Spectators packed the Pentagon briefing room yesterday to see Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fight the insurgents -- mano a mano.
His foes were not the bloodthirsty killers in Iraq -- he leaves that part to the military professionals -- but domestic antagonists with names such as Gallup, Ipsos, Pew and Zogby. These polls, and the media outlets that report them, show the public turning against the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and Rumsfeld is running a counterinsurgency.
"Lasting progress and achievements do not come from reacting to headlines or chasing mercurial opinion polls," he lectured at the Pentagon briefing.
"You see polls go up and down, and if you start chasing polls, you're going to get seasick," he told "Fox News Sunday" the day before. NBC's "Meet the Press" got a nearly identical formulation: "Polls go up, they go down, if you try to chase them, I think it's a mistake."
Speaking last week on a Philadelphia radio show, Rumsfeld shared one historian's view that "if the Revolutionary War had been covered the way we're covering this war and people had seen how difficult the conditions are and how badly things were run . . . people would have tossed it in."
That, of course, is difficult to verify -- American independence came a century and a half before polls and television -- but Rumsfeld is running with it. At yesterday's briefing at the Pentagon, he couldn't have been any more obvious about it if he entered the room wearing a tricorn hat and playing a fife.
"It's easy to forget that those early patriots faced monumental difficulties as they sought to overcome an array of failures and obstacles, but they had the vision and the courage to persevere," Rumsfeld said, before comparing the American revolutionaries to the Iraqis.
If the secretary of defense is on the defensive, it's no surprise. The administration is clearly concerned by the polls showing majorities of Americans think the war has not been worth the cost. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday finds that, for the first time, a majority think they were misled by President Bush before the war.
That's why Bush has scheduled his prime-time speech for tonight from Fort Bragg, and why Rumsfeld and his generals have given a flurry of interviews and public appearances over the past week. They've got a tough challenge: Because the administration has said there will be no change in the Iraq policy, the only rhetoric at its disposal is repetition of old arguments.
The result is a somewhat muddled message: Attack the polls, or cite them? Attack the skeptics, or persuade them?
Yesterday, only moments after Rumsfeld denounced "mercurial" polls, his fellow briefer, George W. Casey Jr., the top general in Iraq, observed: "Recent polls confirm that Iraqis are confident in their government and their security forces," he said. The juxtaposition was even worse Sunday; Rumsfeld, in the same interview denouncing polls, suggested looking "at the polling data on the confidence that the Iraqi people have for the Iraqi security forces."
Even at a time when it's important for him to make friends and influence the public, Rumsfeld seemed unable to hide his disdain for those who question him. Asked about foreign fighters in Iraq, Rumsfeld began by informing his listeners that "the Iraqi government has a neighbor called Syria." He wouldn't talk about confronting Syria because the Pentagon doesn't make those decisions -- "as you know."
He used a question about talks with insurgents to call media reports "overblown" and "imagination running wild." When a questioner tried to press him on the rising death toll, he cut her off, saying: "Wait a minute. We're not going to go that way. There's too much yelling, and not enough hands." When another reporter tried calling out an Iraq question, Rumsfeld replied, with a pained grin: "Why don't we try and do this in an orderly way, just for the dickens?" He then called on a reporter who invariably asks about India.
Casey, by contrast, skipped the invective and concentrated on making a powerful case. He pointed out that weekly attacks have dropped to below 500 from more than 700 before the election. "The troops are kind of scratching their heads, wondering why there is such a large disconnect between what they are seeing on the ground every day and [pessimistic] statements . . . back here," he said.
But while the general opted for persuasion, Rumsfeld spent more time quarreling with his questioners. Finally, a CNN correspondent registered a question by calling out for "a point of clarification -- since we seem to be operating under Robert's Rules of Order."
Rumsfeld shot back: "What would you prefer, a free-for-all?"