Critics of Bush Iraq policy sharpen focus on Rumsfeld

As violence, deaths mount, scrutiny of defense secretary increases

November 03, 2006|By Stephen J. Hedges | Stephen J. Hedges,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Days before a critical midterm election, Democratic candidates - and a few Republicans - are working hard to make the hottest election issue, the war in Iraq, more personal. The problem, they argue, isn't the war, but rather its architect, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

As head of the Pentagon, they argue, Rumsfeld has misled the fight in Iraq. And his continued presence in the Cabinet has made things worse, not better, they say.

Iraq is `big issue'

"The really big issue here is Iraq," said Charlie Black, a Republican political consultant. "A large segment of the American people are frustrated about Iraq and impatient about it. That's definitely hurting the Republicans politically. It's probably 80 percent of all our problems.

"What you do is if an issue that is working against your opponent, you use every device you can to keep bringing it up."

Rumsfeld has become such a device. But criticism of him doesn't seem to register with President Bush, who said Wednesday that he expects to keep Rumsfeld in his job for the rest of his presidency. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush said, are "both are doing fantastic jobs."

In more than 40 years of public life, Rumsfeld has often been a polarizing figure. Known as a skilled bureaucratic tactician, he has won battles and had his way in jobs in Congress, with several White House occupants, at the Department of Defense (twice), on government-sponsored commissions and within the Republican Party. His reputation earned him the security tag "shot put" in one White House.

But Rumsfeld is facing more public scrutiny than ever as the war in Iraq continues as the violence, the civilian death toll and U.S. combat deaths mount, and as candidates look for someone to blame or praise.

Rumsfeld obliges both sides. He is perhaps the administration's most effective advocate on Iraq. But he appeared to be aloof last week when he told a group of longtime Pentagon reporters asking about Iraq to "relax, understand that it's complicated, it's difficult, that honorable people are working on these things."

That "relax" comment drew sneers from Democrats intent on making Iraq a campaign centerpiece. They included Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who heads the Democratic congressional campaign effort. Each has said Rumsfeld should be removed.

Michael S. Steele, the Republican Senate candidate in Maryland, has said that Rumsfeld "wouldn't be my secretary of defense. And ultimately, that's going to be a decision that the president of the United States makes."

Rumsfeld still has his champions. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, called Rumsfeld "the best thing to happen to the Pentagon in 25 years."

Evan Galbraith, Rumsfeld's representative to NATO and U.S. ambassador to France during the Reagan administration, called Rumsfeld "a patriot" and said he is one of the most prudent people he knows.

Rumsfeld's prudence, he said, is at work in the formation of the Iraqi security and police forces that are to begin to take over from U.S. troops in a few months.

Rumsfeld weathered resignation talk that followed the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq in 2004 and the complaints from a chorus of retired generals who called him incompetent this year. He has twice offered his resignation, and Bush has twice refused it.

One of the retired generals, John Batiste, said yesterday that he still thinks Rumsfeld must go.

"We've got a failed nation state in Iraq, and there must be accountability," said Batiste, who led the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 and says he is a Republican. "And the first step is a change at the top of the Department of Defense."

A Gallup poll conducted in September found that 46 percent of those questioned thought Rumsfeld should resign and 44 percent thought he should stay.

That was before last month's steady stream of bad news from Iraq. But it was slightly more favorable for Rumsfeld than a December 2004 Gallup poll in which 52 percent of those asked said he should quit and 36 percent said he should not.

Popularity drops

Gallup found that Rumsfeld's favorability rating had dropped from 67 percent in July 2002 to 41 percent in September this year. It hit a low of 37 percent in April.

The 74-year-old Rumsfeld is routinely asked about his rumored departure, and he routinely declines to discuss it. Those who watch the Pentagon closely aren't surprised.

"Rumsfeld's position on resignation is very simple," said Loren Thompson, director of the Lexington Institute, a Washington area think tank that analyzes military matters. "He will go on his own schedule, and that schedule is not likely to match the hopes of his detractors. He is adamantly opposed to leaving because of political pressures."

The pre-election talk might not matter to Rumsfeld, who often professes to not have read articles critical of him. He has also steered clear of overt politicking in election years.

But knives are out for Rumsfeld. If the Republicans lose control of Congress next week on an anti-war vote, Bush will be under new pressure from Democrats to radically shift his Iraq strategy and, perhaps, to replace his chief Iraq strategist.

Stephen J. Hedges writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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