Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was having one of his irregular chats with Senators last Wednesday, speaking in the secret, soundproof fourth-floor Capitol chamber used for highly classified conversations, when someone interjected the question that was on everyone's mind. "What troop levels do we expect to have in Iraq a year from now?" asked Senator Bill Frist, the Republican leader.
And with that, the Pentagon chief began to tap dance. His reply, according to a Republican Senator in the room, was a classic Rumsfeldian fugue--complete with interesting hand gestures--mentioning reductions and foreign troops and steady progress. Or, as the G.O.P. Senator described it later, "it was a five-minute, total nonanswer, just unbelievably obtuse." Another Republican Senator put it this way to TIME: "Rumsfeld believes in his own magic."
It is increasingly fair to ask: Does anyone else? For nearly three years as Defense Secretary, Rumsfeld has employed everything from smiling charm to podium-pounding bluntness in his battles with Congress, the Pentagon bureaucracy and his colleagues in the Bush Administration over who controls foreign policy. But his recent pronouncements, both public and private, have grown into a regular political distraction for a President who is already on the defensive for his handling of the Iraq war and its aftermath--both of which were designed largely by Rumsfeld himself.
Rumsfeld has lately kept busy strewing political wreckage on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. First, he wrote a frank memo about the war on terrorism that was at odds with much of the Administration's public spin for the past several months. Then he alienated the one person, apart from Bush, on whom the Pentagon most relies for sustenance--Virginia Senator John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. A former Navy Secretary, Warner went to the Senate floor to complain that Rumsfeld had in effect ignored his request for an investigation into Lieut. General William "Jerry" Boykin, a top Army officer in the war on terrorism, who had been preaching anti-Islamic sermons, in uniform, to evangelical Christian gatherings. When Rumsfeld denied ever seeing Warner's letter--something of a stretch, as Warner not only faxed the letter to Rumsfeld's office but also had it hand-delivered by Pentagon courier--lawmakers took the gloves off. "His treatment of the chairman of the Armed Services Committee is more disdainful than I have ever seen," said Republican Senator John McCain. "It's just not appropriate."