Vowing not to bow to calls for his ouster from several retired generals, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday their grievances are a natural fallout from his push for dramatic changes in the military.
He also discounted any suggestion that the generals’ complaints reflect widespread dissent in the officer corps.
At a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld said it’s not surprising that his decisions have roused some discord.
“When you make a decision, you make a choice, somebody is not going to like it,” he said. “It’s perfectly possible to come into this department and preside and not make choices, in which case people are not unhappy, until about five years later when they find you haven’t done anything and the country isn’t prepared.”
Later Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met to discuss the war on terrorism with about a dozen retired military officers who are regular commentators on TV network news shows.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who is a Fox News commentator, said in an interview afterward that the calls from other retired generals for Rumsfeld to resign came up only briefly. “We didn’t waste the secretary’s time with that,” he said, adding that he puts little stock in the criticisms because they come mostly from two-star generals who were not senior enough in rank to work directly for Rumsfeld.
Of the six retired generals who have called for Rumsfeld to quit, four were two-stars, one was a three-star and one — Anthony Zinni — was a four-star who had retired before the Bush administration took office.
In the news conference, Rumsfeld cited several examples of tough choices he has made that have angered some inside the Pentagon. He mentioned a reorganization of the Army’s combat units that has been under way since the Iraq war began.
“By golly, one ought not to be surprised that there are people who are uncomfortable about it and complaining about it,” he said. “It’s also true that I have a sense of urgency. I get up every morning and worry about protecting the American people and seeing if we are doing everything humanly possible to see that we do the things that will make them safe.”
Bush: 'I'm the decider'
Rumsfeld spoke several hours after Bush reiterated his support. “I’m the decider and I decide what’s best,” Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden as he announced several White House staff changes. “And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.”
Rumsfeld said he recalled on his way to work Tuesday that in his first term as defense secretary — in the Ford administration in the mid-1970s — he went against the Army’s preferred choice in the design of the M-1 Abrams tank, which remains the Army’s main battle tank today.
“Well, you would have thought the world had ended,” he said. “The sky fell. Can you imagine? Can you imagine making that decision and breaking tradition for decades in this country? Can you imagine overturning what the service had proposed for a main battle tank? Well, it went on and on in the press, and it was a firestorm, and there were congressional hearings and people saying how amazingly irresponsible it was. And it calmed down eventually.”
Management style at center of debate
Among the recent complaints against Rumsfeld is his management style. Admirers call him tough. Detractors say he is disrespectful.
“The current secretary of defense is dismissive, contemptuous and arrogant,” retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste said Tuesday in an e-mail exchange about Rumsfeld. “Many of us have worked for far tougher and more aggressive men, but those leaders understood leadership, the value of teamwork and that respect is a two-way street.”
Batiste is one of six retired generals who have publicly criticized Rumsfeld in recent days. He is a former commander of the 1st Infantry Division, which fought in Iraq for about two years, mainly in northern and north-central Iraq. He retired last year.
Asked about the charge that Rumsfeld has been dismissive of advice offered by military officers, and that he made strategic missteps in the Iraq war, the defense chief told reporters he wanted more time to think about it.
“I’ve been hearing about all of this, and I kind of would prefer to let a little time walk over it,” he said. “There are important issues that are involved. There’s no question about that. Change is difficult. It also happens to be urgently necessary. ... Because of the importance of these matters that are being discussed, I’d like to reflect on them a bit.”
Asked whether he would consider resigning to ease political pressure on Bush and Republicans in Congress, Rumsfeld said, “No.”
“The president knows, as I know, there are no indispensable men.... He knows that I serve at his pleasure, and that’s that,” Rumsfeld said.
He said he did not agree with the suggestion that there is widespread dissatisfaction in the military’s officer corps.
“There are always differences of opinion,” he said. “That’s a healthy thing in this country. We ought to respect it and get about our business.”