"Every time Rumsfeld goes through one of these episodes, people think it's the end for him," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst and consultant at the Lexington Institute with ties to the Pentagon and defense contractors. "But he always ends up looking vindicated. What we're really facing in Iraq is a mop-up operation, and as the mop-up continues and as we gradually sharpen our intelligence and train Iraqi security forces, Rumsfeld is going to look better and better. In the end, it will look like he understood the occupation of Iraq better than most of his critics did."
As one Army general put it: "Rummy is a survivor."
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)
Rumsfeld declined to be interviewed for this article, and his spokesman declined to provide any comment.
Speaking for Bush, White House communications director Dan Bartlett said Friday, "The president ignores the Washington pastime of armchair quarterbacking with perfect hindsight. The president has all the faith and confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld that he did on the day he announced him for the position."
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the difficulties of postwar Iraq have not led to a reduction in the role played by Rumsfeld and the Defense Department. "Don Rumsfeld and the Pentagon had the lead and have the lead in postwar reconstruction because . . . we wanted a way to unify the command of the forces and the civilian reconstruction effort," Rice said in an interview Friday. "It's a very, very tough job, but he's managed it well, the president believes he's done it well, and when problems have come up, he's moved to fix them."
Nor, she said, has the White House been taken aback by the cost and difficulty of the Iraq occupation. "Yes, this is really challenging, it's really challenging for all of us, and Don has got a heavy part of the burden," she said. "But everybody knows what it is we're trying to do, and everybody knows how important this is, and everybody knows this is a chance to change history."
Yet, the difficulties in Iraq have diminished Rumsfeld's standing within the administration, according to people familiar with its inner workings, with a reduction in Rumsfeld's operating latitude. Unhappiness with Rumsfeld's freewheeling style -- he has been known to interject himself in issues usually considered beyond the purview of a secretary of defense -- had been building within parts of the administration, officials said.
But it was the Pentagon's handling of postwar Iraq that really hurt Rumsfeld's position, according to some administration officials. Asked about this, a senior White House official said it was "patently false" that Rumsfeld had somehow been ordered by the White House to better coordinate his policy initiatives with other parts of the administration.
'He's Very Defensive'
Unhappiness with Rumsfeld flared on Capitol Hill months before the invasion of Iraq, when Warner stood up at a meeting of Republican senators with White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and complained that Rumsfeld was neither cooperating nor consulting with the Senate. Warner told Card that he had never seen anything like it in 25 years in the Senate.
Now, with casualties in Iraq mounting and lawmakers growing agitated about the costs of occupation and reconstruction, the strains have become more pronounced, even as the administration continues to hold strong Republican support on Capitol Hill for its overall policy goals in Iraq.
Even Rumsfeld's GOP backers chafe at the way he interacts with Congress. "I think his legislative affairs shop is awful," said one Republican senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It serves him so poorly. Don Rumsfeld can't be personally blamed for all of that. But the combination of his personality, which some people find condescending and prickly and a little offensive -- Rumsfeld himself doesn't have any time for criticism -- and the fact that the groundwork hasn't been laid by a good legislative affairs staff, has created some problems."
Graham, the South Carolina Republican, said that among his colleagues, "there's some belief that he's reluctant to admit that things are off-track when they seem to be off-track. He's very defensive."
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a West Point graduate and former officer in the 82nd Airborne Division, said Rumsfeld was "critically important to a spectacular conventional military victory in Iraq." But Reed said the real question now is whether Rumsfeld is committed to reaching out to other countries "in a way that encourages allies to join us" in managing the occupation.
While the administration says it wants a U.N. resolution aimed at winning more foreign troops and money, Reed said, "The rhetoric is not matched by the body language and all the things that have to go into getting people to cooperate with you."