Bush Leagues Go On Defensive as War Criticism Mounts

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s call on Thursday for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign – delivered before television cameras in a one-on-one confrontation at a hearing – was only the latest note in a crescendo of criticisms against the Bush administration as polls show Americans souring on the war in Iraq.

And while the defense secretary showed no inclination to march to Kennedy’s orders, he and other top administration officials might be shaping their rhetoric in response to the shifting public sentiment.

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld told lawmakers, “From the beginning of this we have recognized that this is a tough business. It is difficult. That it is dangerous, and that it is not predictable.”

Rumsfeld also spoke of President Lincoln’s unpopularity in 1864 because of the protracted Civil War, and he recited Lincoln’s remarks to an Ohio regiment.

“I quote: ‘I wish it might be more generally and universally understood what the country is now engaged in,’ ” Rumsfeld said. ” ‘There may be mistakes made sometimes; and things may be done wrong, while the officers of the government do all they can to prevent mistakes. But I beg of you, as citizens of this great republic, not to let your minds be carried off from the great work we have before us.’ ”

In a CNN interview later in the day, Vice President Dick Cheney also tapped imagery from past military successes.

“If you look back at World War II, the toughest battles, the most difficult battles, both in Europe and in the Pacific, occurred a few months before the end,” he said.

And Cheney sought to recast a recent assertion he made on the same network, seized on by some as a sign the administration is misleading Americans: that insurgents were in “the last throes.” Testifying earlier in the day on Capitol Hill, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said that the insurgency appeared as strong as it had been six months before and had more foreign fighters. Cheney explained his own assessment by saying, “If you look at what the dictionary says about ‘throes,’ it can still be a violent period.”

Democratic criticisms have built as independent national polls in the last two week show majorities beginning to favor at least partial withdrawal, and rising numbers of Americans doubtful U.S. goals will be accomplished in Iraq or are worth the loss of life.

At the Senate hearing, Kennedy said Iraq had become a quagmire for the United States and accused the defense secretary of having misled Americans prior to and throughout the war.

“In baseball, it’s three strikes, you’re out. What is it for the secretary of defense?” Kennedy said. “Isn’t it time for you to resign?”

Rumsfeld told Kennedy he disagreed with his characterizations of the war.

“The idea that what’s happening over there is a quagmire is so fundamentally inconsistent with the facts,” he said. “The reality is that they are making political progress without question.”

Rumsfeld also said he’d twice offered his resignation to the president, but that Bush wished for him to stay. Rumsfeld and the White House have maintained their opposition to the idea of publicly stating a timetable for withdrawal _ a move they say would tip their hand to insurgents unnecessarily.

Whether Democrats’ timing is cynical is a matter of debate. Dana Dillon, a longtime Army intelligence and foreign affairs officer who is now a senior analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said there is obvious politicking in the Democrats’ approach, but he added, “I don’t think it’s totally cynical.”

“It’s not just the Democrats, there are number of Republicans who are questioning the war,” he said.

Nearing four years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks triggered the president’s war on terror, Dillon said it’s only natural that Americans would question the direction. “People are becoming more concerned about the costs, and wondering when we will be able to say it’s over or at least cut back.”

Dillon’s concern is that legitimate criticism could be overtaken by rhetoric.

“Comparing Guantanamo Bay to the killing fields in Cambodia, I think that kind of language is grossly exaggerated and doesn’t help,” he said. “Eventually, if they destroy the morale at home, they destroy the morale of the soldiers in the field.”

But Dillon says the administration also brought some of the criticism on itself through its public relations approach up until now.

“There seems to be a tendency to say, ‘We see the light at the end of the tunnel,’ when in fact the light is a long, long ways off,” he said. “I think it would help if the administration went back to what it did in the beginning and talk about the long war, that it is painful.”

The president, who is to meet Friday with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Washington, also plans to address Americans June 28 on the status of the conflict.