During Friday’s dramatic testimony by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before the Senate Armed Services Committee, it wasn’t surprising that Rumsfeld was berated by senators who voted against invading Iraq.
What was significant was that those who supported the war and voted to keep funding it told Rumsfeld the Abu Ghraib prison furor might be sapping the American public’s support for President Bush’s war against terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.
Four of the “yes” votes on the October 2002 Iraq war resolution — Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. — were especially outspoken in telling Rumsfeld that the scandal and his blunders in handling it might be turning the public against the Iraq effort.
Rumsfeld — a hardened veteran of decades of Washington politics as a member of the House of Representatives, as White House chief of staff and defense secretary under President Ford — admitted that he had committed a grievous political error.
Clearly on the minds of many in the Dirksen Senate Building hearing room was that his blunder may cost him his job. But for a few hours at Friday’s hearing on Capitol Hill the question of Rumsfeld’s own job tenure took second rank to another: Is America losing the war against terror?
Rumsfeld was uncharacteristically contrite in telling the panel that “I failed to identify the catastrophic damage that the allegations of abuse could do to our operations. ... When these allegations first surfaced, I failed to recognize how important it was to elevate such matters to the highest levels, including the president and members of Congress."
For his failures, the country and its effort in Iraq may now pay dearly, members of the panel told Rumsfeld.
Lieberman, whose support for toppling Saddam Hussein dates back to 1998 and cost him any chance to win his party’s presidential nomination this year, used his turn as questioner to deliver an emotional speech justifying the war in Iraq and the effort against al-Qaida.
He commended Rumsfeld for apologizing for the abuse at Abu Ghraib, but added, “I cannot help but say, however, that those who are responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, never apologized, those who have killed hundreds of Americans in uniform in Iraq, working to liberate Iraq and protect our security, have never apologized, those who murdered and burned and humiliated four Americans in Falujah” never apologized either.
The investigation of Abu Ghraib must not, Lieberman said, “discredit the cause that brought us to send (soldiers) to Iraq because it remains one that is just and necessary.”
Bayh voiced similar sentiments, saying “our cause is morally superior to our adversaries,” but he worried that moral superiority has been damaged by the images from the Abu Ghraib prison.
Bayh wondered whether “dramatic action” was needed “to regain the momentum so that we can ultimately prevail in what is a very noble and idealistic decision.”
McCain: 'Gravely concerned'
Almost inevitably McCain brought up his experience as a Navy aviator and a POW in Vietnam, and told Rumsfeld, “I’m gravely concerned that many Americans will have the same impulse as I did when I saw those pictures and that is to turn away from (the Iraq war). We risk losing public support for this conflict. As Americans turned away from the Vietnam War, they may turn away from this one — unless this issue is quickly resolved with full disclosure.”
McCain told reporters moments later that the more quickly all the Abu Ghraib information is out, the sooner the public can “focus on a conflict I believe we must win. ... It would be a terrible thing if this caused Americans … to lose support for what I believe is a very just cause and one that we must win. If we lose, the consequences would be catastrophic.”
Graham, a veteran of the House Judiciary Clinton impeachment hearings in 1998, had his sound bites honed to a sharp, quotable edge: “I want to prepare the public. The worst is yet to come in terms of disturbing events.”
A few minutes later, Graham told a press conference, “We’re talking about rape and murder here, we’re not just talking abut giving people a humiliating experience, we’re talking about rape and murder and some very serious charges.”
Worried about the propaganda effect of a Rumsfeld resignation, Graham said that although Rumsfeld “failed us,” it would risk sending the wrong signal to the enemy and “empower them” if he were forced to quit.