12/27/04 — Rumsfeld: What kind of person do we want for defense secretary?

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Rumsfeld: What kind of person do we want for defense secretary?

There is something about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s mien that makes him easy to dislike. Some people are like that — stern looking and hard to get to know, at least from a distance.

In politics, that’s fatal. And Rumsfeld, because of his connection to President George W. Bush and because he is in charge of the military, is in a most political position.

When Rumsfeld gave a less-than-artful answer to a soldier who asked him publicly about the lack of sufficient armor on vehicles exposed to combat, he made himself an easy target for his and Bush’s critics.

When it was revealed that a machine, rather than the secretary himself, signs Rumsfeld’s name on letters to the families of soldiers killed in the war, here we went again. The story made Rumsfeld seem cold and callous, and his rivals were quick to rub salt in the wound.

The question about the armor was given to the soldier by a reporter; it did not originate with the soldier himself. That doesn’t matter, in a sense. Wherever the question originated, Rumsfeld’s answer was the same. Still, to know the question was planted helps put the matter in perspective.

It is important to consider that this took place at a so-called town meeting with soldiers. Rumsfeld has attended about three dozen of those. So whatever you think of his demeanor, it cannot be said that he is reluctant to put himself out there, answer questions in person and risk attack for every stumble. Many veterans will recall a time when an ordinary soldier never saw the secretary of defense, much less had an opportunity to question him. Rumsfeld apparently is not quite as aloof as he looks.

Naturally, President Bush was asked at a news conference whether he would dump Rumsfeld. Naturally, Bush said no. The president is not a man to veer off a plan unless he has to.

In giving his reply, Bush not only defended Rumsfeld’s leadership at the Pentagon but described some of the secretary’s laudable personal qualities.

Rumsfeld has indeed been effective in a tough job. The military had to be built back up during his first term and, because of 9/11, the country was at war much sooner than anyone expected.

Incidentally, we won, quickly driving the Taliban out of Afghanistan.

Many blame Rumsfeld for our delay in disengaging from the fighting in Iraq, and it is true that the post-war terrorism there has dragged on longer than was expected. On the other hand, coalition forces defeated the Saddam Hussein army and drove him out of power much sooner than expected.

In deciding who should be secretary of defense, President Bush’s paramount consideration should be our national security. If he believes Rumsfeld can ensure our security more certainly than anyone else, then there is no question that Rumsfeld must stay in the job.

It would help the president if Rumsfeld would soften his image a little, as he did at Christmas by visiting with wounded soldiers in Iraq. But when the rubber meets the road, what do we want in a defense secretary: a somewhat gruff-seeming fellow who can get the job done, or Miss Personality?

Published in Editorials on December 27, 2004 11:20 AM