Since he returned to the Pentagon three years ago, Donald H. Rumsfeld has been one of the most activist secretaries of defense in a generation, challenging the uniformed brass to modernize the nation's military into a 21st century fighting force and leading the armed services through two major wars in 18 months.
Along the way, Rumsfeld has rankled many in the military with his aggressive style and far-reaching agenda for "transforming" the military, even as he has won acclaim for his leadership of the Pentagon through the trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the building and ensuing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the war on terrorism. Now, less than five months after he helped formulate and execute a bold plan in which a U.S. invasion force drove to Baghdad and toppled the Iraqi government in 21 days, Rumsfeld is facing his greatest challenge yet.
Staff aides brief Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, second from right, before he arrives in Iraq earlier this month.
(Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway -- U.s. Air Force Via AP)
Having demanded full authority for overseeing the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, elbowing the State Department aside, Rumsfeld is being blamed by many in Congress and the military establishment for the problems facing the United States, which include mounting U.S. casualties and costs exceeding $1 billion a week.
Whatever else Rumsfeld achieves at the Pentagon, the outcome of the Iraq occupation will go a long way toward determining his legacy in this, his second stint as secretary of defense. It also will affect the political fortunes of President Bush, whose reelection bid could hinge on events in Iraq.
Rumsfeld's ability to weather his largest crisis will depend to a degree on his standing with three key constituencies: the White House, Congress and the military's officer corps. How he does with them will be shaped largely by whether security improves in Iraq, according to officials in the administration, Congress and the Pentagon.
At the moment, at least, Rumsfeld's standing among all three is mixed. White House officials said that Rumsfeld retains the full confidence of the president. But after a long winning streak, the Pentagon chief has begun to lose some policy battles, most notably when Bush decided to seek a new United Nations resolution on Iraq -- a course about which Rumsfeld has expressed reservations.
Rumsfeld's relations with the military have been strained since he returned to office. This is particularly true within the Army, which felt threatened by his modernization plans before the Sept. 11 attacks and where concern runs deep about the damage the Iraq occupation could do the service in the long run.
Rumsfeld appears to be losing ground most dramatically on Capitol Hill, where even some conservative Republicans are expressing concern about his handling of Iraq. "Winning the peace is a lot different than winning the war," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who counts himself as a strong Rumsfeld supporter but notes that not all his colleagues feel the same. "His bluntness comes across as arrogance, and he's made some enemies on Capitol Hill, probably because of style differences," said Graham, an Air Force veteran who serves on the Armed Services Committee.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the panel's chairman, struck a decidedly cool note when asked how Rumsfeld is doing. "Understandably we have some differences," he said Friday in a written response. "However, I consistently work with Secretary Rumsfeld to support the president and the men and women of the armed forces, and have a high regard for his integrity and forcefulness."
'Rummy Is a Survivor'
On Capitol Hill and elsewhere, Rumsfeld's assertive self-confidence and brash style -- seared into the public's memory during televised news conferences during the Afghanistan war -- for many months seemed to fuel the secretary's popularity. Now, those same qualities strike many inside and outside of government as a vulnerability that leads them to question whether Rumsfeld has the flexibility to make the changes and compromises they see as necessary to fixing the situation in Iraq.
"Robert McNamara for four years of Vietnam going down the toilet was absolutely convinced with a religious zeal that what he was doing was the right thing," said Thomas E. White, a retired Army general who was fired as Army secretary this year by Rumsfeld. "It wasn't until 30 years later that it dawned on him that he was dead wrong. And I think you have the same thing with Don Rumsfeld."
McNamara served as secretary of defense in the 1960s under Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Most analysts said they believe it is far too early to count Rumsfeld out, and many supporters said they are convinced he will rise and prove his critics wrong once again. His backers note that the secretary continues to have a close relationship with Vice President Cheney, who worked under Rumsfeld in the Gerald Ford White House.
As a longtime aide to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Rumsfeld's principal rival in the national security arena, F. William Smullen might be expected to revel in Rumsfeld's difficulties. To the contrary, Smullen argues that it is grossly unfair to hang the problems of postwar Iraq on the defense secretary. "I think there is plenty of blame to go around, far and wide, to include Congress and the mass media, and people are going to be hard-pressed to dump it all on Rumsfeld," said Smullen, who was Powell's chief of staff until last fall, when he became director of national security studies at Syracuse University.