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U.S.: As Bush Remakes Cabinet, Defense Secretary Remains -- Despite New Controversy

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (file photo) Donald Rumsfeld has long been a focus of controversy in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. Critics have blamed the defense secretary for a series of miscues in Iraq, including scandals involving abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers. But criticism of the Pentagon chief is again on the rise as Bush shuffles his cabinet in preparation for another four years in office. Critics ask why nine of 15 cabinet secretaries are leaving yet Rumsfeld is not, despite remaining a key focus of controversy.

Washington, 15 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Rumsfeld's latest controversy arose from an exchange he had on 8 December with a U.S. soldier in Kuwait.

Rumsfeld was taking questions from a large group of U.S. soldiers at a military base in Kuwait. Specialist Thomas Wilson complained that his unit has been forced to scavenge from scrap heaps in efforts to armor their vehicles, and asked whether the Pentagon could not afford better equipment.

Wilson's question was followed by hoots of approval from his comrades. When the roar subsided, Rumsfeld replied: "It isn't a matter of money. It isn't a matter on the part of the Army of desire. It's a matter of production and capability of doing it [armoring vehicles]. As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish at a later time."

The Pentagon immediately responded by ordering more armored vehicles. Nonetheless, a chorus of critics was quick to note that Rumsfeld and Bush could have postponed the invasion of Iraq until the U.S. armed services were properly trained and equipped.
"As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish at a later time." -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to a U.S. soldier's question


Meanwhile, Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) launched fresh criticism of Rumsfeld. In an interview on 13 December with AP, he said he had "no confidence" in the defense secretary due to his handling of the Iraq war -- particularly for not having enough troops to fight the insurgency.

Although McCain is a member of Bush's party, he has the reputation as a maverick. Still, he campaigned vigorously for the president's reelection this year.

McCain stressed he was not calling for Rumsfeld's resignation, even though this was not the first time he had criticized Rumsfeld. He said Bush has the right to appoint anyone he wants to his cabinet.

James Phillips agreed, but for different reasons. Phillips studies military and security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy-research center in Washington. He said he expects Bush will keep Rumsfeld as his defense secretary because Rumsfeld is doing a good job.

Rumsfeld is a military visionary, according to Phillips, who noted that military leaders often are accused of "fighting the last war" -- that is, not keeping their training and equipment up to date. Rumsfeld, he said, is quite the opposite.

"If he's going to be accused of anything, I think Defense Secretary Rumsfeld can be accused of fighting the next war, rather than the last war," Phillips said. "His plans for transforming the military is very controversial within the Pentagon, especially within the Army, and that has led to friction with some of the generals, who argue that transformation should be postponed while the army focuses on the guerrilla war in Iraq."

Phillips said Rumsfeld was concentrating on this transformation before the attacks of 11 September 2001. In fact, he said, Rumsfeld used some of his war-fighting strategy to depose Saddam Hussein as Iraq's president: He employed a relatively small, fast-moving land force to sweep toward Baghdad, and the capital fell within weeks.

Problems quickly followed, however, in the form of a growing insurgency that now threatens Iraq's scheduled elections in January. But Phillips said Rumsfeld is not to blame for this and other problems in Iraq.

"The problem in Iraq doesn't lie with Rumsfeld but, I think, with incomplete intelligence about the weapons of mass destruction, about the ability of the U.S. to take out the top [Iraqi] leadership early in the war, and about postwar prospects for reconciliation with the Iraqi population," Phillips said.

Marcus Corbin agreed that Rumsfeld is several steps ahead of the career strategists at the Pentagon -- but is too far ahead for his own good, and the good of the country.

Corbin, a military analyst for the Center for Defense Information, another private think tank in Washington, said this is demonstrated in Rumsfeld's exchange with the American soldier in Kuwait:

"Saying, 'You go to war with the army you have' -- that's probably his biggest failing right there," Corbin said. "Because his view of transformation of the military was towards an ability to spot and destroy enemy tanks at longer ranges, and so on. Whereas what the Army really needed was [an] ability to conduct occupations or insurgencies, and Rumsfeld just didn't provide it."

But Corbin said no one should expect Bush to fire Rumsfeld or somehow push him out.

"To get rid of Rumsfeld is to admit there were mistakes made," Corbin said. "Rumsfeld has been a loyal servant and is part of Bush's inner circle, so I just don't think that Bush felt any need to get rid of him, or desire. And I think that's stemming from an unwillingness to accept the size of Rumsfeld's blunders, in part because they're also Bush's."

Corbin said U.S. soldiers are bogged down in a bloody and demoralizing war and are being denied not only armor, but also the training and reinforcements they need. All this is happening, he suggested, because Rumsfeld took what he called the easy course: Stock up on exotic, state-of-the-art weapons and ignore the realities on the ground in Iraq.
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