On recent trips, Rumsfeld refrains from attack mode

October 05, 2006|By Letta Tayler | Letta Tayler,Newsday

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- His smile tight, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was a model diplomat during a two-day visit to Nicaragua, gamely climbing a live volcano with his arm in a sling and even refraining from verbal swipes after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez branded him a "dog of war."

The subdued behavior here and during a preceding European trip follows a barrage of negative publicity for the outspoken defense secretary, including a new book that says former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. twice suggested to President Bush that he consider firing Rumsfeld.

Yesterday, Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, further fanned the controversy by calling for Rumsfeld's resignation.

Whether Rumsfeld was told to keep a low profile until after the midterm elections, in which Republicans are trying to retain their congressional majority, or was simply worn down by the bad press, some political experts considered his conduct notable.

"It must be sinking in to Donald Rumsfeld himself that his legacy is likely to be the very imperfect outcome in Iraq," said Michael O'Hanlon, a political analyst with the Brookings Institution. "That is a serious burden to wear on your shoulders."

The release of Bob Woodward's State of Denial followed the leak of a U.S. intelligence report that suggested the Iraq war is helping spread Islamic radicalism. Rumsfeld reacted then with vigor, saying U.S. intelligence is "sometimes just flat wrong." But en route to an annual hemispheric defense ministers' conference in Nicaragua, thousands of miles from the Washington maelstrom, he refrained from attack mode.

"No, no, no," he said when reporters asked whether he had considered resigning over the book. Bush called him after its release to reassure him of his support, Rumsfeld said.

The defense secretary, whose left arm is in a sling after rotator-cuff surgery a month ago, kept a relentless schedule here, trekking to the crater of the Masaya Volcano with Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos and hobnobbing with his regional counterparts.

Though he criticized a military buildup by leftist Venezuela, saying it was prompting concern among other Latin American leaders, Rumsfeld cordially shook hands with the Venezuelan defense minister, even as he declined his counterpart's offer of a Venezuelan cigar.

Chavez, in Caracas, reacted to Rumsfeld's comments about Venezuela's arms buildup by branding him a "dog of war." Still, the defense secretary was silent, though he previously has compared Chavez to Hitler.

Letta Tayler writes for Newsday.

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