Bush backs defense chief

Statement addresses retired generals' criticism of Rumsfeld


WASHINGTON -- President Bush gave his forceful and unequivocal backing yesterday to embattled Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, issuing a rare personal statement to express "my full support and deepest appreciation" for his work in the war on terrorism.

Moving to head off a potential political crisis, Bush directly addressed recent criticism of Rumsfeld by retired senior generals, saying he has personally witnessed - and endorsed - the way the defense secretary interacts with uniformed personnel.

"I have seen first-hand how Don relies upon our military commanders in the field and at the Pentagon to make decisions about how best to complete these missions," Bush said. "Secretary Rumsfeld's energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this critical period."

Bush issued the statement after speaking with Rumsfeld yesterday about military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and personally voicing his support. Bush said Rumsfeld had been given the difficult job of modernizing the military and suggested that the "transformation" might have drawn the ire of officers.

The presidential statement came at the end of a week in which two retired Army generals who commanded divisions in Iraq, Maj. Gen. John Batiste and Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., called for Rumsfeld's resignation, accusing him of arrogance and of mismanaging the war.

Two other retired generals involved in Iraq policy - Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, former director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who led training of Iraqi forces in 2003 - have also called for Rumsfeld to step down, as has retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command.

An administration official said yesterday that the White House was concerned that the generals' remarks could gain momentum over a long holiday weekend in which Bush, vacationing with his family at Camp David, would be out of the limelight.

When speculation surfaced recently about another long-rumored Cabinet departure, that of Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Bush went before television cameras immediately to deny it.

"The president wanted to do this today," the administration official said yesterday, requesting anonymity while discussing internal White House deliberations.

A number of retired senior officers who worked with Rumsfeld also said in interviews that they considered the criticism misguided. While the defense secretary's aggressive style has caused upheaval in the ranks - particularly in the Army - he has changed his views on several high-profile issues because of well-argued cases made by the uniformed leadership, the officers said.

"Rumsfeld's a tough guy, no doubt about it; he can be prickly," said Adm. Vernon Clark, who spent five years working with Rumsfeld as chief of naval operations before retiring last year. "You have to gain his respect, but once you gain that, you can work with him. I was thankful I had a tough guy because we were in tough times."

Several senior officers involved in Iraq war planning also said they believed that the criticism that they bowed to Rumsfeld's will in the run-up to war was "insulting." They insisted that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, then head of U.S. Central Command, was the main architect of the invasion plans and that it was thoroughly debated by military leaders.

Retired Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff through the Afghan and Iraq invasions, acknowledged that mistakes had been made in failing to anticipate the insurgency. But he said all the military service chiefs - including Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, who had a public falling out with Rumsfeld - had been involved in the discussions and received detailed input from their subordinates.

"It was General Franks' job to put together the war plan," Jumper said in a telephone interview. "Of course there wasn't universal agreement. We hashed things out for hours and hours in the Tank [the Pentagon's meeting room]. There was a lot of opportunity to discuss and debate and digest."

Some of the top officers involved in Iraq war planning were less conciliatory toward Rumsfeld for his handling of the postwar reconstruction period - particularly the administration's failure to get a civilian authority up and running quickly after Saddam Hussein fell.

But retired Gen. John Keane, who served as Army vice chief of staff during the war and is still highly regarded by active-duty officers, said the uniformed leaders were equally to blame for not better planning for the stabilization period.

"That judgment was wrong," Keane said in an interview. "We did not consider [an insurgency] a viable option. I believe that's our fault. That's senior military leadership business."

Although Rumsfeld has been criticized for not sending more troops to Iraq once the regime collapsed, Keane said the calculation was made in close consultation with Gen. John P. Abizaid, Franks' successor as Central Command chief.

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