WASHINGTON — President Bush gave his forceful and unequivocal backing Friday to 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 had personally witnessed -- and endorsed -- the way the Defense secretary interacted with uniformed personnel.
"I have seen firsthand 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 on Friday 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, suggesting that the process of "transformation" may 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 headed training of Iraqi forces in 2003 -- also have called for Rumsfeld to step down, as has retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command.
The mounting criticism of Rumsfeld and recriminations over the war also come as Bush's approval ratings are falling and public support for the conflict is declining. Even among U.S. troops in Iraq, 72% favor withdrawal from Iraq within a year, and more than one in four favor an immediate pullout, according to a survey released in February by Zogby International and Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.
An administration official said Friday that the White House was particularly concerned that the generals' remarks could gain momentum over a long holiday weekend in which Bush, vacationing with his family at Camp David, Md., would be out of the limelight.
When speculation surfaced recently about another long-rumored Cabinet departure, that of Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Bush was able to go before television cameras immediately to deny it.
"The president wanted to do this today," the administration official said Friday, requesting anonymity while discussing internal White House deliberations.
Rumsfeld has been the subject of resignation speculation before. After revelations in 2004 of prisoner abuses by U.S. soldiers at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, Rumsfeld twice offered Bush his resignation.
Democrats pointed out Friday that Bush also offered a staunch defense of Michael D. Brown last year, days before Brown resigned as Federal Emergency Management Agency director because of the flawed response to Hurricane Katrina.
Many active-duty generals privately agree with public criticism that Rumsfeld is disrespectful to military leaders, current and former senior officers said.
Nonetheless, the public statements by retired generals have unsettled some officers, who worry the comments could undermine the morale of troops in Iraq and appear to challenge civilian control of the military.
A number of retired senior officers who worked directly with Rumsfeld also said in interviews that they considered the criticism misguided. Although 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. Vern 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 considered "insulting" the criticism that they bowed to Rumsfeld's will in the run-up to the war. They said 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 P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff through the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, acknowledged that mistakes were made by 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 -- were involved in the discussions and received detailed input from their subordinates.