Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in his second consecutive tour of duty, has to sell a half-trillion military budget to a skeptical Congress and answer repeated calls to bring the troops home from Iraq.
It won’t be easy. Often testy, his political capital with lawmakers has found new limits.
Old Europe, hillbilly armor and his use of an automatic pen to sign condolence letters were among the Pentagon chief’s first-term missteps that have alienated longtime allies, frustrated soldiers and angered military families.
Democrats called for Rumsfeld’s resignation after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. Even some Republicans expressed little confidence in the defense secretary. Said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi: “I’m not a fan of Secretary Rumsfeld.”
In his second act as Bush’s defense chief, Rumsfeld, a divisive figure kept under wraps for much of the 2004 presidential campaign, has been the Bush administration’s point man in talking up the Iraqi elections on the Sunday talk shows.
He recently traveled to countries that strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq – France and Germany – made a surprise visit to Iraq and attended an international security conference in Munich where in a rare moment of self-deprecation and rapprochement sought to explain his “Old Europe” jab with a quip.
“That was old Rumsfeld,” said the Pentagon chief, who also served as defense secretary and U.S. ambassador to NATO in the ’70s.
This week, Rumsfeld will try to sell Bush’s military blueprint – some $500 billion, including about $82 billion for a new supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan – to lawmakers at back-to-back hearings. It will mark his first public testimony before Congress since September.
While Republican critics grumble about Rumsfeld quietly and Democrats have stopped calling for his ouster, lawmakers say it’s not that they support him more than they did before. Rather, they are resigned to the fact that they’re stuck with him, whether they like it or not, because Bush asked him to stay.
Rumsfeld recently said he offered to resign twice; Bush turned him down.
“Look, the president chooses who he wants in that position,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican on the Armed Services Committee. In December, it was McCain who said he had “no confidence” in the Pentagon chief.
As for the calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation, “The water’s under that bridge,” said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
“He’s carrying out policy, essentially,” said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Those are administration and presidential policies.”
When he testifies this week, Rumsfeld also will face questions about proposed cuts in weapons programs, including a reduction in the number of aircraft carriers; an exit strategy for U.S. forces in Iraq and the demands on National Guard and reserve units already stretched thin.
The architect of the Iraq war also will appear before lawmakers whose constituents are mourning the deaths of more than 1,450 U.S. troops.
“His stock has gone up and down over time,” said John Pike, a military expert with globalsecurity.org. “It’s about at even keel. On one hand, he’s got a bunch of explaining to do. On the other hand, it’s clear he’s going to be around for some time and they’re going to have to deal with him.”
Rumsfeld’s stock was near the bottom last November. In Kuwait, he told U.S. troops who questioned him about vehicles that lacked armor – and said they used scraps of metal from a junkyard to outfit humvees – that, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have.”
His political enemies seized on the comment, in part of a longer response, and the lethal post-invasion insurgency to claim that Rumsfeld was unnecessarily putting U.S. forces in harm’s way.
Adding to Rumsfeld’s problems was the disclosure that he used an automatic ink machine to put his name on condolence letters sent to families of troops killed in Iraq. He attempted to squelch the controversy by quickly announcing he would personally sign all such future letters.
“His relationship on Capitol Hill is going to be mediocre for as long as he stays in the job,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Still, Rumsfeld has an obvious trump card in negotiating the budget and other issues with lawmakers.
In May, the Pentagon chief will strike fear in congressional districts as he offers his proposed list of military base closings to an independent commission. Congress hasn’t dealt with a round of base closings since 1995, when Bill Clinton was president.
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