Image: Nicholas Burns Donald Rumsfeld
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld grabs a cup of coffee before heading into a news conference with U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns, back to camera, in Colorado Springs, Colo., Wednesday during a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers.
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During the war in Afghanistan, Donald Rumsfeld’s regular Pentagon briefings became such cultural staples that his boss, President George W. Bush, only half-jokingly referred to the defense secretary as a matinee idol. Times have changed.

On Thursday, Mr. Rumsfeld decided to cancel his end-of-summit press conference at a gathering of NATO defense ministers in Colorado Springs after his session the day before was dominated by questions as to whether he was being shunted aside by the White House in the Iraqi rebuilding effort. Asked why Mr. Rumsfeld had cancelled, one NATO official said the Pentagon chief was afraid he had become a “party pooper” whose public appearances had become distractions from the alliance’s good work.

It is a huge come-down for the man who led the U.S. military during a direct attack on the Pentagon and two quick wars with few American casualties. The decline in Mr. Rumsfeld’s fortunes has become so severe that the Washington parlor game, once obsessed with who was about to replace Colin Powell, the sure-to-resign secretary of state, is now bouncing around names for potential successors to the 71-year-old defense secretary.

Mr. Rumsfeld has, of course, been counted out before. It is easy to forget that before the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, Mr. Rumsfeld’s rocky relations with Congress and the uniformed military made him the early favorite for the first Bush cabinet member to be out of a job. In the early days of the war in Iraq, his fight-light invasion plan was roundly criticized by military experts who believed he had not given the armed forces enough fire power. Both times he emerged to gain greater esteem.

“Amidst all the clutter, beyond all the obstacles, aside from all the static, are the goals set,” he wrote as a young Ford administration defense secretary in a document now known as Rumsfeld’s Rules. “Put your head down, do the best job possible, let the flak pass, and work towards those goals.”

This time, however, the threat to his hold on power came not from carping members of Congress or retired military Cassandras. It came directly from the White House, in the form of a memorandum from Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, announcing the establishment of an Iraq Stabilization Group that will take accountability for reconstruction away from the Pentagon and give it to the National Security Council.

Although the White House originally insisted Mr. Rumsfeld had been closely consulted on the formation of the group, the blunt-speaking former navy pilot revealed in an interview with the Financial Times this week that he had not been told about the NSC initiative in advance and learnt about it only through the media.

While the defense secretary has been at pains to insist he bears no grudges against Ms. Rice, he has repeatedly belittled her initiative, calling the classified document establishing the new group a “little, short, one-page memo” and the working groups charged with co-ordinating administration policy “little committees of the NSC”.

“I’m really quite surprised by all the froo-frah about this memo,” he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld, who was a champion wrestler at Princeton, appears most upset that he has been outflanked by Ms. Rice, who may have gone to the press first to avoid a head-on battle with the administration’s consummate bureaucratic infighter. But the fact that her background briefing to the New York Times announcing the shift in policy planning almost certainly had the backing of Mr. Bush, who spends more time with Ms. Rice than almost any other aide, reflects the level of the president’s support for the new organization.

“Clearly the analysis is: we need to fix Iraq for the president and the DOD is not doing it,” says one insider who speaks regularly with Pentagon officials. Part of Mr. Rumsfeld’s predicament is that his allies within the administration appear to be dwindling in number. Despite his public image as a genial if cantankerous raconteur, he has never been well liked within the Pentagon. His confrontational style and insistence on relying on a close-knit clique of advisers to make important decisions have alienated many in the uniformed military leadership, particularly in the army, as well as some civilian officials.

On his retirement as army chief of staff in June, General Eric Shinseki, the military commander perhaps most abused by Mr. Rumsfeld and his civilian aides, was not shy in his criticism. “We understand that leadership is not an exclusive function of the uniformed services,” he said in a clear reference to the defense secretary. “So when some suggest that we in the army don’t understand the importance of civilian control of the military, well, that’s just not helpful - and it isn’t true.”

In recent months, Mr. Rumsfeld has also faced criticism from unexpected areas. Congressional Republicans have raised questions about the Pentagon’s forthrightness in setting out the costs of rebuilding Iraq. More significantly, influential neo-conservatives have begun to turn on him.

William Kristol — a leading neo-con with close ties to Pentagon insiders such as Richard Perle, a member of the defense policy board, and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary — has led the attack, this week calling Mr. Rumsfeld “the secretary of stubbornness” for his refusal to change policy in the rebuilding efforts.

Coming from a group that appeared to walk in step with Mr. Rumsfeld on the road to war, such criticism may seem like heresy. But Mr. Rumsfeld comes from a much more traditional conservative defense policy tradition and has never fully embraced many of the neo-con precepts.

While Mr. Rumsfeld’s rationale for invading Iraq emphasized national security imperatives, such as removing a dictator with a penchant for attacking neighbors and using chemical weapons, the neo-cons have always seen Iraq as the first of what they hope will be many flourishing democracies in the region. In essence, neo-cons are idealists; Mr. Rumsfeld is a realist.

That is why the rebuilding effort has divided the two. For the neo-cons, the war was about the rebuilding, and Mr. Rumsfeld’s failure to provide more U.S. troops to ensure that stabilization efforts are effective is a glaring failure. For Mr. Rumsfeld, who often derided the Clinton administration for overstretching U.S. armed forces by nation-building, the deposing of Saddam Hussein was reason enough for war.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s blunt, hard-edged style has not helped him win friends, either. It was a style in full view this week, whether it was barking at a German reporter — “You don’t understand English?” — when the journalist pressed him on his relationship with Ms. Rice, or, during a press conference the next day, answering almost every question by first announcing that the inquisitor’s premise was off-base. “I’m sorry to keep doing this to questioners, but you’re wrong,” he told one Greek reporter. But then again, he is just following Rumsfeld’s Rules: “Don’t necessarily avoid sharp edges. Occasionally they are necessary to leadership.”

© The Financial Times Ltd 2013. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.

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