When Donald H. Rumsfeld became defense secretary in 2001, he posted a chatty list of rules to live and work by on the Pentagon’s Web site. “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” as they were called, are long gone now. But two of them in particular resonate during this time of war and recrimination.
- “Reserve the right to get into anything, and exercise it,” says one, written long before Rumsfeld helped to steer the United States into war in Iraq.
- “Be able to resign,” says a second. “It will improve your value to the president and do wonders for your performance.”
Rumsfeld has offered to resign at least twice since then and has survived countless calls for his head.
His leadership in war and his accountability for unfolding events, including the alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians at Haditha by Marines, nonetheless are very much a source of contentious debate in Washington and beyond.
Some critics say the Haditha killings, while not directly tied to the defense secretary, are symptomatic of broader problems with the U.S. war effort in Iraq and add new weight to persistent calls for his resignation.
“The alleged atrocity in Haditha, the national embarrassment of Abu Ghraib, the past three years of chaos in Iraq can all be traced right back to his war plan,” says retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, one of several retired generals who have urged Rumsfeld’s ouster. “It was his war plan that that took us to war.”
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who has emerged as one of Rumsfeld’s most vocal critics, blames the killings in part on the tremendous strains felt by troops who have been deployed over and over, causing them to “crack” under pressure. He has called repeatedly for Rumsfeld’s resignation.
Rumsfeld’s defenders — and even some critics — put distance between the secretary and the killings in Haditha, which they describe as a rogue operation.
Blame misplaced, backers say
White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissed the notion that the alleged massacre reflects on Rumsfeld’s leadership.
“How would that be the case?” he asked. “It’s a leap. ... It’s presumptuous.”
Former Rumsfeld adviser Lawrence Di Rita said it would be “unfortunate if people tried to make this into a political situation,” saying the military is treating the allegations seriously and aggressively investigating.
While congressional hearings may be warranted, Di Rita said, “when politicians get involved, it rarely improves the matter.”
Rumsfeld, 74, says all the sniping at him over the years is simply a reflection of his willingness to take a stand on tough issues.
Business as usual
Besieged with reporters’ questions about Haditha in recent days, he has been determined to go about business as usual.
He kept away from reporters Thursday during a nearly daylong flight to Asia. Asked about the matter Friday after arriving in Singapore for a defense ministers’ conference, Rumsfeld would say only that the Marines are handling the investigation, and he believes it is being done properly.
Predictions of his demise have popped up for years and consistently proved premature.
More than once, President Bush personally has put the kibosh on such speculation.
The sense among senior Pentagon officials, both civilian and military, in recent weeks has been that Rumsfeld’s period of vulnerability has passed, at least until the next crisis. When the retired generals began speaking out in March, there was clear concern among Rumsfeld’s closest aides that it could reach critical mass and force him out.
Bush standing by his man
The turning point seemed to be Bush’s declaration in April that “I’m the decider and I decide what’s best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.”
Military analyst Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution predicts the result will be the same this time.
Citing a series of past problems ranging from the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison to poor planning and diplomacy, O’Hanlon says, “If you were going to get rid of Rumsfeld, you would’ve done it for those reasons.”
Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary under President Reagan, said Rumsfeld is one of many recent defense secretaries who have refused to hold themselves responsible for what happened on their watch.
“Nobody wants to admit they made any mistakes,” said Korb, now a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.
While Rumsfeld still may have Bush in his corner, people seem to have grown disenchanted with his job performance. Folksy and confident, Rumsfeld was wildly popular in the months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the rapid victory in Afghanistan.
Four years ago, roughly two-thirds of Americans approved of his job performance; those numbers had slipped to 42 percent by this January and to just a third by April, making him about as unpopular as his boss.
The Haditha killings reinforce the rationale for Rumsfeld to resign, Korb said. But he said he was doubtful that would happen unless evidence emerges that the defense secretary knew about the killings and did not act.
Military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute says that while Rumsfeld has made plenty of mistakes, most have of them have played out “in a context where almost everyone else in the administration played a part, so it’s a little hard to single him out for special retribution.”
Rumsfeld has a particularly loyal defender in Vice President Dick Cheney, whose association with Rumsfeld dates to the 1960s. It was Rumsfeld who brought Cheney into the Ford White House in the 1970s.
“The reason why Rumsfeld isn’t in any trouble with the White House is because almost any charge you can make against him with regard to Iraq applies equally to the vice president,” Thompson said.