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Rumsfeld Defends Himself as Criticism from Generals Mount

April 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Two views of what’s going on now. Retired General John Keane had a 37-year career in the U.S. Army, serving as Army vice chief of staff from 1999 to 2003, and as acting Army chief of staff during the summer of 2003.

Lawrence Korb served as assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. He’s also a Navy and Navy Reserve veteran. He’s now at the Center for American Progress, a liberal study group.

General, are the generals who are speaking out doing so? Is it wrong for them to do so?

GEN. JOHN KEANE, Retired, U.S. Army: I think it’s inappropriate. It’s disturbing. And I think it’s somewhat unprecedented, as well, to have retired general officers cross a line, I think, that many people have been reluctant to cross.

And by that, I mean they’re using the influence that they have and the esteem that the American public give to the military at large, and as a result of that, the respect and admiration they have for generals who lead this wonderful military.

They’re using that kind of moral support they have for the American people to leverage the media and influence the people in helping to remove a cabinet-level officer who’s been duly appointed by an elected president. And by doing that, you are directly involved in political confrontation in this country. And I think that is wrong and inappropriate for retired general officers.

If they object to policies, there’s a place to do that when they were on active duty. They can resign, if it’s so compelling, and they can even make a statement to that effect, if they really feel the moral obligation to do that. The people would understand. They would register it, but this I think is wrong.

JIM LEHRER: Wrong and inappropriate, Secretary Korb?

LAWRENCE KORB, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense: No, I think it’s exactly the right thing, because this country needs to know that the policy in Iraq is not working.

And when civilian analysts or even elected legislators complain they don’t have the same cache with the public as these generals, particularly — three of them have been in Iraq commanding the 82nd Airborne, the First Armored Division and running the training. I think that will get the American people to say, “You know, we need a change in policy,” and that’s the key thing.

And as retired officers, they’re citizens now. And citizens have an obligation to the country, not to a particular administration.

And I think that, you know, people are talking about what’s inappropriate for generals. During the Gulf War, I watched the cable news. I saw all these retired generals acting as cheerleaders. And I found out later on they were getting talking points from the Pentagon. Well, if they could do that, I think it’s certainly appropriate for people who disagree and feel the country’s on the wrong track to say so.

JIM LEHRER: They have an obligation to speak up?

LAWRENCE KORB: I don’t think they have an obligation, but I think that they basically have to make a decision as citizens whether, in fact, this country that they love and serve is on the right track.

JIM LEHRER: What about that, General?

GEN. JOHN KEANE: Well, I think — the other point I think it does is it undermines the civilian-military relationship, and it makes it tougher for the people on active duty to execute their orders. And I was talking to a…

JIM LEHRER: In what way?

GEN. JOHN KEANE: Well, I was talking to a senior four-star who works in the Pentagon today, and we were talking on another issue. Naturally, we came around to this discussion of this.

And one of his frustrations — he says: You know, look, Jack, you know, I’ve got my duties to perform here. Every single day, I work with civilian leadership here. I don’t want them wondering, you know, who I really am. Am I really loyal to them? Am I going to write a book later? Am I going to come out and engineer a removal of a senior officer who’s serving as a civilian appointee in the government?

I think that’s undermining the leadership.

JIM LEHRER: Undermining the leadership?

LAWRENCE KORB: Oh, no way. I mean, look, with Paul O’Neill as secretary of the treasury left, he basically wrote a book with Ron Suskind. All kinds of people write books when they leave. I’ll go back — General Westmoreland wrote a book when he left, you know, in Vietnam.

It’s interesting, when you talk about this and what it does, what do you think it did when General Schwarzkopf went to the Republican National Convention and basically said Clinton had ruined the military? Well, the military was in terrific shape. This is the military that fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was basically not changed by Secretary Rumsfeld. And…

JIM LEHRER: And your point is that this has been going on before…

LAWRENCE KORB: Definitely. You talk about undermining. What about when General Powell tried to stop President Clinton from fulfilling a campaign promise? And I’m not just talking about testifying before Congress when they had the hearings on gays in the military; I’m talking about, from the time that the first President Bush had been defeated before President Clinton took office, going out and laying the groundwork for that? To me that was much more serious than this.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see this — and you clearly don’t agree, then, with Secretary Korb here that this is not unprecedented. There are examples of other generals, retired generals, speaking up in political matters.

GEN. JOHN KEANE: This piece is unprecedented, in my view, to engineer the removal of a cabinet-level officer. I also disagree. I think this has been about a 10-plus-year journey that we’ve been on, with general officers coming forward and initially choosing sides to support political candidates.

I believe also that’s…

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think they should be doing that.

GEN. JOHN KEANE: I don’t think they should be…

JIM LEHRER: You think Schwarzkopf was wrong?

GEN. JOHN KEANE: I disagree with general officers who support publicly political candidates. I think it’s fine to have as much energy as we want as private citizens, but to do that publicly, the only reason they’re doing that — and the only reason people are listening to them — is because there’s very unique relationship that we have in American life.

And we’re able to carry our rank with us into the retired life. And it has a lot to do with the performance that’s been earned by our soldiers, that this is given to generals and other leaders. And I think that’s eventually this will be a gradual erosion of who we are and what we stand for, when we no longer are apolitical in a public manner.

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, you know, it’s interesting. This administration is being hoisted on its own petard. They encouraged generals to endorse President Bush in the 2000 campaign, and all kinds of people, and were going around saying things about the military that were not true.

I mean, the military that this administration inherited was terrific. You just look at how well they performed on the battlefield. And this idea that Rumsfeld had to come in and transform it? The military certainly needed to change, and it needed to adapt, but it was already moving in that direction.

JIM LEHRER: What about that? They asked for this. The Bush administration asked for this by bringing Tommy Franks and Schwarzkopf and others into the political thing themselves.

GEN. JOHN KEANE: Well, those generals made that decision. I think it…

JIM LEHRER: So they were wrong, too, you think?

GEN. JOHN KEANE: Yes, dead wrong, in my view. Any administration is going to see what they can get here, in trying to get generals to support them, because they know they carry some support based on their past.

JIM LEHRER: What about General Keane’s point, Secretary Korb, that this over time now is going to erode the faith the American people have in the professional military?

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, I think this is very small compared to some of the other things I spoke about. I mean, if you take a look at…

JIM LEHRER: In other words, going after a secretary of defense?

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, I mean, but basically what they’re saying is Rumsfeld should resign, because we need to change the policy. The policy is not working.

And let me tell you something else I think is important: When Condi Rice, Secretary Rice, came out and said, “We’ve made thousands of tactical mistakes,” she’s basically saying it’s the military’s fault for the mess we’re in Iraq.

It’s a strategic mistake. And if you read General Newbold, he was the Marine general who wrote in “Time” magazine, he pointed out this wasn’t a tactical thing. These were big strategic mistakes. And he says he should have spoken up more on active duty.

GEN. JOHN KEANE: Well, I disagree with some of that. I believe strongly, having been there and participated in some of this, that we have a shared responsibility when we go to war. And the war plan was not Rumsfeld’s war plan.

Certainly, at some point, he embraced it, because Tommy Franks developed it, the Joint Chiefs approved it. We had lots of questions about it. At the end of the day, it received our full support, and it became his war plan.

But we had some failings as a result of that. I believe it’s our responsibility as senior leaders to have recognized that one of the options that Saddam Hussein had was not to yield his regime, to fight us indirectly in an insurgency. We never considered that as a realistic option.

That’s not Secretary Rumsfeld’s responsibility to figure that out. We know what the enemy can do. We know what his capabilities are; he does not. We did not bring that to him as a realistic option.

JIM LEHRER: We, meaning the military?

GEN. JOHN KEANE: We, meaning the senior military leaders. It’s conventional to blame the intel people; I don’t blame them for that. We were not inside the thinking process of Saddam Hussein.

But we have 35 years of judgment and experience that we should have applied here. And it’s our fault. I blame myself for this. I was party to it. We didn’t see it coming.

The second thing is we put an army on the battlefield that I had been a part of for 37 years. The truth of the matter is: It doesn’t have any doctrine, nor was it educated and trained, to deal with an insurgency. And that insurgency challenged us, as I knew it would for that first year.

After the Vietnam War, we purged ourselves of everything that dealt with irregular warfare or insurgency, because it had to do with how we lost that war. In hindsight, that was a bad decision. But my point is, is that you cannot…

JIM LEHRER: Blame…

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. JOHN KEANE: … draw a circle around the civilian leadership and blame them all. We have responsibility.

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, if anything, before September 11th, Rumsfeld was trying to even move the Army further away from nation-building. I mean, they were complaining that the Clinton administration was using the military for inappropriate roles.

And what about, you know, Abu Ghraib, where Rumsfeld we know overruled the military lawyers and the services and gave guidance to what could be done at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. He offered to resign; he should have just resigned. He doesn’t need to offer. He can just say, “I’m going. I recognize that.”

And, you know, if Rumsfeld would resign, I think not only could we get a different policy, but the signal it would send to our enemies, I think, would be terrific, that, in fact, somebody takes responsibility for all of these horrible things that are occurring.

JIM LEHRER: The president’s made it very clear today that isn’t going to happen. In fact, he said I’m the decider, and I’ve decided this man will remain secretary of defense.

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, I know he says that, but the longer he stays there, I think the worse it’s going to be for the security of the nation. And I think that’s why these generals are concerned, because there’s not only their security, but what about the Army, the future of the Army, the problems we’re having with recruiting people, and the overstretching of the ground forces?

JIM LEHRER: What about that point? Whether or not your fellow generals should be speaking out or not, should somebody be paying attention to what they’re saying? And should Rumsfeld, in fact, go, for the good of the Army and all of the things that Secretary Korb just said?

GEN. JOHN KEANE: Well, certainly, I think the leadership of the country is paying attention. The opposition party is paying attention. The American people is paying attention. I mean, the way to deal with this has always been in the political context, but the generals have put themselves in the middle of that context.

We have the people. We have the Congress. We have the executive branch that deals with all of this. And the media helps to keep it up front so people can understand it. I don’t believe the generals should have participated in it, and nor am I going to participate in it right now and respond to that question.

JIM LEHRER: General Batiste said — we just ran the clip — said on our program last week that he felt he had an obligation to the American people to speak out as a former military leader. You don’t feel that way?

GEN. JOHN KEANE: Well, absolutely not.

JIM LEHRER: What if you felt that the policy was wrong and something that you personally felt that Rumsfeld…

GEN. JOHN KEANE: If I felt the policy had been wrong when I was on active duty and I was not able to adjust the policy, then you have to do something about it. But, first of all, I mean, let’s be clear about this: Everybody understands that the executive branch makes the policy and your military executes policy. If we’re going to deal with every single policy that is made by the executive branch that has some tangential impact on the military and make judgments about that, you’re going to drive a dagger into what the military service is supposed to do.

And I don’t believe that’s our providence. We have leaders at the very top of the organization who are working with the civilian leadership, and it’s their duty to influence that policy if they have a problem with it.

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, let me tell you where I think the active-duty military is…

JIM LEHRER: Just a few seconds left.

LAWRENCE KORB: OK. General Pace comes to the Council on Foreign Relations in early 2004. He’s asked, “No weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaida, was the war worth it?” He should have said, “I just do what my bosses tell me.”

Instead, he gave this defense about democracy. He had crossed the line, in my view. And if I go back and I look at the statements that Generals Pace and Myers have made, some on your show, about how well things are going in Iraq, they’re simply not true.

JIM LEHRER: In a word, do you believe the line has been crossed now, that professional retired military will speak out in the future about things they don’t like?

LAWRENCE KORB: I think they will, and I think it’s healthy.

GEN. JOHN KEANE: I think there will be a backlash by thoughtful people, and I think there will be considerably less of it in the future as a result of that backlash.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.

LAWRENCE KORB: Thank you.