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Last Updated: Friday, 10 October, 2003, 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK
Has Rumsfeld been demoted?
BBC Pentagon correspondent Nick Childs
By Nick Childs
BBC correspondent in Colorado Springs

From the president downwards, the Bush administration has been on the counterattack this week over criticism of its Iraq policy. But Donald Rumsfeld, in many ways the chief spokesman on Iraq up to now has been noticeably absent.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gestures at the Nato meeting
Mr Rumsfeld was a key architect of the war in Iraq
Indeed, he appeared to get a slap in the political face with the news that the National Security Council (NSC) under Condoleezza Rice has established a new committee to oversee Iraq policy.

William Hartung, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, said that, not before time, President Bush was putting Mr Rumsfeld in his place.

"Possibly by putting Condoleezza Rice in charge of the Iraq policy, by giving [Secretary of State Colin] Powell more input, this is at least the first attempt by Bush to try to inject at least a note of balance into this policy," he said.

Mr Rumsfeld has been playing the convivial host this week to Nato officials and ministers in the hallways of a luxury retreat in the mountains of Colorado.

But even here he has had to field questions about whether he has been snubbed over Iraq.

I was one of a small group of reporters who spoke to him about it. He tried to play down the significance of the new Iraq Stabilisation Group, but also seemed annoyed - despite his denials - that he did not know about it in advance.

If you listen to what [Mr Rumsfeld is] saying, a lot of it is really over the line
William Hartung,
World Policy Institute

"I don't remember it being discussed but it is basically a memorandum that says the NSC is going to be doing that which it's chartered to do," he told us.

Still, the impression remains that there is more to it than that.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, said it was significant that the NSC had been given the new oversight role and not Mr Rumsfeld's chief political rival, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

"In a way that's a very gentle demotion. It would have been a much more severe demotion to have Powell given primary responsibility," he said.

"What you're having instead is the White House taking primary responsibility for what has become one of the two or three big issues of Mr Bush's re-election effort. In a way that's a very natural thing."

Even as Mr Rumsfeld continued to mingle with his Nato counterparts in Colorado, he was also at pains to tell reporters that he and those working for him had nothing to apologise for over Iraq - that the US-led coalition had made remarkable progress.

"I happen to think that what's happened in Iraq... has been probably unmatched in history," he said, praising both military commanders and those involved in the civilian reconstruction effort.

'Loose cannon'

But Mr Hartung said the defence secretary's very outspokenness, once an asset, is a liability now that the administration is looking vulnerable and defensive on Iraq.

"He's a bit of a loose cannon and I think he believes he can get away with it because he's an elder statesman, he's been secretary of defence before, he's served in business, he's the oldest member of this administration, in the national security post, he says these things in this kind of jovial fashion.

You're seeing Mr Rumsfeld's star dim but it's still one of the brightest stars in the sky
Michael O'Hanlon,
Brookings Institution
"But in fact, if you listen to what he's saying, a lot of it is really over the line."

With 130,000 US troops still in Iraq, casualties mounting, and the administration having to go to Congress for $87bn in extra funding, it is perhaps not surprising that Mr Rumsfeld's star is on the wane and President Bush is looking for a new approach.

But Mr O'Hanlon says it would be wrong to count the defence secretary out.

"What you're seeing is a correction, you're seeing Mr Rumsfeld's star dim but it's still one of the brightest stars in the sky, at least in the eyes of President Bush," he said.

"He will continue to be probably the most important top American policymaker on Iraq even if now he's going to have to share his portfolio a bit more with other parts of the government."

But the other problem for the Bush administration is that, if this new initiative was meant to help present and control Iraq policy better, it seems for the moment to have backfired badly.




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