Washington, 10 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When he appeared before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld said he would resign only if he could no longer serve his country well.
"And needless to say, if I felt I could not be effective, I'd resign in a minute," Rumsfeld said. "I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it."
The day before, President Bush gave Rumsfeld a strong vote of confidence.
"Secretary Rumsfeld is a really good secretary of defense," Bush said. "Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well. Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars, and he is an important part of my cabinet and he'll stay in my cabinet."
Other members of the Bush administration have since echoed that support for Rumsfeld, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who through a spokesman told "The New York Times" newspaper, "Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of defense the United States has ever had. People ought to let him do his job."
Rumsfeld acknowledges that he bears the ultimate responsibility for the abuse of prisoners in Iraq, but says he has been meeting that responsibility by ordering an investigation as soon as he learned of the problem.
But several members of the opposition Democratic Party have called for Rumsfeld to resign or be fired. And one, Congressman Charles Rangel (Democrat, New York), says if Rumsfeld won't quit, and Bush won't fire him, then Congress should impeach him.
Calls for Rumsfeld's ouster have been fueled by continuing press reports detailing the prison abuse scandal. Seymour Hersh, a correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine, was one of the first journalists to break the story.
Hersh spoke yesterday to reporters in Washington on the publication of his latest article, which features a new photo of an Iraqi detainee cowering under threat from two U.S. military dogs. Hersh said the abuse was widespread and that ultimate responsibility lay with those at the top of the Bush administration.
"We have to change the dynamics of the war, of how we're looking at this. It's not a question of six or seven kids doing something wrong," Hersh said. "The photograph I published today was from a completely different unit [than the earlier photos]. Are we going to get 60, 70, 600, 700 [photos of abuse/torture]? What you have to do is look at the policies, look at the people, the generals in charge, the people on top, and that's what the story I wrote is about -- it's about the people [in charge]. We have to start taking this up the chain of command immediately."
Many Rumsfeld supporters say the call for his ouster is merely an unfair way for opponents of the Bush administration to express their anger over the Iraq war. One is Jack Spencer, a military analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative private policy-research center in Washington.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Spencer said Rumsfeld has been an outstanding defense secretary who has worked hard to streamline the U.S. military's approach to combat.
"This seemingly hysterical call for his resignation very well could be politically motivated." -- Jack Spencer, Heritage Foundation
Spencer argued that Rumsfeld was quick to contend with the prisoner-abuse scandal -- more than three months before it became an issue in Washington: "Secretary Rumsfeld has done an outstanding job, including [initiating] an investigation in mid-January when he first heard of these accusations," Spencer said.
Much criticism has focused on the fact that Rumsfeld failed to inform either Bush or Congress about the developing scandal in a timely fashion. Bush himself was reported to have privately chastised the defense secretary for not telling him earlier about the situation.
But Spencer said Rumsfeld publicly announced the probe at the time it was launched, and that no one took much notice of it until pictures of the abuse were broadcast nearly two weeks ago.
According to Spencer, to lay blame on Rumsfeld for the abuse is typical in a political city like Washington.
"This seemingly hysterical call for his resignation very well could be politically motivated," Spencer said. "Certainly I'm not against good debate, so continued rhetoric like that I don't think amounts to a hill of beans at the end of the day."
But Peter Kuznick, a professor of history at American University in Washington who specializes in military affairs, said that while Rumsfeld may not have been directly involved in the prisoner abuse, his overall conduct as defense secretary earns him much of the blame.
Kuznick said that like Bush, Rumsfeld has made a point of characterizing the U.S. side as the embodiment of good, and U.S. opponents as the embodiment of evil. Further, he said, it was Rumsfeld's decision to occupy Iraq with a far smaller force than many military experts said would be necessary. Many critics cite this step as the chief cause behind the current security problems in Iraq.
"The question of [Rumsfeld's] resignation is the broader one about his overall stewardship, his overall behavior as secretary of defense," Kuznick said. "There is a lengthy indictment of Rumsfeld that can be made in terms of his influence on many of the most disastrous decisions that have been made [in the Iraq war]."
Kuznick said the responsibility for these problems goes higher than Rumsfeld. He said one might blame Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, for not properly coordinating the work of the departments of State and Defense, as she is supposed to do.
It has been widely reported that the White House gave many post-Saddam duties in Iraq to Rumsfeld's Defense Department -- duties that historically are handled by the State Department. For example, many critics say U.S. administrators would not be having the current problems with Iraq's Shi'a Muslims if Secretary of State Colin Powell were in charge of more of the occupation work.
Kuznick acknowledged that such coordination between the State and Defense departments should be handled by Rice. But Rice, he said, is only as powerful as her boss allows her to be, and that is where the ultimate problem lies.
"I think the signals are sent by the president," Kuznick said. "Some of the recent revelations that have come out emphasize the split between Rumsfeld on the one hand, backed by Bush, against Powell. Condoleezza Rice appears to be a fairly weak figure. Yes, she bears some responsibility for not adjudicating [coordinating] this differently, but I think the ultimate responsibility is the president's."
Kuznick said Rumsfeld's departure would be a help, but not enough to salvage U.S. foreign policy. He said that with the release of the photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Arabs Muslims now have no doubt that the war in Iraq is not about democracy and improving the lives of Iraqis. They are convinced that it is about U.S. interests, he said, and U.S. interests alone.