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Rumsfeld's tenure is marked by highs and lows

Monday, May 10, 2004

WASHINGTON -- It is clearly the low point of Donald H. Rumsfeld's more than three years at the Pentagon: He was rebuked by President Bush, called to testify by angry Republicans and pushed to resign by some Democrats.

But the brash defense secretary with the famous finger-pointing glare has had his share of highs and lows -- from tension with Congress before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to widespread adulation during the successful Afghan and Iraqi military campaigns.

Yet it is the postwar occupation of Iraq, which he has largely controlled, that has proved to be the toughest challenge. Violence in the country has not abated and photos have emerged of American soldiers abusing prisoners.

If there were any doubts that he grasped the seriousness of the Iraqi prison abuse scandal, Rumsfeld eliminated them with five words at a congressional hearing Friday: "I offer my deepest apology."

Surprise choice

Rumsfeld was a surprise choice when nominated for defense secretary in 2000. He was 68 years old and had held the position 23 years earlier in the Ford administration. He later had become a wealthy businessman, with occasional stints for the government. Among them was serving as President Reagan's Middle East envoy in the 1980s, when he once met with Saddam.

When nominated, Rumsfeld had broad bipartisan support. But he still had a rocky start. His hawkish stands on Russia, China and North Korea placed him at odds with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Conservatives accused him of not seeking enough defense spending. Liberals opposed his advocacy of missile defense. Almost everyone in Congress detested his base closing plans.

Everything changed after the Sept. 11 attacks. Rumsfeld emerged as a folk hero, a confident, paternal figure regularly appearing on television news, reassuring shaken Americans about the strength of their nation.

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., credits Rumsfeld for efforts to overhaul the military, but faults him for assuming that security problems would quickly subside in Iraq.

"Anyone who had an understanding of the history of the place and the divisions in Iraqi society should have known better," he said.

Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said Rumsfeld is "so into total control and so arrogant, he doesn't pay attention to the experts."

But Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said Rumsfeld constantly has to make difficult decisions.

"I don't see that as arrogance. I see that as someone who has stepped into a very tough position and who has made tough decisions that sometimes a lot of people don't agree with," Chambliss said.

Throughout, Bush's support has remained strong -- until the public rebuke over prisoner abuse. Even so, Bush said last week he supported Rumsfeld. "He'll stay in my Cabinet," the president said.


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