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Rumsfeld Job Watch Keeps Washington Guessing


Rumors that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld plans to leave office have swirled around Washington, D.C., for years. Rumsfeld has often deflected the talk, saying he serves at the pleasure of President Bush. But with polls showing a greater majority of Americans now than ever disapprove of the Iraq War, there's again talk that Rumsfeld is on his way out.

Yesterday, Secretary Rumsfeld was repeatedly asked whether he planned to step down.

Secretary of State DONALD RUMSFELD: I'm hard at the job, working hard, and getting up every day and thinking what we can do for the troops and, uh, the wonderful people who serve our country.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Pentagon correspondent John Hendren was monitoring that briefing with Rumsfeld and he joins me now. Good morning John.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

Good morning Renee.

MONTAGNE: Where is all this talk coming from and what's behind it?

HENDREN: Well, first of all I think you have to preface any talk of Donald Rumsfeld resigning with a note that he has been a remarkable survival story. There have been calls for his resignation since he was first appointed. That said, recently this week, two-star general Paul Eaton wrote an op-ed in the New York Times and he said that Rumsfeld was incompetent strategically, and he called for Bush to offer to accept Rumsfeld's resignation. Rumsfeld has said he's offered his resignation a couple of times in the past.

Now, Eaton isn't just any general, he was the Army major general who was in charge of training the Iraqi military in 2003 and 2004. I'm also told there was a Pentagon briefing last month in which Rumsfeld was said to have told senior Pentagon staff that if they were gonna step down, they should do it now rather than compel the White House to replace them at the end of the term. A lot of people walked out of that meeting, or at least some of them, thinking that perhaps it would be Rumsfeld's time to step down if he were gonna do it as well.

All of that has sort of taken the sheen off of his command in these Pentagon briefings and it led to exchanges like this in yesterday's briefing:

Unidentified Speaker: Do you feel at all embattled at this point in your tenure of...

Mr. DONALD H. RUMSFELD (Secretary of Defense, United States Department of Defense): No...

Unidentified Speaker: ...due to the fact that...


Unidentified Speaker: ...aside from the retired two-star general calling you incompetent and asking you to step down in an op-ed over the weekend...

Mr. RUMSFELD: Mm hmm.

Unidentified Speaker: ...we also had a column from Maureen Dowd in which she quoted an unnamed administration official saying that you don't hold the same sway in meetings and that you're treated as "an eccentric old uncle who's ignored."

Mr. RUMSFELD: You like to repeat all that stuff don't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HENDREN: Now, Rumsfeld smiled as he said that but he did not look happy. He said if you believe Maureen Dowd you ought to get a life.

MONTAGNE: Well, again, calls for Secretary Rumsfeld's resignations are hardly new. What's the latest criticism all about?

HENDREN: I think it's the falling polls for support for the Iraq war. There's also a new book by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor called Cobra Two that blames Rumsfeld for being so preoccupied with his plan to transform the military into a pared down high-tech machine, that he missed the rise of insurgent warfare, not just in Iraq but in the war on terror generally.

MONTAGNE: If Rumsfeld were to leave, who's being talked about to take his place?

HENDREN: Well, Eaton recommends Senator Joseph Lieberman which is interesting because he's a Democrat, but he's been a strong war supporter and it would be something like what Bill Clinton did with Bill Cohen who at that time was a moderate Republican who Clinton appointed late in his term. Senator Dan Coats of Indiana--he was originally considered for Rumsfeld's job. He's a prime author of early transformation legislation that Rumsfeld pushed.

Richard Armitage was Colin Powell's deputy in the State Department. He was considered for Ambassador Negroponte's job as Director of Intelligence. Now, a lot of people would like to see John McCain in that job but he's not really controllable by the White House. Bush has had many conflicts with him. It would be bad for McCain's presidential run, probably, to clean up someone else's mess and, if I'm not mistaken, Arizona has a Democratic governor, which would mean the Republicans would lose a seat in Congress.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, with support for the war reaching new lows, what signals is the Pentagon sending out about how long the U.S. will stay in Iraq?

HENDREN: Well, General Casey, the top commander in Iraq and Secretary Rumsfeld have both said that they expect to draw down troops, but the Air Force has a 10-year plan to stand up Iraq's Air Force and that's gonna take a long time.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much John. That's NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Hendren
John Hendren began covering the Pentagon for NPR in November 2005. His reports can be heard throughout NPR News programming and newscasts.