving up Prince Sultan Air Base, the main combat air-control center for the gulf region. Attacking Iraq without using Saudi Arabia as a base would be a logistical nightmare. Deciding whether the Saudis will go along with a war on Iraq will be a daunting diplomatic challenge. Even so, told that some observers predicted that the unity of the Bush war cabinet would collapse over Iraq, Cheney replied, "Hogwash." Says Rice: "I don't think it's going to break apart over Iraq. The president knows we'll work it in the same way."

That's not to say that, behind closed doors, there won't be some tense moments. Last fall, as the national-security team met in the White House Situation Room, Rumsfeld became extremely exercised over a policy matter. Pounding on the table, he "went on and on," says a knowledgeable source. When he finally stopped, a pained silence fell over the room. Finally, Cheney dryly remarked, "You guys should have known him 30 years ago, before he mellowed."