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Rumsfeld Links Generals' Flak to Resentment Over Shake-Ups

Refusing to deal directly with criticism of his handling of the Iraq war, he cites long-standing conflicts over efforts to modernize the military.

April 19, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested Tuesday that recent criticism from retired senior officers stemmed from long-standing disagreements over modernizing the U.S. military, saying a series of organizational shake-ups had provoked antagonism within the armed forces.

Rumsfeld refused to directly address the attacks on his handling of the Iraq war from the retired generals, six of whom had called for him to resign, saying he wanted to "let a little time walk over it" so he could reflect on the accusations.

Instead, Rumsfeld detailed changes he had instituted since becoming Defense secretary -- from canceling the Army's prized Crusader battlefield howitzer to reaching into the ranks of retired officers to select a new Army chief of staff -- that had rankled military leaders, particularly in the Army.

"Every one of those changes that I just described has met resistance," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference. "People like things the way they are, and so when you make a change like that, somebody's not going to like it."

Rumsfeld again received a strong endorsement of his leadership from President Bush, who followed a rare written statement of support last week with a vigorous endorsement from the Rose Garden on Tuesday, in which he said he did not "appreciate the speculation" about Rumsfeld's future.

"I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation," Bush said, his voice rising with emotion. "But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best, and what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of Defense."

Bush agreed that Rumsfeld had faced resistance to proposals to "transform" the military, and noted that Rumsfeld had tried to push through changes even as he managed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, reiterated the point later in the day, suggesting a coordinated effort to highlight tension over transformation as a contributing factor to disputes between Rumsfeld and the retired officers.

However, none of the retired generals who have called for Rumsfeld's resignation have mentioned the administration's military transformation agenda. Five of the generals have either commanded forces in Iraq or been directly involved in formulating military plans for dealing with Iraq, and all have cited Rumsfeld's management of the war as the reason for calling on him to step down.

Rumsfeld and senior officers, particularly in the Army, have had well-known disagreements over the Bush administration's reform agenda, in many cases predating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

For example, Rumsfeld clashed early in Bush's first term with Army Gen. Erik K. Shinseki over the speed and scale of change in the Army, an effort Shinseki had begun under President Clinton. Shinseki retired after his dispute with Rumsfeld in 2003 over the number of troops needed to stabilize Iraq, differences cited by several former officers calling for Rumsfeld's resignation.

Following Shinseki's retirement, Rumsfeld passed over all other active-duty Army officers to pick Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, then a retired Special Forces officer, to become the new Army chief of staff, a move almost unprecedented in military history and one that was seen by many as an illustration of the secretary's distrust of the Army's senior leadership.

"The idea of bringing a retired person out of retirement to serve as chief of staff of the Army was stunning, and a lot of people didn't like it," Rumsfeld said. "The fact that he was a Special Forces officer -- a joint officer -- added to the attitudes."

Rumsfeld said Tuesday that he did not intend to offer Bush his resignation. He declined to comment on concerns raised by historians and military experts that it was inappropriate for a Defense secretary to be forced out of office by retired officers because it would undermine civilian control of the military. Rumsfeld has acknowledged offering his resignation twice before after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

"The president knows, as I know, that there are no indispensable men," he said. "He knows that I serve at his pleasure, and that's that."

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