Criticism of Rumsfeld Mounts in Washington

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An increasing number of former generals are calling for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. News Analyst Cokie Roberts speaks to Renee Montagne about President Bush's response to the criticism.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

As the situation in Iraq continues to show little progress, criticism of the secretary of defense is mounting here at home. Joining me now is NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The number of former generals weighing in against Secretary Rumsfeld seems extraordinary to those of us out here. Given though that there're hundreds of retired generals, is it really?

ROBERTS: Well, it is quite a number and I think the fact that they're speaking in unison and seem to be coordinating is quite unusual. And I think one of the things we're dealing with here, Renee, is the length of this war. It's been going on for such a long time that you've seen generals leave and have time to write books that are critical of the war and make television deals. I also think that part of what you're seeing here is a certain concern about what plans there are for Iran, and some red flags going up about that. But now you're seeing, what you could predict, is a push-back from the Pentagon of reports coming out showing that the secretary of defense did consult with military leaders and, then, some of the former generals going out on the airwaves to defend the secretary of defense. Chief among those is the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, who spoke on ABC News yesterday. Here's Gen. Myers.

RICHARD MYERS: When it's all said and done, in our system, the civilian control of the military means the civilians make the decision. The commander in chief makes the decision, the secretary of defense makes the decision, and we live by those decisions.

ROBERTS: Now, Gen. Myers was generally very supportive of those decisions rather than critical of them, but he was making a point that is the fundamental point in the United States republic, which is this separation of the civilian and military when it comes to policy decisions about use of the military. They are made by civilians.

I mean, it's significant that one of the few pictures that is up in the rotunda of the United States Capitol is that of George Washington resigning his commission as general of the Revolutionary War, and that was seen as something that was necessary to do before a civilian government could be formed and the new republic put into place. It could not be led by a military man, is the symbol of that portrait.

MONTAGNE: And then, President Bush interrupted his Easter weekend to make a statement in defense of his secretary of defense. Does that mean that Rumsfeld's tenure is secure?

ROBERTS: Probably for the time being and we've all seen White House's do full- throated defenses of people and then have that person gone in a few minutes, but neither President Bush nor Secretary Rumsfeld is particularly susceptible to outside criticism. In fact, in both cases, they tend to get their backs up and resist outside criticism. Secretary Rumsfeld, we have been told repeatedly, offered his resignation twice to President Bush as the war seemed to be going badly, and the President refused to accept his resignation.

Some of Secretary Rumsfeld's friends think that was a mistake, that it would have been better for him if the president had accepted his resignation, because as you recall, at the beginning of this war, he was considered something of a hero, and people loved his press conferences and his frankness and all of that, and, of course, his whole image has changed completely.

Some of the criticism was bound to come as he pushed for a leaner military. That was going to make him some enemies in the military, but then he made a lot of unnecessary enemies by the handling of the war's aftermath and how he dealt with the occupation, insisting that the military be in control, rather than the State Department and some of the agencies of the government that are more used to working in development than the military is.

MONTAGNE: And then, just briefly, Cokie, at the time the decisions in Iraq were being made, Colin Powell, military man, was secretary of state.

ROBERTS: That's right, and I think that had a big impact on President Bush, that he did respect Secretary Powell because he was a military man, but others in the administration were very wary of him because they thought that he was affected by the so-called Vietnam syndrome of not wanting to impose the military into situations where they couldn't win; and, of course, that's exactly what you're seeing right now in Iraq, is people worrying that that syndrome is real.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much.

MONTAGNE: Okay, NPR's news analyst, Cokie Roberts.

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