Joe Baker: Rumsfeld takes bashing from Congress

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld found the atmosphere very hot and the questions very pointed during a recent round of hearings in the Senate and the House.

Mounting Congressional concern over U.S. strategy and progress, or lack thereof, in Iraq led to some scalding attacks on the defense secretary. He scrambled to defend himself and the administration against assertions that our campaign in Iraq is failing and is not worth the cost in lives and dollars.

Rumsfeld denied those assertions and also rejected calls for a timetable to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq. The latter demand came from a small group of lawmakers from both parties. Rumsfeld said he does favor putting pressure on the new Iraqi government to stay on schedule for drafting a new constitution and conducting national elections.

The secretary challenged the hearings at the outset when, according to The Washington Post, he declared: “Any who say we have lost or are losing are flat wrong. We are not.” He then sounded the administration mantra of “stay the course.”

Legislators, however, pointed to continued violence in Iraq and lack of certainty of when the war will end. They voiced doubts about open-ended U.S. involvement.

The harshest and most dramatic clash came in the Senate. The Washington Post reported Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a strong anti-war critic, told Rumsfeld the war has turned into a “seeming intractable quagmire.” Kennedy reeled off a long list of what he termed “gross errors and mistakes” in the Iraq campaign and called once more for Rumsfeld to step down.

“In baseball, it’s three strikes, you’re out,” he said before the Armed Services Committee. “What is it for the Secretary of Defense? Isn’t it time for you to resign?”

According to The Washington Post, Rumsfeld responded: “Well, that is quite a statement.” He said none of the three generals with him “agrees with you that we’re in a quagmire and that there’s no end in sight.” Each of the generals then voiced his concurrence with that claim.

The secretary added he had offered twice to resign and President George W. Bush did not accept his offers. Those offers came in the spring of last year when the evidence of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad was revealed.

Nonetheless, both Republicans and Democrats joined in directing Rumsfeld’s attention to indicators of waning public support for American involvement in Iraq. The Washington Post quoted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as stating: “I’m here to tell you, sir, in the most patriotic state that I can imagine, people are beginning to question, and I don’t think it’s a blip on the radar screen. I think we have a chronic problem on our hands.”

As The Washington Post reported, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., added, “I fear that American public opinion is tipping away from this effort.

Rumsfeld said if there is such a decline in support, “I have a feeling they’re getting pushed,” a reference to negative news coverage and commentary. He said he believes support for the war will rebound, according to the article.

Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, presented an assessment of the Iraqi resistance that differed with the rosier views of some administration officials. Abizaid said the resistance is about as strong as it was six months ago, and said there is the possibility the insurgents could have sufficient reserves to stage a “military surprise” like a surge in the number of coordinated attacks.

Still, he joined Rumsfeld and the others in presenting a picture of substantial progress in Iraq on all fronts—military, political and economic. The group said Iraqi security forces are getting better and that the people have more confidence in them and in the interim government. They said a new constitution and a new national government should be in place by year’s end.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in the article that he is opposed to “an open-ended commitment” of U.S. forces in Iraq and added that something must be done to “change the current dynamic in Iraq.” He said if Iraqi authorities fail to adhere to their timetable for a new constitution and national elections, that would cause the United States “to rethink our presence there.”

From the July 6-12, 2005, issue

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