Four-Star Story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006; 8:15 AM

From the amount of media coverage the ex-generals' revolt is generating, you would think they had donned khaki uniforms and stormed the Pentagon in an attempted coup.

And yet all the retired brass have done is to speak out, generally from the safety of climate-controlled television studios.

Ever since one general spoke to Time last week and The Washington Post fronted the story of others who were coming out from under the cone of silence, the controversy has been huge. Liberals rejoiced, conservatives counterattacked, and thumbsuckers pondered What It All Means.

The story has gained considerable altitude because it's a new front in the war over the war, and because of the novelty of career military men calling for the head of Don Rumsfeld. President Bush's full-throated defense of Rummy late Friday gave the debate an extra boost going into Easter weekend.

Then you have all these sub-arguments: Should retired generals be speaking out at all? Why didn't they say anything sooner? Are they just a bunch of Clinton-appointed hacks who didn't like Rummy's attempts to reform the Pentagon, or are they speaking for many active-duty types who can't challenge the commander-in-chief without facing court-martial? Do they validate what outside critics have been saying about the bungling of the war and the occupation? Or are they shooting at the wrong guy, in that Rumsfeld has basically been carrying out Bush's policies?

More conservative voices are taking on the ex-generals since I blogged about this yesterday, including the Wall Street Journal editorial page:

"As for those who've raised the issue of competence, we'd be more persuaded if they weren't so impossibly vague. If their critique is that Mr. Rumsfeld underestimated the Sunni insurgency, well, so did the CIA and military intelligence. Retired General Tommy Franks, who led and planned the campaign that toppled Saddam Hussein, took a victory lap after the invasion even as the insurgency gathered strength.

"If their complaint is that Mr. Rumsfeld has since fought the insurgents with too few troops, well, what about current Centcom Commander John Abizaid? He is by far the most forceful advocate of the 'small footprint' strategy--the idea that fewer U.S. troops mean less Iraqi resentment of occupation.

"Our point here isn't to join the generals, real or armchair, in pointing fingers of blame for what has gone wrong in Iraq. Mistakes are made in every war; there's a reason the word 'snafu' began as a military acronym whose meaning we can't reprint in a family newspaper. But if we're going to start assigning blame, then the generals themselves are going to have to assume much of it."

National Review also questions the generals' motivation:

"The last week or so could be called 'The Army's Revenge.' There had been resentment toward Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from the beginning over his attempts to transform the military into a lighter, more modern force. Against the backdrop of the difficulties in Iraq that have weakened the secretary, a handful of retired generals have been able to draw blood with their recent calls for Rumsfeld to step aside (four of them served in the Army, the other two in the Marines).

"As a political matter, Rumsfeld's leaving at this moment, under this kind of fire, would play as an admission that the critics who say the Iraq war was fundamentally botched have been right all along. The White House realizes this, which is one reason President Bush made such a strong statement in support of Rumsfeld on Friday. That retired generals are criticizing a Defense secretary is not, per se, the threat to civil-military relations that some of Rumsfeld's defenders seem to think. Retired flag officers are citizens after all, and they're free to say whatever they want. But there is something unseemly about it, especially considering that most of them apparently kept conveniently quiet about their misgivings while in uniform.

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