President Comes to Defense of Rumsfeld

Times Staff Writer

President Bush gave his forceful and unequivocal backing Friday to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, issuing a rare personal statement to express “my full support and deepest appreciation” for his work in the war on terrorism.

Moving to head off a potential political crisis, Bush directly addressed recent criticism of Rumsfeld by retired senior generals, saying he had personally witnessed -- and endorsed -- the way the Defense secretary interacted with uniformed personnel.

“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. “Secretary Rumsfeld’s energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this critical period.”


Bush issued the statement after speaking with Rumsfeld on Friday about military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and personally voicing his support. Bush said Rumsfeld had been given the difficult job of modernizing the military, suggesting that the process of “transformation” may have drawn the ire of officers.

The presidential statement came at the end of a week in which two retired Army generals who commanded divisions in Iraq, Maj. Gen. John Batiste and Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, accusing him of arrogance and of mismanaging the war.

Two other retired generals involved in Iraq policy -- Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, former director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who headed training of Iraqi forces in 2003 -- also have called for Rumsfeld to step down, as has retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command.

The mounting criticism of Rumsfeld and recriminations over the war also come as Bush’s approval ratings are falling and public support for the conflict is declining. Even among U.S. troops in Iraq, 72% favor withdrawal from Iraq within a year, and more than one in four favor an immediate pullout, according to a survey released in February by Zogby International and Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.

An administration official said Friday that the White House was particularly concerned that the generals’ remarks could gain momentum over a long holiday weekend in which Bush, vacationing with his family at Camp David, Md., would be out of the limelight.

When speculation surfaced recently about another long-rumored Cabinet departure, that of Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Bush was able to go before television cameras immediately to deny it.


“The president wanted to do this today,” the administration official said Friday, requesting anonymity while discussing internal White House deliberations.

Rumsfeld has been the subject of resignation speculation before. After revelations in 2004 of prisoner abuses by U.S. soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Rumsfeld twice offered Bush his resignation.

Democrats pointed out Friday that Bush also offered a staunch defense of Michael D. Brown last year, days before Brown resigned as Federal Emergency Management Agency director because of the flawed response to Hurricane Katrina.

Many active-duty generals privately agree with public criticism that Rumsfeld is disrespectful to military leaders, current and former senior officers said.

Nonetheless, the public statements by retired generals have unsettled some officers, who worry the comments could undermine the morale of troops in Iraq and appear to challenge civilian control of the military.

A number of retired senior officers who worked directly with Rumsfeld also said in interviews that they considered the criticism misguided. Although the Defense secretary’s aggressive style has caused upheaval in the ranks -- particularly in the Army -- he has changed his views on several high-profile issues because of well-argued cases made by the uniformed leadership, the officers said.

“Rumsfeld’s a tough guy, no doubt about it; he can be prickly,” said Adm. Vern Clark, who spent five years working with Rumsfeld as chief of naval operations before retiring last year. “You have to gain his respect, but once you gain that, you can work with him. I was thankful I had a tough guy, because we were in tough times.”

Several senior officers involved in Iraq war planning also said they considered “insulting” the criticism that they bowed to Rumsfeld’s will in the run-up to the war. They said Army Gen. Tommy Franks, then head of U.S. Central Command, was the main architect of the invasion plans and that it was thoroughly debated by military leaders.

Retired Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff through the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, acknowledged that mistakes were made by failing to anticipate the insurgency. But he said all the military service chiefs -- including Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, who had a public falling-out with Rumsfeld -- were involved in the discussions and received detailed input from their subordinates.

“It was Gen. Franks’ job to put together the war plan,” Jumper said in a telephone interview. “Of course there wasn’t universal agreement. We hashed things out for hours and hours in the Tank [the Pentagon’s ornate meeting room]. There was a lot of opportunity to discuss and debate and digest.”

By some accounts, disagreements over the war plans occasionally were more vehement within the officer ranks than between military leaders and Rumsfeld. In his memoir, Franks details several run-ins with service chiefs over war planning for both Afghanistan and Iraq, one of which included an expletive-laden tirade by Franks aimed at two members of the Joint Chiefs.

Some top officers involved in Iraq war planning were less conciliatory toward Rumsfeld for his handling of the postwar reconstruction period -- particularly the administration’s failure to get a civilian authority up and running quickly after Saddam Hussein fell.

But retired Gen. John Keane, who was Army vice chief of staff during the war and is still highly regarded by active-duty officers, said the uniformed leaders were equally to blame for not planning better for the stabilization period.

“That judgment was wrong,” Keane said in an interview. “We did not consider [an insurgency] a viable option. I believe that’s our fault. That’s senior military leadership business.”

Although Rumsfeld has been criticized for not sending more troops to Iraq once the regime collapsed, Keane said the calculation was made in close consultation with Gen. John P. Abizaid, Franks’ successor as Central Command chief.

Keane said he had several conversations with Abizaid in the autumn of 2003 in which he asked whether more troops were needed. Abizaid repeatedly argued against an increase, saying it would only mean “more guys walking around the streets with rifles, not understanding the culture.”

“I find it somewhat insulting for people to speculate that Rumsfeld is somehow browbeating the generals and they’re intimidated into not telling him what they believe,” Keane said. “The conventional wisdom is they didn’t ask for more troops because he [Rumsfeld] wouldn’t give it to them. That’s insulting to the character of those officers.”

The reasons behind the polarized view of Rumsfeld has become the topic of intense debate within the uniformed ranks in recent weeks. Most retired officers interviewed Friday declined to publicly speculate on why views were so divergent.

But one currently serving Army general who has discussed the relationship between Rumsfeld and the military leadership with several other senior officers said he believed certain generals were simply better suited to dealing with the secretary on an intellectual level.

“I’ve heard of at least four very, very senior four-stars who say it’s not the case” that Rumsfeld does not listen to them, the general said. “They say he’s a wrestler from Princeton and goes for the throat, but if you have your stuff together and go toe-to-toe, you can win.”

Despite that view, the outpouring of condemnation from the retired generals has underscored a long-brewing resentment on the part of many senior officers, one that several military watchers said began when Rumsfeld’s team first arrived harboring widespread suspicion of generals appointed by President Clinton.

Many of those early tensions, which even Rumsfeld supporters acknowledge produced intense resentment, largely were set aside after the Sept. 11 attacks. But the current animosity has been rising since Pentagon civilians sidelined Shinseki after he publicly said several hundred thousand troops would be required to stabilize Iraq.

“There’s been deep frustration with Rumsfeld from the day he took over,” said Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank and a former professor at the Army War College. “This degree of civil-military tension is historically very uncommon; it’s very uncommon for it to last this long.”

Rumsfeld continued to dismiss the calls for his resignation, saying the retired generals who have made the public criticisms represent only a small portion of the senior officers who have served under him.

“I respect their views, 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 around here,” he said in an interview Thursday with the Arabic-language television station Al Arabiya.


Times staff writers Peter Wallsten and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.