Republicans fall out of love with matinee idol who fluffed his lines once too often

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The Independent US

How different it was 18 months ago. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan had been crushed. Leading al-Qa'ida operatives were being rounded up monthly and, in Iraq, a modern blitzkrieg had swept away Saddam Hussein's regime in just four weeks.

How different it was 18 months ago. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan had been crushed. Leading al-Qa'ida operatives were being rounded up monthly and, in Iraq, a modern blitzkrieg had swept away Saddam Hussein's regime in just four weeks.

Back then in 2002 early 2003, Donald Rumsfeld could do no wrong. His wartime Pentagon news conferences were the bureaucratic equivalent of rock concerts. His elliptical, teasing answers to questions were moulded by admirers into a form of poetry. "Rumsfeld's snowflakes," the terse memos fired by the boss into every nook and cranny of the Pentagon, were hailed as the last word in cutting-edge modern management. Even President George Bush called his Defence Secretary a "matinee idol" - and, in Washington terms, there was no greater heart throb in the corridors of power than the supremely self-confident Mr Rumsfeld, peering disdainfully at the world through his fashionable rimless spectacles.

No longer. Gone (almost) are the press conferences. His other public appearances have dried to a trickle, invariably before audiences and interviewers of proven sympathy. His most recent attempt to resurrect the old Rummy swagger backfired. At a Kuwait "town hall" meeting this month with the military, intended to lift morale among troops heading for Iraq, his breezy reply to a question from a Tennessee National Guardsman about the lack of proper armour for military vehicles - "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might wish you had" - drew the ire not only of soldiers, but several senior Republican Senators. Just who, they asked, was responsible for "the army we have" if not the Secretary of Defence? Mr Rumsfeld was pilloried for his seeming lack of concern for the soldier in the field, and his tendency to blame anyone but himself.

In fact that was but his latest mis-step. Overruling his generals, he sent too few troops to Iraq to secure the occupation. Then came the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, which scarred the reputation of the US around the world. As the insurgency grew, the tours of duty for the troops have been extended and extended again, sapping morale and contributing to a potentially disastrous decline in National Guard recruitment (the National Guard and reservists now account for 40 per cent of the force in Iraq). Now comes the revelation that Mr Rumsfeld has had his letters of condolence to the families of fallen soldiers signed by an auto-pen, further proof, say critics, of his insensitivity and lack of concern for the ordinary GI.

Democrats have long demanded his head, especially after Abu Ghraib. But now the resignation calls are coming from Republicans, among them Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, house magazine of the neo-conservatives and long a cheerleader for the Iraq war.

Discontent at Mr Rumsfeld's brusque personal style is only a part of it. The deeper reason is the growing unease over the war. Yesterday again, Mr Bush wheeled out his lines about bringing liberty and democracy to the Arab world. But Americans read newspapers, watch television and, increasingly, know soldiers who have been killed or maimed in Iraq.

Some 1,300 American servicemen have now died in a war founded on a set of Pentagon miscalculations - from the original rationale of Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction, to the number of troops required, the cost of the war, and the reaction of the Iraqi people. Now Americans are told that their soldiers will have to stay in the country for five years or more.

Iraq may not be Vietnam, but similarities steadily grow. And now as 35 years ago, it is only human nature that Congress, even Republicans in Congress, seeks a scapegoat - and where more natural to look than the civilian leadership of the Pentagon?

For all his troubles, Mr Rumsfeld will not go, at least not yet. For one thing, he is not one to bow to critics. More important, for all the current Republican grumbling, a Defence Secretary ultimately performs for a constituency of one, the President of the United States. Most important of all, his departure now would be an implicit admission by Mr Bush of serious mistakes in Iraq - something to which this President is pathologically adverse.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted last spring, Mr Bush went out of his way to defend Mr Rumsfeld; thus yesterday's ringing endorsement of "the really fine job" being done by his Defence Secretary should have been no surprise.

"I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart ... He's a good, decent man. Sometimes his demeanour can be rough and gruff, but beneath there's a good human being, who cares about the military." That may be true. But one may ask whether Donald Rumsfeld is living up to the most relevant of Rumsfeld's Rules, the principles of public life he first published in December 1974, when he was Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff. "In politics," this particular rule states, "every day is filled with numerous opportunities for serious error. Enjoy it." Mr Rumsfeld, a former college wrestling star, is nothing if not combative. But his life right now is surely anything but enjoyable.