Rumsfeld Bares His Fangs

Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld is known for his brusqueness with the press. But for Rumsfeld to be snippy with reporters about national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice was, to say the least, unusual and noteworthy. Pundits and their unnamed sources may speculate about rivalries or bad blood between members of President George W. Bush's war cabinet, but the principals themselves--Rumsfeld and Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell--have for the most part been very careful not to speak ill of each other to reporters, or even hint at any personal differences.

That is the way President Bush, who values loyalty and dislikes the Washington game, wants it to be. But last week Rumsfeld let his mask slip for a moment and bared his teeth at a colleague. It was one of those moments of Washington theater that, while stylized and partly in code, spoke volumes about longstanding rifts in Bush's foreign-policy team. That these divisions are now surfacing publicly may be related to Bush's poll standings, which have dropped 20 points in the past four months--largely because of public dissatisfaction over postwar Iraq.

Rumsfeld was meeting with a round table of foreign journalists at a NATO conference at the U.S. Air Force Academy last week, when a reporter asked him about a New York Times article that morning. The article, by David Sanger, the Times's well-wired White House correspondent, stated that "the White House has ordered a major reorganization" of the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Senior administration officials" had told the Times that a new "Iraq Stabilization Group" would be run out of the White House by national-security adviser Rice.

What, the reporters wanted to know, did Rumsfeld have to say about this "restructuring"? With an edge in his voice, Rumsfeld observed that it's the job of the National Security Council to coordinate between departments and agencies. So, in a sense, nothing new here. Rice would just be doing the job she was supposed to do. But by inference, that prompted the obvious question: why did she need a "restructuring" and an announcement in The New York Times? Or as one of the foreign reporters asked, a little awkwardly but to the point: "Why did you need a special committee for that--to do that? And why do you need another level of democracy?"

Rumsfeld's reply had more than a whiff of bitterness: "I think you have to ask Condi that question." By now the reporters had the scent. They pressed Rumsfeld. Had he talked to the president? Rumsfeld: "No." Did it come as a surprise? No, the NSC is supposed to coordinate. But why the memo announcing it? "I don't know," said Rumsfeld, "you have to ask them." A reporter asked, "It's not clear why?" Rumsfeld: "I said I didn't know. Isn't that clear? You don't understand English?"

Rumsfeld's snarkiness seemed to confirm what most Washington insiders already suspected. The "major reorganization" was widely seen as a slap at Rumsfeld and the Defense Department, increasingly blamed by "administration officials" (read: the White House, State Department and CIA) for the chaos in Iraq. At the same time national-security adviser Rice had come in for criticism for failing to ride herd over the "interagency process," allowing internecine squabbles that often produced missed signals and policy paralysis. The New York Times story was regarded as an attempt by Rice to show that she was asserting control.

White House aides are clearly beginning to tire of Rumsfeld's act, though they dutifully explain that the Defense secretary was just "letting off steam." The inevitable rumor mill has Rumsfeld out of Bush's cabinet in a second term. While Bush himself claims not to read the newspapers, he did take time to caution his staff last week to "rise above" the Washington backbiting game. Good advice for Rumsfeld, too.