WASHINGTON – Facing open revolt among several retired generals calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush dug in his heels Friday with an unrelenting show of support for his most powerful cabinet member.
The outcry for Rumsfeld’s removal has opened a new and vulnerable front in the public criticism of the war in Iraq and placed the White House on the defensive. Yet Bush will be hard-pressed to oust Rumsfeld, analysts said Friday, because that could be seen as a concession the president is unwilling to make: that the war itself has gone badly off-track.
Reflecting the political pressure, Bush interrupted his Easter weekend with his family at Camp David to issue an unusual written statement in support of the defense secretary he calls “Don,” signaling that he has no intention of firing Rumsfeld despite the onslaught.
“I have seen firsthand how Don relies upon our military commanders in the field and at the Pentagon to make decisions about how best to complete these missions,” Bush said. “He has my full support and deepest appreciation.”
As difficult as it may be for Bush to protect the most powerful member of his Cabinet in the face of pointed criticism from seasoned military leaders, experts say the dispute reaches far beyond Rumsfeld. It speaks to the conduct of a war that Bush maintains the United States is winning.
“They are going to try very, very hard in the administration to ride this out,” said Kurt Campbell, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served as an assistant secretary of defense in the 1990s.
“For many of these guys to speak out, it’s a big deal,” Campbell said. Yet, he added, “it’s hard for Bush to say it’s time to let (Rumsfeld) go without implicitly acknowledging that the administration has mishandled things both tactically and strategically.”
The war already has taken a toll on Bush’s own popularity, and the criticism of the war’s conduct from people in the best position to know makes it all the more difficult for the president to court support not just for war, but also for his domestic initiatives.
“It just keeps Bush further on the defensive,” said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “He continues playing defense rather than offense, and he can’t gain traction on anything.”
Even as Bush has stepped up a campaign for public support for the war, it’s not just Democratic politicians who are criticizing the war’s conduct and calling for Rumsfeld’s head. It is retired generals, with some publicly accusing Rumsfeld of mishandling the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, in deploying too few troops, and the post-invasion struggle, in underestimating the threat of an Iraqi insurgency.
In addition, some of these retired flag officers are accusing the defense secretary of refusing to heed dissent among his own war commanders, raising an additional problem for the president. Bush, in the face of an increasingly unpopular war, has insisted that he will follow the advice of generals “on the ground” in determining how rapidly the United States might draw down forces.
Retired Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack told CNN this week, “I don’t think our generals feel comfortable providing Secretary Rumsfeld their honest beliefs.”
In becoming the seventh retired general to speak out, Swannack, who retired last year after commanding the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq, said: “He has micro-managed the generals who are leading our forces there to achieve our strategic object. I really believe that we need a new secretary of defense.”
Rumsfeld, in an interview aired Friday on Al-Arabiya television, said he has no intention of quitting. “The fact that two or three or four retired people have different views, I respect their views,” Rumsfeld said. “But obviously if, out of thousands and thousands of admirals and generals, if every time two or three people disagreed we changed the secretary of defense of the United States, it would be like a merry-go-round.”