Rumsfeld's Moment

By Robert Wright
Published: January 20, 2002

One consequence of Osama bin Laden's attack on America that was surely unintentional was turning Donald Rumsfeld into a folk hero. But strange things happen during wars, and televised press briefings have won the famously brusque secretary of defense a special place in the nation's heart. Last month a cover profile in U.S. News & World Report called him ''the Pentagon's answer to Harry Truman'' -- a ''straight-talking Midwesterner'' who ''routinely has the press corps doubled over in fits of laughter.''

Of course, there is more than wit and charismatic candor at work. Manifest competence -- quickly winning the war in Afghanistan -- hasn't exactly hurt Mr. Rumsfeld's stature, especially in Washington. The secretary of defense and his Pentagon advisers are now riding high, poised to influence policy in the war on terrorism.

But are Mr. Rumsfeld's successes -- over the airwaves and on the ground -- really good credentials for future influence? Does he see the larger contours of the war on terrorism, a war that goes well beyond the military campaigns that are the Pentagon's specialty?

Consider a recent press-conference exchange. The Pentagon had just air-dropped leaflets into Afghanistan saying that Osama bin Laden had ''abandoned'' his followers. The leaflets featured a digitally altered photo depicting Mr. bin Laden in Western dress, without a beard. A reporter asked Mr. Rumsfeld: Is it a good idea for America to become known as a nation that doctors images? Didn't we recently try to convince the world's Muslims that key visual evidence -- the videotape in which Mr. bin Laden admitted advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attack -- wasn't doctored?

Mr. Rumsfeld first answered that he'd never thought about that, then quickly added that, actually, he ''wasn't aware'' of the leaflet. Then he said it didn't matter anyway: ''Bin Laden's activities in the world are premised on lies, and the fact that people will say things like you just said they might say is true. That is a possibility, that people will say something that's not true. There's nothing much we can do about it.''

Nothing? How about not doing them the favor of air-dropping admittedly doctored photos?

This wasn't the first hint that Secretary Rumsfeld spends little time worrying about how America is perceived abroad. In another press briefing, he stressed that releasing that damning videotape of Mr. bin Laden wasn't his idea, and suggested that he didn't see the point of doing so. Yet that videotape was by far the most vivid and accessible evidence of Mr. bin Laden's guilt -- and thus the best available tool for convincing the world that America acted justly in attacking Al Qaeda.

Of course, there's only so much you can conclude about Mr. Rumsfeld's worldview based on impromptu utterances in front of TV cameras. But this dogged refusal to fret much about public relations is a recurring theme with the secretary of defense. It figured both in the bull-in-a-china-shop approach that earned him numerous enemies in Washington before Sept. 11, and in the bluntness that has endeared him to the viewing public since then. (Mr. Rumsfeld is capable of diplomacy when he sees the need for it -- as when he helped Colin Powell assemble the coalition that supported the war in Afghanistan. He just doesn't seem to see the need for it very often.)

Even critics of Mr. Rumsfeld must find it refreshing to see a politician spend mental energy on something other than the burning question of how not to offend anyone. Unfortunately, he has taken center stage at a moment that demands special attention to perceptions around the world.