Despite White House efforts to put an end to the controversy, the battle over the fate of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld shows little sign of abating.
And the outcome, which is by no means certain, could well determine the trajectory of U.S. policy in key areas including Iraq, Iran, and even China through the remaining two and a half years of George W. Bush’s presidency.
While the unprecedented calls by six retired generals for his resignation have focused primarily on his competence, management style, and strategy for invading and occupying Iraq, Rumsfeld’s departure would almost certainly cripple the coalition of neoconservative and aggressive nationalist war hawks in and around the administration for the remainder of Bush’s term.
That is why the hawks outside the administration, led by the neoconservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, appear anxious to persuade Bush himself that the current campaign against his defense secretary is really aimed at him.
"[O]n Friday Mr. Bush said he still has every confidence [in Rumsfeld]," the Journal stated. "We suspect the president understands that most of those calling for Mr. Rumsfeld’s heart are really longing for his."
Teamed with his former protégé and longtime close friend, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld has enjoyed remarkable influence over U.S. foreign policy, as well as Pentagon operations, for most of the past five years.
Indeed, within five hours of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon itself, it was Rumsfeld who was the first to suggest that the U.S. respond by attacking Iraq, as well as al Qaeda. According to contemporaneous notes taken by an aide, he called for the U.S. to "go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."
Like Cheney, he has also been a steadfast hawk on Syria, Iran, and China, and his efforts to greatly expand the Pentagon’s role in covert action at the expense of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and in dispensing military aid to foreign allies at the expense of the State Department have given his department unprecedented influence in bilateral relations with friends and foes alike.
Given Bush’s record low approval ratings as well as the dissent Rumsfeld’s performance has stirred up among the military brass and, for that matter, on Capitol Hill any successor likely to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate will almost certainly have to be less hawkish and not nearly as closely linked to Cheney. This would deprive the vice president, who was clearly the most important influence on U.S. foreign policy during Bush’s first term, of his most important and effective ideological and operational ally.
In fact, most of the candidates who have surfaced as potential successors in particular, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Dan Coates; Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner; and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (who last week called for direct negotiations with Iran) are considered "realists."
While conservative, they are much more inclined to defer to the uniformed military and their State Department colleagues. The only exception is Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a strongly pro-Israel Democrat who favors a policy of confrontation with Tehran.
The current round of attacks on Rumsfeld began last month when ret. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who had been charge of training the Iraqi military during the first year of the U.S. occupation, criticized his former boss in a New York Times column as "incompetent strategically, operationally, and tactically."
His blast was followed last week by an anguished column in Time magazine by ret. Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, the top operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff before the invasion, who, after criticizing his own failure to speak out in advance against the attack on Iraq, alluded to the lack of firsthand war experience of many of the hawks.
"My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions or bury the results," he wrote.
Other retired generals, including Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the First Infantry Division in Iraq and served top military aide to former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Maj. Gen. Charles Swannock, Jr., who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq; Army Maj. Gen. John Riggs, weighed in with their own critiques, as did two retired generals the former chief of the U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni; and former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark who had called on Rumsfeld to step down as long as two years ago.
At the same time, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, has accused Rumsfeld and Cheney of leading a "cabal" that circumvented the official policy-making process in order to take foreign policy in a radical direction, also accused the Pentagon of making "some serious mistakes" in Iraq, although the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not call for Rumsfeld to go.
In the face of this onslaught which, according to the dissenters, is likely to be followed by other statements from retired senior officers Bush issued a statement Friday insisting that Rumsfeld "has my full support and deepest appreciation." At the same time, the Pentagon sent out a memorandum to a group of former military commanders and civilian analysts who often appear on television talk shows about what they could say in Rumsfeld’s defense
Sure enough, ret. Central Commander chief Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the Iraq campaign; former Joint Chief of Staff chairman Gen. Richard Myers both of whom had been implicitly criticized by the dissenters for deferring too much to Rumsfeld’s wishes came to his defense, as did the current Joint Chiefs chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace whose remarks, however, curiously stressed Rumsfeld’s "dedication patriotism and work ethic" attributes that were never in doubt.
Three other generals who appeared on the Sunday talk shows also insisted that Rumsfeld should not be forced out, although their praise was remarkably faint. Indeed, one, ret. Air Force Major Gen. Don Shepperd, said the Pentagon had made "some severe mistakes" in Iraq, while ret. Army Gen. James Marks confirmed reports that senior officers had requested more forces during the invasion "at a very critical point in the war" and been denied.
Their lack of enthusiasm helped illustrate the loss of credibility and authority Rumsfeld and his fellow hawks have suffered with the uniformed military, a trend that was described at length in a Journal article Monday, entitled "Rumsfeld’s Control of Military Policy Appears to Weaken." It noted, among other things, that senior officers are growing increasingly inclined to ignore or publicly contradict Rumsfeld’s policy preferences, such as limiting military exchanges with China.
And even as Rumsfeld was insisting last month that Syria was facilitating the training and entry of "foreign fighters" into Iraq, Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid told Congress that Damascus was cooperating with U.S. efforts to stop infiltration across the border.
Even Rumsfeld’s supporters on Capitol Hill are less than enthusiastic. Asked to comment on the controversy over the weekend, Warner, normally an administration loyalist but who is also very close to the brass, stated simply that he believed "that the decision of whether to keep Secretary Rumsfeld is up to the president."
(Inter Press Service)