WASHINGTON — Brushing aside an intensifying clamor among retired military commanders for Donald H. Rumsfeld’s resignation, President Bush said Friday that his defense secretary enjoys his full support and that Rumsfeld’s leadership of the Pentagon was “exactly what is needed at this critical period.”
Bush apparently issued his statement to put to rest increasing calls for the secretary to go because of criticism from six former military commanders that he has mishandled the Iraq war and made other mistakes.
“I have seen first-hand 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 in a written statement, issued while the president was spending the Easter weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.
“Secretary Rumsfeld’s energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this critical period,” Bush said. “He has my full support and deepest appreciation.”
In an interview aired Friday on Al-Arabiya television, Rumsfeld said he intends to serve the president at his pleasure.
“The fact that two or three or four retired people have different views, I respect their views,” Rumsfeld said. “But obviously if, 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.”
Rumsfeld's remarks came after retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq until last November, reiterated criticisms he leveled earlier this week.
Batiste, appearing on NBC's "Today" show, said “a fresh start in the Department of Defense ... would be incredibly uplifting” for the armed forces.
Batiste said Rumsfeld had “failed to build the peace” in Iraq, and criticized “a leadership style which is intimidating, abusive. There was not a two-way street of respect.”
Bush reiterates 'strong support'
Bush said he had talked with Rumsfeld earlier in the day about military operations in the war on terror. “I reiterated my strong support for his leadership during this historic and challenging time for our nation,” the president said.
Video: Batiste on Rumsfeld It was an extraordinary statement by the president on the status of a top official. Bush decided it was warranted because of the “type of voices” that have recently engaged in public criticism of Rumsfeld, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to more freely elaborate on the White House’s thinking.
The official said that Rumsfeld’s case was unique. There has been no similar statement of support for Treasury Secretary John Snow, whose resignation is rumored to be imminent.
The administration official said Bush’s statement should make it clear that Rumsfeld’s job is safe for now.
Several retired military commanders, including one who turned down a promotion to lieutenant general to leave the Army, have recently made statements urging Rumsfeld’s ouster. They argue that the planning for the war in Iraq was not sufficient and that Rumsfeld’s management style has too often given shortshrift attention to the views of uniformed officers.
Batiste, during his NBC appearance on Friday, emphasized that the generals were speaking independently and had not organized their criticism. “There is no political agenda at all,” he said, adding that he had not spoken to the other officers.
Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni told CNN that Rumsfeld should be held responsible for a series of blunders, starting with “throwing away 10 years worth of planning, plans that had taken into account what we would face in an occupation of Iraq.”
‘Micromanaged the generals’
The spreading challenge to the Pentagon’s civilian leadership included criticism from some recently retired senior officers directly involved in the Iraq war and its planning.
“I really believe that we need a new secretary of defense because Secretary Rumsfeld carries way too much baggage with him,” retired Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, who led the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq, told CNN on Thursday.
“Specifically, I feel he has micromanaged the generals who are leading our forces,” he said.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Riggs told National Public Radio on Thursday that Rumsfeld had helped create an atmosphere of “arrogance” among the Pentagon’s top civilian leadership.
“They only need the military advice when it satisfies their agenda. I think that’s a mistake, and that’s why I think he should resign,” Riggs said.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold and Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton have also spoken out against Rumsfeld.
A lightning rod
The most nettlesome member of Bush’s Cabinet, Rumsfeld has been a lightning rod since the war began in March 2003.
He was blamed for committing too few U.S. troops and for underestimating the strength of the insurgency. He took heat in 2004 over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the U.S. Army-run Abu Ghraib prison, and for a brusque response he gave to an Army National Guard soldier in Kuwait who questioned him on inadequate armor.
Republicans in Congress have offered Rumsfeld little in the way of public support.
The outcry came as opinion polls show eroding public support for the Iraq war in which about 2,360 U.S. troops have died and Bush is struggling to bolster Americans’ confidence in the war effort.
Rumsfeld has offered at least twice to resign, but each time Bush has turned him down.
Surprising given timing?
Pentagon spokesman Eric Ruff said Rumsfeld is ignoring the calls for him to quit and they have not been a distraction.
“Has he talked to the White House? The answer is no, he’s not. And two, the question of resignation: was he considering it? No.”
“I don’t know how many generals there are — a couple thousand, at least. And they’re going to have opinions,” Ruff added. “It’s not surprising, we’re in a war.”
But it is surprising, especially because it’s a time of war, said P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel who served as a Pentagon spokesman in both Republican and Democratic administrations and was a national security aide to former President Clinton.
“This is a very significant vote of no confidence and I think the president has to take this into account. The military is saying it does not trust its civilian leadership,” said Crowley, now a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.
Critics have accused Rumsfeld of bullying senior military officers and disregarding their views. They often cite how Rumsfeld dismissed then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki’s opinion a month before the 2003 invasion that occupying Iraq could require “several hundred thousand troops,” not the smaller force Rumsfeld would send.
‘Like dealing with a CEO’
But retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Mike DeLong rejected the idea that new leadership was needed at the Pentagon.
“Dealing with Secretary Rumsfeld is like dealing with a CEO,” he told CNN. “When you walk in to see him, you’ve got to be prepared. You’ve got to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t, you’re summarily dismissed. But that’s the way it is, and he’s effective.”
The White House has pointed to comments supportive of Rumsfeld from Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said criticism was to be expected at a time of war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are a nation at war and we are a nation that is going through a military transformation. Those are issues that tend to generate debate and disagreement and we recognize that,” McClellan said.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.