NBC News
updated 12/20/2004 8:49:07 PM ET 2004-12-21T01:49:07

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld “is a bit of a lightning rod these days” and suggested in an interview with NBC News that for the embattled secretary of defense, “it must be hard to get up and go to work.”

Armitage, who spoke with NBC News' Campbell Brown on Monday, admits he was “surprised” by Rumsfeld's response to a National Guardsman's concerns about U.S. military armor. Armitage defended both Rumsfeld and the soldier.

Speaking of the growing chorus of bipartisan congressional complaints about Rumsfeld, Armitage said, “I think they have a lot of questions, and they have their important questions and they deserve to be answered, and the secretary of defense is going to try and answer them.”

Armitage admitted he was “very surprised” by a question from a Tennessee National Guardsman who wanted more information about the lack of armor. “I was very surprised that the soldier didn't have the armor, and I was very surprised at the answer,” he said.

“I think I question what our leaders in the field, the officers who are preparing to lead these men into battle, have been doing if they're going into battle without the equipment that they need then someone should be talking about it,” Armitage said. “The president of the United States has made it very clear, our soldiers are going to get what they need to do the job that we ask of them.”

‘A lot of way stations’
Armitage acknowledged that the responsibility for procurement for U.S. forces did end with Rumsfeld. “But I think the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of way stations before you get to him, and I think people all the way up and down should be looking at what they were doing and what they can do to better serve our troops.”

And on the matter of a question for Rumsfeld — asked last week by Army Spc. Thomas Wilson, a 31-year-old member of the Tennessee National Guard — Armitage's answer suggested that nothing was out of the ordinary.

“I don't find anything strange in a soldier standing up and — to use your words — ‘challenging’ the secretary of defense,’” Armitage said. “Our citizen soldiers are pretty up-front, tell-it-like-it-is folks, they always have been. As far back in the military as I go. And I was quite proud of the young man.”

‘The question for Syria’
Responding to a question about the impact of Syrian insurgents on the war in Iraq, Armitage threw the ball into Damascus' court.

“The question for Syria is whether they are going to come to the conclusion is that there is going to be an Iraq next door to them that is free and open, and the question for Syria to ask is whether they want a country which is friendly and open to them,” Armitage said.

“It's not beyond the comprehension I think of Hafez Al Assad to realize that the Iraqi government is one with whom he has to deal,” Armitage said. “He has got to toughen up along his borders and knock down those people who are allowing the former regime elements to work out of Syria.”

When pressed on whether the Syrian situation is a diplomatic challenge or a military one, Armitage said that “all options are obviously on the table. We don't want to make it a military problem. We have spoken to the Syrians, as [President Bush] indicated. Moreover, the Iraqi government has spoken to the Syrians. And they've taken some action. They just haven't taken sufficient action yet.”

Armitage said that “all options are on the table” concerning Syria and the Iraq war's possible impact on that country.

He also admitted he was “fairly worried” about the potential for Iranian influences in the Iraqi election, now set for Jan. 30.

The Armitage interview will be telecast in its entirety on “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” Monday night from 7 to 8 p.m. (ET) on MSNBC.

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