Bush Defends Rumsfeld's Performance in Iraq

President Bush issues a strong statement in support for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has come under increasing criticism for his performance. The president says Rumsfeld is "exactly what is needed at this critical period."

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. This week there was a crescendo of calls from former generals seeking the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Yesterday, on this program, General John Riggs made his call public.

General JOHN RIGGS (Retired Major General, U.S. Army): I think it's, in some ways, is arrogance that's keeping things going. And I think he should step aside and let someone step in who can be more realistic.

NORRIS: Today President Bush rebuffed the critics and expressed his support of his secretary of defense, saying that “he's exactly what's needed in this critical period.” Rumsfeld answered the calls, too. Today on the Arabic TV network Al-Arabiya, he had this to say when asked “if he intended to continue to serve the president.”

Secretary of Defense DONALD RUMSFELD: I intend to serve the president at his pleasure. And the fact that two or three or four retired people have different views, I respect their views, 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 around here.

Unidentified Man: So by the next election, you'll be the longest serving secretary of defense, sir.

Secretary RUMSFELD: Oh, that remains to be seen.

NORRIS: That was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speaking on Al-Arabiya TV today. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. Welcome, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN reporting:

Good to be here.

NORRIS: Is Rumsfeld correct when he dismisses this criticism, saying that they're really just a small number of generals among many thousands?

BOWMAN: Well, all these generals are highly respected. Two in particular recently commanded combat troops in Iraq. That would be Charles Swannick, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, and John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division. So these would've been people who had met with Rumsfeld, discussed strategy with him, talked about, perhaps, a need for more troops. And for them to come out and criticize him I think is remarkable. And others I've spoken with, analysts and active duty officers, are quite surprised by that.

NORRIS: And for the six who have spoken out, what are the specific faults and mistakes they cite? Is there a common theme that runs through their criticism?

BOWMAN: Well, the first criticism you hear, and this really goes back to prior to the war starting, was there weren't enough troops. General Eric Shinseki, who was then Army Chief of Staff, said you need several hundred thousand for peacekeeping duties after major combat is completed. And other generals privately pushed that as well. But clearly many say they didn't have enough troops.

Another criticism you hear is that when they started flowing equipment and forces and personnel over to the region, that Rumsfeld tinkered with the flow of forces, and there were some problems there. For example, people mentioned that port handlers didn't get there fast enough, and the equipment got to the ports and then the port handlers came after. So that type of problem you saw with what they claim was Rumsfeld's micromanaging of the flow of forces and equipment.

NORRIS: Is there a precedent for this kind of public outcry by retired senior military officials?

BOWMAN: Not in wartime. General McClellan famously during the Civil War was sharply critical, contemptuous, really, of Abraham Lincoln. And during peacetime, we've seen there was a revolt of the admirals, for example, in 1949, over nuclear policy, and budget complaints over the years, disputes with, during the Truman administration, of Louis Cut the Fat Johnson, who was then defense secretary. But during wartime, this is really unprecedented.

NORRIS: So far we've only heard from retired commanders. Are those still serving in the military harboring their own criticisms? Is there evidence that perhaps the retired officers are serving as surrogates for their active counterparts?

BOWMAN: I think that's absolutely right. I think they are serving as surrogates. And if you talk to active duty generals, privately, they, some of them hold some of the same concerns that the retirees have. But I think what they would tell you is, if they have any criticisms they'll say it to the secretary or others in private. Clearly, others are worried about their careers. This administration, this management at the Pentagon is very sensitive to criticism and does not brook criticism quite well, and they're worried about their careers. And, most importantly, under military law, Article 88, active duty officer could be court-martialed for using contemptuous words against the president, vice president or secretary of defense.

NORRIS: Just very quickly, before we let you go, what was the buzz over there today in that five-sided building?

BOWMAN: Well, there's concern about it. There's concern about the effect it'll have on active duty officers. Will they be seen as, let's say, milquetoast for serving under Defense Secretary Rumsfeld? There's a lot of concern about will other generals come out, retired generals? So it's a sort of wait and see at the Pentagon. But a lot of concern.

NORRIS: Tom Bowman is NPR's Pentagon correspondent. He's a new member of our reporting team after nine years of covering the building for the Baltimore Sun. Welcome, Tom, and thank you.

BOWMAN: It's great to be here.

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