By Peter Baker and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 15, 2006
President Bush interrupted his Easter vacation yesterday to offer an unequivocal vote of confidence in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a move aimed at countering a growing wave of criticism from retired generals calling for the Pentagon chief to resign over his leadership of the Iraq war.
In an unusual statement issued from Camp David, where he had already retired for the weekend, Bush stepped directly into the debate over Rumsfeld's performance to offer his "strong support" and make it clear he will keep the embattled defense secretary. Rumsfeld separately declared that he will not go.
"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" of fighting terrorists while simultaneously transforming the military, Bush said. "Secretary Rumsfeld's energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this critical period. He has my full support and deepest appreciation."
The president's decision to interject himself so forcefully stands in contrast to his mild reaction to recent reports of dissatisfaction with Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and reflected a calculation by Bush and his advisers that attacks on Rumsfeld by prominent former military commanders strike at the heart of his presidency. As Bush's choice to run the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rumsfeld serves as his proxy, and most of the judgments that have come under fire were shared by the president and Vice President Cheney as well.
Public support for the Iraq war and Bush's handling of it has been evaporating in recent polls as the administration tries to prevent that country from deteriorating into a broader sectarian conflict. White House officials trying to arrest Bush's political fall have concluded that Iraq, and the public perception of it, are central both to the president's contemporary public standing and his ultimate legacy.
The defense of Rumsfeld in effect was the first act of new White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, who took over as Andrew H. Card Jr. left the West Wing yesterday afternoon for the final time as Bush's top aide. White House aides decided that press secretary Scott McClellan's statement of support Thursday was inadequate to stem the growing chorus of resignation calls from the military.
Rumsfeld, who twice offered Bush his resignation during the scandal over detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, made no such offer this time. "I respect their views," he said in an interview taped Thursday and broadcast yesterday on Al-Arabiya television, "but obviously 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."
The grievances aired by half a dozen retired flag officers in recent days resonated with many military veterans. "I admire those who have stepped forward, and I agree with the arguments they are making," retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper said in an interview yesterday. "I count myself in the same camp."
Van Riper, a lifelong Republican who voted for Bush in 2000 but did not vote in the 2004 election, said Rumsfeld has failed in a number of ways, including "disastrous" war planning and execution and fostering a poor command climate.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Charles Brower, a military historian and deputy superintendent at Virginia Military Institute, said it is unusual to see such a group of retired generals issuing public criticism.
"Officers now feel that there is almost an obligation to speak more openly about policies that they disagreed with once they have retired," Brower said. "There is now a group of officers who feel an obligation to speak more aggressively, and I think that has to have been influenced by the Vietnam experience," during which miscalculations by the civilian leadership caused a military defeat and a years-long erosion in military morale.
"It's an important thing happening right now, an important phenomenon that's going on," Brower said.
What makes the recent criticism more threatening to the Bush administration is the sense that it represents an unspoken strain of thought among active-duty personnel. A poll of 944 troops serving in Iraq released by Zogby International and LeMoyne College did not ask about Rumsfeld but found that 72 percent think the United States should withdraw within a year and more than a quarter think it should leave immediately.
"That and other questions lead to the obvious conclusion that they're not sure they're doing anything positive over there anymore," said pollster John Zogby. "When it comes to the leadership, there seems to be a disconnect."
Rumsfeld's admirers, though, characterized the complaining generals as malcontents unhappy with the secretary's attempts to restructure the armed forces for the 21st century. "Look, he's trying to change an institution that is very set in its ways, and that's not easy," said Richard N. Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board. "You've got some disgruntled former officers. It's no big deal."
Longtime Rumsfeld critics said the generals were speaking from genuine concern. "They really are acting out of patriotism," said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "This is not fun for them. They're reluctant to step forward in this way, and for good reason. . . . But I believe they're doing it because they believe that Rumsfeld is endangering the course of U.S. foreign policy."
Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, said there was no coordination among the generals who have spoken out. "We have nothing to gain by this, absolutely nothing to gain by this," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "There's no political agenda at all. We've been loyal subordinates."
But analysts said that Bush cannot afford to let the generals' views go unanswered. "It's a referendum on the centerpiece of the Bush presidency," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense scholar at the Brookings Institution, who surmised that the notion of Rumsfeld being pushed from office is "unthinkable to Bush."