Rumsfeld ruffles feathers, but has staunch defenders

Published February 18, 2005 1:01 am
Defense secretary: Democrats and even some Republicans have been critical of his leadership during the Iraq war
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WASHINGTON - Even as some other Republican lawmakers agitate for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's ouster, Utah's GOP members of Congress are unflagging in their support for the combative Pentagon boss.

"We would be absolutely nuts at this particular time if we tried to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson is the only member of the Utah delegation openly critical of Rumsfeld's management of the Iraq war, singling out the Pentagon's chronic shortages of vehicles with increased armor, Rumsfeld's quest to build new nuclear weapons and the secretary's thinly veiled contempt toward lawmakers who challenge his policy decisions.

"I'm not calling for his resignation, but I have some serious concerns," said Matheson, who represents the state's 2nd Congressional District. "We ought to have a defense secretary who has a good relationship with Congress and right now, I don't see that sort of dialogue happening."

Matheson said he "fundamentally and categorically" disagrees with Rumsfeld's belief that bunker-buster nuclear weapons are needed and he is angry that all troops in Iraq still do not have access to armored vehicles.

"I'm concerned about the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, which he is in charge of, having underestimated every step of the way the Iraq occupation," Matheson said. "I've heard from too many parents and spouses of loved ones deployed that they don't have adequate equipment over there."

Brusque behavior: The latest round of speculation on Rumsfeld's future comes after he frequently dismissed questions from both Democrats and Republicans with obvious irritation during House and Senate hearings Wednesday. The brusque behavior came even as he was trying to persuade Congress to approve $82 billion in new supplemental spending for the Iraq war.

The secretary surprised lawmakers as he brought the House hearing to a premature end by announcing he needed to "get lunch" and began packing his briefcase to go to another hearing, even as several members were waiting to ask him questions.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., apologized for the "unusual situation" and the "abbreviated session." Rumsfeld subsequently offered to meet privately with lawmakers who still had questions over breakfast "in the next two or three weeks."

That may do little to appease the growing irritation with Rumsfeld among lawmakers from both parties in Congress, whose grievances range from the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal to the continued failure to quell the Iraqi insurgency. The $82 billion request - coming on top of $91 billion already spent on the war - is the latest flash point, with House Republican leadership vowing to cut President Bush's request because it is larded with so-called "emergency" projects: $5 billion to reorganize the Army, $773 for drug interdiction in Afghanistan and $658 million for a new embassy in Baghdad, among others.

Besides GOP mavericks like Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, other Republicans such as Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Norm Coleman of Minnesota have also criticized Rumsfeld's leadership.

"Heck of a leader": Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, the chief deputy whip of the Senate GOP caucus, questions the motivation of some of those carping.

"How do I say this gracefully? It's a little early to be positioning for the Republican [presidential] nomination in 2008, but some people who may want some publicity might decide that's the way to go," Bennett said, referring to speculation about McCain's ambitions. "I'm not running for president in 2008 so I don't need the national publicity of disagreeing with the president and the administration."

Third District Republican Rep. Chris Cannon also supports Rumsfeld and said calls for the resignation of the secretary of defense are a "historic constant" during wartime.

"We are at war, and Don Rumsfeld is no exception," said Cannon. "He is a tough player in Washington and is, at times, less than diplomatic. I suggest those are not bad traits for a secretary of defense during these challenging times, whether dealing with Congress or with the Pentagon bureaucracy."

Rumsfeld has an image of a "clever, sexy curmudgeon," said 1st District Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who appreciates the difficulty of Rumsfeld's task to transform and modernize the military.

"I'm still comfortable with his leadership," said Bishop. "No one ever has ultimate authority to snap their fingers and make something happen, outside of a 'Bewitched' episode."

Hatch also applauds Rumsfeld's campaign to reform "one of the largest and most difficult bureaucracies in the world" while directing the global war on terror. And he's willing to let a gruff demeanor with lawmakers slide.

"The man is a heck of a leader, but is he perfect? No," said Hatch. "Is he warm and fuzzy? Not in the least. But I'm not sure the secretary of defense should be warm and fuzzy."



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