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A Reaffirming Conversation With Donald Rumsfeld

By Mark Davis

Here's a heavy-caliber name drop: I spoke with Donald Rumsfeld a few days ago.

Wasn't the first time, either. I'd love to think it's my considerable charm, but it's probably my national talk show audience on the ABC Radio Network or my local audience in Dallas, which includes Fort Hood. But enough about me.

There is no doubt Mr. Rumsfeld is at a low ebb in his popularity, the war is suffering in the polls, and if there's any way that Iraq is starting to resemble America, it is that both countries often seem sick of our troops being over there.

Mr. Rumsfeld, in particular, has been a popular punching bag. Even conservative Bush fans are finding increasing opportunities to dump on the defense secretary, and they are gleefully joined by those who despise President Bush and the war in the first place.

So what's my deal? I love the guy.

What makes him resonate with me, to the extent that after 10 minutes on a satellite hookup, I'm ready to enlist? Easy to say for a paunchy 48-year-old, but, at the very least, my vigor for the war was refreshed by hearing what still strikes me as the unvarnished bottom line about our forces and enemies.

Of course, I had to ask about the growing list of ex-generals cashing book-advance checks for spitting on the war.

He said they constitute a tiny fraction of generals under his supervision, and, in the case of the most recent and noteworthy, Tony Zinni, he shot back: "I've never met the man." Translation: "Don't waste my time with the pre-9/11-era criticisms of Bill Clinton's Centcom commander."

About our enemies, he spoke of the patience he finds without fail in our troops but far less in the American public. Al-Qaeda knows it is in a waiting game, the only game it can win. "They cannot defeat us militarily," he told me. "All they can do is wait for a gap in American resolve."

Sadly, those gaps are widening. I told him I was starting to get snarky e-mails from people who sneer that at the end of 2006 we will have been in this war for the length of our involvement in World War II, as if the absence of Jeffersonian democracy across the Middle East by then will be proof positive that the war was a bust.

Mr. Rumsfeld's reply: "If you want to go back to World War II, you have to take into account the years it took after the surrenders of Germany and Japan for real stability to be established in those countries."

History should consider it a miracle that evil, bitter American enemies like Germany and Japan were turned into reliable allies within a generation. We also maintain troops in those countries 60 years after the war ended. Against that backdrop, whining about this war three years in looks pathologically shortsighted.

Has the war plan changed? Yes. Does Mr. Rumsfeld's leaner, swifter invading force look like the best idea in retrospect? Not really.

But enlistments are on an upswing, we seem to have learned the lesson that PR is as valuable as weaponry in post-Saddam Iraq, and if everybody will just hunker down in this short-attention-span era, we might actually see some real progress during the rest of this calendar year.

We might also see America militarily striking Iran, something Mr. Rumsfeld does not want to dwell on, even as that nation revealed progress this past week in uranium enrichment.

"It is just simply not useful to get into fantasy land," he said Tuesday, seeking to stem questions about what we may or may not do. Like the everyday curiosity about what our troop levels will be in the coming year, some questions can only be answered when we see what events unfold.

Mr. Rumsfeld will continue to take shots from critics. Some will be deserved. But, like his boss, his reputation will not be shaped by ex-generals or reporters or even public opinion polls.

It will be shaped by the realities, positive or negative, of where Iraq goes for the rest of the Bush years.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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