WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is once more on the defensive.
President Bush has brushed aside his opposition to seeking a United Nations role in Iraq, while some fellow Republicans are saying he bungled the post-war planning. Even one of the most ardent Democratic supporters of the war is attacking the defense secretary.
"Now is it a perfect situation? No," a seemingly relaxed Rumsfeld said yesterday of conditions 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."
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, there was talk that the prickly Rumsfeld, who alienated Congress and the Pentagon brass with his overbearing views on defense spending and weapons systems, was losing favor with the White House. Then, the terrorist attacks transformed him into a resolute leader.
He was again on the ropes in the first few days of the war against Saddam Hussein when U.S. troops appeared to be bogged down. Retired generals and active-duty officers faulted him for not sending enough troops and armor. But Baghdad soon fell, and Rumsfeld and his supporters chortled about "armchair generals."
Now, he is facing sharp criticism once more from both sides of Capitol Hill. Rumsfeld was firmly in control of the post-war planning and resisted talk of seeking U.N. assistance, a view quietly advanced by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Then last week, Bush sided with Powell - just as Rumsfeld was jetting off to war-torn Iraq.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, said there was a "a miserable job of planning for a post-Saddam Iraq," while Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said this week that the administration "underestimated" the challenge there.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, among the administration's closest Democratic allies on the Iraq war, yesterday called for an international administrator to take over Iraq within 60 days. Lieberman, a presidential aspirant, also chided Rumsfeld for saying this week that terrorists "take heart" from dissent at home.
"I won't tie my tongue, nor should any American tie his tongue, because our secretary of defense thinks dissent encourages terrorists," said Lieberman.
Rumsfeld said some news reports did not fully report his comments. "The part that tended to get dropped off is that debate is healthy, that we understand that," he said.
Even leaked portions of an internal report by the Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly says the Pentagon did not adequately plan for the post-war period.
"They overestimated how welcome we would be among the Iraqi population, and they underestimated the tenacity of Saddam's supporters," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute.
Thompson said that it amounts to a "brief setback" for Rumsfeld, and that he will rebound. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said this week, "Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a terrific job."
But Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution, said that while Rumsfeld's job is not in jeopardy, he has lost some of his power and his "special relationship" with Bush.
Yesterday, the 71-year-old Rumsfeld breezed into the National Press Club without an outward hint of worry. He was his usual charismatic self, charming his audience while sidestepping questions about Iraq. He calmly watched two demonstrators in the balcony shout for his removal and get dragged off by security guards, barely missing a beat in his speech.
He cited statistics to show progress in Iraq, saying attacks are dropping from about 25 a day to about 15 a day. And he recalled the words of U.S. commanders, saying there is no need for more U.S. troops. Yet he could not remember his deputy's well-publicized pre-war prediction about Iraq oil revenues paying for reconstruction.
In March, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told Congress, "We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." Asked yesterday what had changed, Rumsfeld replied, "I have, at my advanced age, developed a policy of not commenting on quotations I haven't seen myself or seen in context."
As for criticism of postwar planning, Rumsfeld said the banks, currency and police in Iraq were re-established in months, compared with years in post-World War II Germany. "I think the biggest difference is that we now have 24-hour news, and everyone is examining everything every second, and it feels like its been about four years since the end of the conflict, and it was May 1," he said.