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Published: Monday, 10/27/2003

A reflective Rumsfeld

The happy face bubble has burst. The next progress report from the White House on how well the war on terrorism is going will strain credulity. Blame it on one of the key architects of the Bush Administration's foreign policy and war in Iraq who got caught with his guard down.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put a decidedly pessimistic spin on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war against terror in a leaked memo he sent to subordinates. The secretary's internal missive - first disclosed in USA TODAY - was in sharp contrast to the clipped, optimistic persona he and other senior administration officials have exhibited when publicly hailing their victories.

Release of his dour memo questioning even the capability of the Pentagon to wage war against terrorists and complaining that “relatively little effort” has gone into developing “a long-range plan” to defeat terrorism came at a particularly bad time for the President. Mr. Bush was fund-raising overseas to offset Iraqi reconstruction costs and trying to downplay skepticism about U.S. policy there.

How embarrassing that the charade of an administration supremely confident of its steady progress in Iraq and long-term strategy for fighting terrorism was blown by its own defense secretary. Who knew? Paybacks for shuffling Iraq rebuilding responsibilities away from Mr. Rumsfeld?

Of course the secretary and the White House quickly crafted the best spin possible on the Rumsfeld memo by saying the Pentagon leader was merely asking the tough questions that needed asking. His intent, said administration spinners, was simply to provoke candid discussion about “big questions in the war on terror.”

In that regard Mr. Rumsfeld succeeded far beyond his intention. When he talked about the “long, hard slog” to a coalition win in Iraq and Afghanistan, grumbled about “mixed results” in corralling senior al-Qaeda operatives, and argued that the United States lacks even a good way to measure how well it is doing in the war against terrorism, the world listened.

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, mused that the Rumsfeld memo showed the man is “beginning to have a bit of an epiphany.”

More likely the public has just been privy to the overblown self-assurance of one beleaguered defense secretary being deflated.

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