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Rumsfeld Image Takes Some Hits

By Craig Gordon

September 21, 2003

Washington - He catapulted from relative obscurity to white-hot fame almost overnight after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, emerging as the tough-talking face of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon briefings became must-see TV and even the president joshed that his defense secretary was a "matinee idol."

Now, Iraq is more deadly and more costly than Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration had said it would be - so much so that even staunch war backers who once praised Rumsfeld are questioning whether he botched post-war planning.

The luster has worn off one of President George W. Bush's most recognizable cabinet members, with military analysts and some in Congress charging that Rumsfeld's go-it-alone approach has endangered the reconstruction effort and even the chances for democracy in Iraq.

"He was riding extremely high, and like anybody at that height after the war, it's inevitable there's going to be a dip, and the dip has come," said Gary Schmitt, who runs a neoconservative think-tank in Washington, Project for the New American Century. The group supported the war but Schmitt now believes more U.S. troops are needed, despite Rumsfeld's insistence they are not.

The conservative Weekly Standard magazine took aim at Rumsfeld in its Sept. 15 issue, headlining one article "Secretary of Stubbornness" and warning that Rumsfeld's "mulish opposition" to adding more U.S. troops ultimately could lead to defeat.

The dip in Rumsfeld's standing reflects the wider problems the Bush administration is having in Iraq as it asks Congress to approve a higher-than-expected $87-billion infusion of cash to the region.

Added to economic woes at home, chaos in Iraq is something that Republicans fear could start to become a political liability not just for Rumsfeld but for the president, facing re-election next year.

If the Democrats can make the administration's stumbles in Iraq a campaign issue, "then Bush has got double trouble," said Rich Bond, a former Republican national chairman.

"Even if that becomes problematic," Bond was quick to add, "I still can't think of anybody who would do a better job than Rumsfeld."

Even among Rumsfeld's critics, there is little sense that he is in trouble where it matters most, with Bush, who is said to have forged a close bond with Rumsfeld after the terror attacks. Many White House watchers expect Rumsfeld to stay on through the first term, though whether the 71-year-old defense secretary would stay on for a second Bush term is less clear.

His deputy, neoconservative favorite Paul Wolfowitz, also is considered safe, although there are persistent rumors that Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith will be moved out amid the criticism of Feith's handling of post-war planning in Iraq. The Pentagon has denied those reports.

Still, the White House recently was forced to issue a vote of confidence for Rumsfeld, when a senior Democrat, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, called for the resignation of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Bush's decision to pursue a United Nations resolution seeking more international money and troops was viewed as a defeat for Rumsfeld's approach.

And at an appearance last week in Washington, Rumsfeld was heckled by two protesters who shouted, "Mr. Rumsfeld, you're fired!"

If Rumsfeld is hearing the Washington whispers about his diminished status, he certainly showed no signs of it during the speech at the National Press Club. It was a classic Rumsfeld performance, by turns cantankerous and charming, curt and expansive, but uncompromising in the belief things are getting better in Iraq.

Pressed to acknowledge any planning mistakes, Rumsfeld offered a single one: the United States had underestimated just how poorly Saddam Hussein had left the nation's infrastructure. Rumsfeld also stood by his recent remarks that critics of the administration's Iraq policy could give encouragement to terrorists who might think U.S. resolve is weakening.

Rumsfeld also defended his decision not to add more U.S. troops in Iraq, despite calls from some Republicans like Sen. John McCain of Arizona that more are needed to stabilize the country.

"People are saying, 'Gee, if X amount that you have there now is good, why not double it, why not triple it, that'll be better?' The truth is, that's not true," Rumsfeld said. "To the extent you are too heavy a footprint, you don't help them, you hurt them. ... People tend to rely on them. And we don't want to create a reliance or a dependency. We want them to begin steadily increasing their assumption of their own responsibilities.

"Now is it a perfect situation? No," Rumsfeld said, about the closest he came last week to an acknowledgment of the difficulties in Iraq. "Is it a tough situation? You bet it is. Is it going to take some time? Indeed, it is. It's going to take patience."


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