Rumsfeld Under Fire On the Hill
Friday, June 24, 2005
Worry in Congress about the course of U.S. strategy in Iraq boiled over yesterday into a scalding attack on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and some of the toughest questioning of the Pentagon leader since the war in Iraq began.
During a day of contentious hearings in the Senate and House, Rumsfeld disputed assertions that the U.S. campaign is faltering and argued that the conflict there remains worth its costs in lives and dollars. He also rejected the idea, backed by a small bipartisan group of lawmakers, of setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, although he said he favors pressing Iraqi authorities to keep to their timetable this year for a new constitution and national elections.
"Any who say we have lost or are losing are flat wrong," he declared in an opening statement, appealing for perseverance. "We are not."
The defense chief's defiant stance was echoed by visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, who is to meet with President Bush today. Setting a specific date for U.S. withdrawal "would be walking into the enemy," he said in a Blair House interview with Washington Post reporters and editors.
But lawmakers in both parties, citing continued violence in Iraq and uncertainty about when the conflict will end, expressed growing misgiving about open-ended U.S. involvement. The harshest criticism came in the Senate.
In the day's most dramatic confrontation, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a leading critic of the Iraq campaign, told Rumsfeld that the war has become a "seeming intractable quagmire." He recited a long list of what he called "gross errors and mistakes" in the U.S. military campaign and concluded with a renewed appeal for Rumsfeld to step down.
"In baseball, it's three strikes, you're out," Kennedy said before a standing-room-only session of the Armed Services Committee. "What is it for the secretary of defense? Isn't it time for you to resign?"
Rumsfeld paused, appearing to collect his thoughts and composure.
"Well, that is quite a statement," he responded, adding that none of the three four-star generals seated with him "agrees with you that we're in a quagmire and that there's no end in sight." Indeed, each of the officers -- Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf; Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq; and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- then affirmed as much.
Rumsfeld also noted that he had offered to resign twice and that President Bush decided not to accept the offers -- a reference to a period in the spring of 2004 when evidence of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad became public.
But Republicans as well as Democrats joined in calling Rumsfeld's attention to signs of declining public support for U.S. involvement in Iraq.
"I'm here to tell you, sir, in the most patriotic state that I can imagine, people are beginning to question," said Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "And I don't think it's a blip on the radar screen. I think we have a chronic problem on our hands."