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PENTAGON NOTEBOOK: Under fire, Rumsfeld soldiers on

PENTAGON NOTEBOOK: Under fire, Rumsfeld soldiers on

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld skirted around a sign warning of eruption danger. He climbed the crumbling, steep steps to the top of the Masaya volcano, carefully protecting his left arm, in a sling since surgery a month ago.
Much like his painstaking but determined ascent of the crater on a drizzly day this week, the 74-year-old Rumsfeld has endured withering attacks on his competence as the Pentagon's chief. Such perseverance has not come without signs of strain.
Rumsfeld returned to Washington on Tuesday from back-to-back trips to Europe and Central America. They coincided with the release of a U.S. intelligence report saying the war in Iraq was motivating terrorists, and the publication of another book critical of the Pentagon's handling of the war. Some lawmakers in Congress renewed their calls for his ouster.
As Rumsfeld shuttled through eight time zones, from the Balkans to Nicaragua, he displayed a mix of verve and vulnerability. He jousted with reporters on some days; on others, he avoided the spotlight.
When he did take questions about his future, Rumsfeld delivered an exasperated "No, no, no," he would not resign.
And in typical fashion, he parried back. The fallout was not affecting his job, he said, or his relations with other national leaders.
"They don't seem to pay a lot of attention to it, mostly you do," Rumsfeld told reporters. "That's all you guys do is read these books, you ought to get a life."
Democrats in Washington have made campaign-season demands that Rumsfeld resign. Some Republicans have distanced themselves from what they see as an increasingly unpopular war.
Some lawmakers even have softened their opposition to a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, which Rumsfeld emphatically opposes.
"We cannot reconstitute the armed forces without his removal," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, last week. "While some might view this as a political attack, one cannot change defense policy without changing the person in charge."
In a new book, Watergate reporter Bob Woodward wrote that White House staff had encouraged U.S. President George W. Bush to fire Rumsfeld after the 2004 election. Asked about that, Rumsfeld said he spoke personally with Bush, who offered his full support.
During the early days of the trip, Rumsfeld did his best to stay out of the spotlight _ which was then focused on the U.S. intelligence report concluding that the Iraq war has fueled terrorists and increased the danger of attack.
He spent the initial 11-hour flight to Montenegro cloistered with staff and his wife, Joyce, in a private compartment. Later in the trip, an expected briefing with reporters in Portoroz, Slovenia, was abruptly canceled. He went straight to his hotel room.
When he faced reporters in the Balkans the next day, he scolded them for asking him too many questions at a press conference, rather than directing their queries to other NATO defense ministers on the stage.
Rumsfeld was in occasional pain from surgery that repaired his rotator cuff; at times, he had trouble sleeping. Still, Rumsfeld kept up a frenetic pace of private and public meetings with his defense counterparts.
"Any suggestion that the secretary is either distracted or slowing down is so far off the mark that it's just nutty," Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff said.
Indeed, the secretary kept a rigorous schedule during the four-country tour.
When he arrived in Montenegro, he met with leaders for a few hours, then took a quick hop to Albania, where he met with his defense counterparts from the region.
He stayed there overnight, then made the 90-minute flight to Slovenia, toured a horse farm, then spent two days in meetings with NATO defense ministers. He flew home to Washington late last Friday, only to turn around and fly to Nicaragua Sunday morning for two more days of meetings with Western hemisphere defense ministers.
En route home Tuesday evening, he met with staff in his office on the plane, with a 4-inch stack of manila folders on the desk in front of him and a bulging briefcase at his side.
With all that reading, there would be no time to peruse the lengthy critique of the war in Woodward's book.
"I didn't read it," Rumsfeld said. "Obviously, I doubt that I will."


Updated : 2021-05-17 06:39 GMT+08:00