- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Donald Rumsfeld is rapidly becoming one of my former heroes. Or, as they say in the wide world of sports, a former immortal.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s charm fades with every American casualty in Iraq — not because the American public can’t take bad news, but because Americans will not tolerate constantly being told it’s really good news.

Condoleezza Rice understands. The president’s national security adviser is at least shifting the deck chairs around.

Miss Rice has set up a new, high-powered coordinating group to guide policy on Iraq. Even if it’s just the old National Security Council in drag, it’s a change. She also realizes a wartime administration, like an artillery outfit, must move, shoot and communicate. Never lose contact. With the enemy or with the rear.

The American people are asking questions or, worse, we’ve given up asking questions — and may be getting ready to just give up.

We don’t need a cheerleader just now, only a leader. Somebody who’ll tell us what’s going on — with the bark off — and what the plan is. (There is a plan, isn’t there?)

Condi Rice knows what to do. So does Dick Cheney. Take to the hustings. Rally the country. Words are weapons, and they can be bunker-busters or just duds, depending on the communicator.

This administration has some big guns in Miss Rice and the vice president. Condi Rice is most effective in formal discourse and Dick Cheney in conversational settings. It’s good to see both being rolled out and firing for effect.

Condi Rice is leading this fight on the most decisive front in any war, the home front. And she’s started to ask some good questions of her own. Opening the administration’s counteroffensive for the hearts and minds of the American people, she let loose a speech last week in which she raised some questions of her own for the administration’s critics:

c How long should Saddam Hussein have been allowed to remain the greatest source of instability in one of the world’s most vital regions?

c How long should the world have closed its eyes to the threat that was Saddam Hussein?

And as Miss Rice pointed out, those were the alternatives to action. And this administration acted.

There is something repellent about the increasingly widespread nostalgia for Saddam the Harmless on the part of this administration’s reflexive but not very reflective critics. It’s time they were asked some questions, too, and their glib answers held up to the light.

Would America really be safer and the Middle East more stable if this country were still hunkered down waiting for the next attack, with troops stationed, or rather held hostage, in Saudi Arabia, and on the defensive everywhere else? And, lest we forget, our air force having to bomb Iraq’s missile sites on a regular basis?

Talk about a state of permanent, indefinite disarray. That’s a strategy? It sounds more like the Clinton administration.

For what alternative do the advocates of inaction really offer to the present policy — besides pretending that it’s still Sept. 10, 2001, before the fateful attacks on America, and always will be?

Condoleezza Rice has begun asking the right questions in this era’s great debate between internationalists and isolationists, a debate every American generation seems destined to go through.

Donald Rumsfeld’s reaction to the administration’s new point man, or rather point woman, was to act as if this were just another battle over Washington’s precious turf — not a bold attempt to communicate with the American people.

What was his response to the national security adviser’s shakeup of the geopolitical command? He dismissed it as nothing new, which is just what the American people are afraid of.

Mr. Rumsfeld should have been leading the cheers for Miss Rice, adding his support to her policy initiative, singing his chorus to her verse.

Instead, he acted like the star who’s now asked to play a supporting role, and just can’t find it in him.

Somebody needs to make it clear to this defense secretary, somebody like his boss, the president of the United States and commander in chief of this whole shebang, that there’s more involved here, sir, than who gets the corner office and camera time.

What’s involved is life and death, victory and defeat. There’s a war on, a war against terror in which Iraq is only the latest front. And much depends on the outcome.

Over his many years close to power, Donald Rumsfeld has built a deserved reputation for talking to the country like a Dutch uncle. There were times when that was refreshing, but as the wearing months have gone on, his gruff little lectures have become more irritating than enlightening.

Conclusion: It’s time our colorful defense secretary had one of his famous blunt little talks — with himself.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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