Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) joined a growing chorus of Republicans sharply criticizing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld because of the Pentagon chief's failure to call for more troops in Iraq and to properly equip troops serving there.
Speaking to a local chamber of commerce Wednesday in Mississippi, Lott said: "I am not a fan of Secretary Rumsfeld. I don't think he listens to his uniformed officers." Lott said Rumsfeld should not be forced to resign immediately but "I would like to see a change in that slot in the next year or so."
In recent days, two conservative GOP senators, John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), raised public concerns about Rumsfeld's management of the war. William Kristol, a former Republican White House aide and a leading conservative commentator, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, senior commander during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, also have offered harsh indictments. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a prominent moderate, criticized the Pentagon yesterday for providing inadequate armor protection for troops in Iraq.
Republicans have been largely supportive of President Bush's Iraqi policies, despite widespread violence by insurgents and U.S. troop fatalities that are nearing 1,300. But there appears to be growing Republican concern about the conduct of the war. And Rumsfeld, who has not had warm relations with Congress in recent years, appears to have become the target of the pent-up GOP anxieties and dissatisfaction. Lawmakers who returned home after Congress adjourned last week also are hearing from constituents about the growing number of National Guard and reserve casualties.
White House officials said yesterday that Bush is unfazed by the intraparty attacks on Rumsfeld and believes the secretary is doing a "great job" running the Iraq war and overseeing the transformation of the military. Bush's top advisers said criticism of Rumsfeld has come largely from a few Republicans with reputations for challenging White House policy, even as the list of those attacking the defense secretary grew to include Lott, Collins and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank with close ties to the administration.
But Lott's comments -- which were reported by the Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss. -- stirred attention in political circles because, unlike many other recent GOP critics of Rumsfeld, he is seen neither as a moderate or a maverick, but rather someone near the center of his party's thinking. Also, he was a Senate majority leader.
Echoing the views of McCain, Hagel and other Republicans, Lott said the United States needs more troops to stabilize Iraq and someone else to lead the country to victory after the January elections in Iraq. Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the AEI, attacked Rumsfeld on a different topic yesterday: the secretary's preoccupation with transforming the military.
"In agreeing to stay on as defense secretary in the second Bush term, Rumsfeld has made it known that he wants to 'complete the job of transformation' he has started," Donnelly wrote in an article for the Weekly Standard, a conservative publication. "It would be far better if he would dedicate himself to winning the war he helped to start."
Last week, Rumsfeld reignited the debate over this temperament and decision making when he said "you go to war with the Army you have" in response to complaints by a soldier in Iraq about shortages of armor. Since then, a growing number of Republicans have suggested -- or pointedly said -- Bush should rethink his decision to retain Rumsfeld.
Asked in a Florida radio interview this week about the criticisms lodged by McCain and others, Rumsfeld shrugged them off as routine. "It is a tough job," he said, agreeing with his interviewer. "But I guess it's always been so. It kind of goes with the territory. If anyone reads back in history . . . anytime there's a war, there's going to be criticism."
Collins sent Rumsfeld a letter yesterday calling for more armored protection for U.S. vehicles operating in Iraq. "Given that so many American soldiers have died or been seriously injured in Iraq as a result of improvised explosive devices or in ambushes from rocket-propelled grenades, the urgent requirement for armor protection remains," she wrote.
Bush has no plans to replace the defense secretary with the scheduled Iraqi elections only one month away -- a critical crossroads in the Iraq war, officials say. "The president believes Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a great job, and that's why he asked him to continue serving during this time of war," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "I think that Secretary Rumsfeld continues to do a great job while we're at war."
Former and current White House officials, all of whom demanded anonymity to speak, said Bush is intent on showing no signs of second-guessing his Iraq policy and war cabinet, especially with the Iraq election so close and the number of U.S. troops being deployed rising. This, they say, was evidenced by Bush's decision to award Medals of Freedom this week to three of the key architects of the Iraq policy: former CIA director George Tenet; L. Paul Bremer, Bush's former point man in Iraq; and retired Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who commanded U.S troops in Iraq before stepping down.
The president is aware of frustration with Rumsfeld, especially among Republicans on Capitol Hill, but believes the defense secretary is getting unfairly blamed for decisions made by the entire war cabinet and endorsed by most Republicans, some officials say.
"There are going to be good days, and there are going to be bad days," White House adviser Dan Bartlett said Wednesday. "That's the nature of war. . . . President Bush has all the confidence that he [Rumsfeld] is the right person at the right time."
Bush has been under steady pressure, mostly from Democrats, to oust Rumsfeld since reports of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in May. Those calls have escalated as more Republicans have come to the opinion that Rumsfeld has not called for enough troops to win the war. A senior GOP adviser on Capitol Hill, who demanded anonymity, said party leaders remain supportive of Rumsfeld but some are concerned that the recent round of complaints will embolden those who share similar frustrations privately to express them publicly in the weeks ahead.