December 20, 2004
WASHINGTON - President Bush defended embattled Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Monday, saying the Pentagon chief was doing "a very fine job."
"I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart ... He's a good, decent man. He's a caring fellow," Bush told a news conference in response to questions about Rumsfeld's since-abandoned use of a mechanical device to sign letters of condolence to military families.
Congressional criticism of Rumsfeld has mounted over the escalating violence and other problems in Iraq, with a growing number of lawmakers issuing statements of no-confidence in the Pentagon chief.
Asked about the criticism, Bush said, "He's doing a very fine job."
Leading senators on two key committees, meanwhile, said that while Rumsfeld should shoulder his share of blame for escalating problems in Iraq he should not step down - yet.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the Armed Services Committee chairman, said a change of civilian leadership at the Pentagon now would be too disruptive, given the scheduled Jan. 30 elections in Iraq.
"We should not at this point in time entertain any idea of changing those responsibilities," he told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, said Monday problems in the conduct of the war in Iraq and its aftermath were caused by the administration's wrongheaded policies and should therefore be laid at President Bush's door.
"If I thought those policies would change by changing the secretary of defense, I'd be all for it," Levin said on CNN. "But I don't see that that is the ticket to policy changes."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday, "We really can't go through that ordeal" now of finding a successor. Rumsfeld "should be held accountable, and he should stay in office," Lugar said.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., saying he had no confidence in Rumsfeld, nevertheless stopped short of calling on the secretary to step down. "I find it astounding. ... Things are worse than they've ever been" in Iraq, Hagel said on CBS' "Face the Nation." He said it was up to President Bush whether to replace Rumsfeld.
More than 1,300 American troops have died since the war began in March 2003. Meanwhile, soldiers have complained about long deployments and a lack of armored vehicles and other equipment.
Rumsfeld's since-abandoned use of a mechanical device to sign letters of condolence had added to the criticism by Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, and others.
Rumsfeld agreed to Bush's request this month to stay in the Cabinet during the president's second term.
But critics have raised questions about whether enough U.S. troops are in Iraq to bring security. Iraq's interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, said last week the U.S.-led coalition made a mistake by dismantling Iraqi security forces after last year's invasion.
Iraqi leaders have also said that former army officers and police officers with clean records should be reinstated to help organize the Iraqi military.
Levin said he supported that idea, and the United States also must reach out to Arab countries to help persuade Iraq's Muslims of the Sunni sect to participate in the election despite the increased violence.
The administration's biggest mistake in Iraq was the rapid disbanding of military forces after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled "and not trying to maintain some of it in place to have continuity and to rapidly put together a security force," Warner said.
Rumsfeld's performance has also come under criticism from Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and John McCain of Arizona, among others, as well as Democrats.
Lott said last week that Rumsfeld did not listen to uniformed officers and that Bush should make a change at the Pentagon in the next year or so.