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Pessimism About Iraq Is a Common Thread Among Rumsfeld's Critics and Defenders

Even those who support the Defense secretary see flaws in planning for a postwar recovery.

April 18, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Even as a procession of retired generals engages in a public debate on whether Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should resign for his handling of the Iraq war, critics and defenders appear to agree on one important point: The war is not going as well as any of them had anticipated.

In interviews, writings and public appearances, even many of Rumsfeld's ardent military defenders have acknowledged that the failure to predict the virulence of the insurgency and to aggressively impose order in Iraq was a mistake that could be difficult to repair.

With U.S. military casualties again on the rise and public opinion turning against the war, such consensus is perhaps unsurprising. But for an administration whose political health is tied to its management of the conflict, and which has repeatedly insisted the war is going better than is generally portrayed, such pessimism from those so close to Iraq policy could make the job of regaining public support all the more difficult.

"Everyone is assuming and agreeing we botched this," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution who has been critical of the retired generals' speaking out against Rumsfeld. "We're all agreeing this is not going to go down as one of the nation's great accomplishments. It's bad for [the Bush administration's] place in history" and for Republican electoral prospects in November, he added.

There are notable exceptions to the consensus on Iraq. Neither retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the invasion, nor retired Gen. Tommy Franks, the former head of U.S. Central Command and the war plan's primary architect, acknowledged mistakes during television interviews over the weekend.

But several other former military leaders, including members of the Joint Chiefs during the war and a senior general who served as Franks' deputy, have acknowledged that the plans for rebuilding and stabilizing Iraq were flawed, in some cases severely.

"We all agree there were mistakes made," retired Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff during the Iraq war, said in a recent interview. "Things happened we didn't anticipate.... We share in that responsibility."

Retired Gen. John Keane, who was vice chief of staff of the Army during Iraq war planning and who has been outspoken in supporting Rumsfeld, said that although he believes the invasion plan proved successful, the postwar plan should have included many more military engineers, translators and intelligence experts.

"If we knew the insurgency would emerge, the occupying force would have changed," Keane said. "Those additional forces could have been in the queue."

Some military experts say that because there is such widespread agreement over post-invasion failures, the recent denunciations of Rumsfeld can be seen as an effort to deflect blame from the uniformed military.

"The finger-pointing over Iraq has begun," said retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, a defense analyst who was consulted on war planning when he was in the Army. "We have a disaster on our hands and the generals don't want to be held accountable."

The Defense Department continues efforts to rally support from retired officers, inviting prominent former military leaders -- many of whom serve as analysts on network and cable television -- for a series of briefings today on the war's progress, including a meeting with Rumsfeld.

Pentagon officials say the sessions, which will include videoconferences with commanders in Iraq, are part of an ongoing program in which they update a select group of analysts and experts on the war's progress.

But several prominent analysts who have criticized Rumsfeld recently said Monday that they were not invited to today's meetings, despite having been invited to previous ones -- possibly indicating that today's gathering is part of the department's campaign.

On Friday, the Pentagon e-mailed a memo to some retired officers and military commentators attempting to refute the contention by several of the retired officers that Rumsfeld does not fully consult with military commanders on Iraq-related policy.

An op-ed article in Monday's Wall Street Journal, written by four retired generals, contained many of the points in the Pentagon's memo, including the fact that Rumsfeld met with the chiefs of the armed services 110 times in 2005 and with the military's regional commanders 163 times over the same period.

The administration faces an uphill battle to change public perceptions, however. A new USA Today/Gallup poll issued Monday found 57% of Americans said it was a mistake to have sent troops to Iraq -- the highest level since Gallup began tracking opinion on the topic. In addition, 65% said they disapproved of President Bush's handling of Iraq, also near an all-time high.

Rumsfeld continued to deflect criticism Monday, saying he was heartened by Myers' and Franks' efforts to defend him over the weekend.

"This too will pass," Rumsfeld said in an interview on Rush Limbaugh's national radio program. "There's always two sides to these things, and the sharper the criticism comes, sometimes the sharper the defense comes from people who don't agree with the critics."

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