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Bush: 'I'm the decider' on Rumsfeld

Defense secretary: Changes in military meet resistance



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Donald H. Rumsfeld
Joint Chiefs of Staff

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush sharply defended Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday, saying the embattled Pentagon chief is doing a "fine job" despite calls for his resignation from six retired military generals.

Bush already had interrupted his Easter vacation at Camp David, Maryland, on Friday to release a public statement of support for the defense secretary.

Despite a practice of not usually commenting on personnel moves, the president told reporters Tuesday that his vote of confidence for Rumsfeld was an effort to stamp out speculation about his status. (Watch Bush, generals on Rumsfeld defense moves -- 1:30)

"You can understand why, because we've got people's reputations at stake," Bush said of his usual aversion to speculation about personnel matters.

"And on Friday I stood up and said, 'I don't appreciate the speculation about Don Rumsfeld; he's doing a fine job; I strongly support him.' " (Watch how the Rumsfeld commotion evolved -- 2:39)

Pressed to respond to critics who say he is ignoring the advice of respected former military commanders, Bush vigorously stood by Rumsfeld.

"I listen to all voices, but mine is the final decision," he said. "And Don Rumsfeld is doing a fine job. He's not only transforming the military, he's fighting a war on terror. He's helping us fight a war on terror. I have strong confidence in Don Rumsfeld.

"I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense."

The president made the comments in the Rose Garden after introducing Rob Portman, the U.S. trade representative, as his pick to be the new White House budget director.

Bush also said he is nominating Portman's deputy, Susan Schwab, as the trade ambassador. (Full story)

Later, in a briefing at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld fielded more questions about the calls for him to step down. He said that he's not considering doing so and suggested that his critics are uncomfortable with change in the military.

"The president knows that I serve at his pleasure and that's that," the defense secretary said.

Rumsfeld was asked why he had offered his resignation twice as details emerged about the abuse of prisoners by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and was not doing so now. He replied, "Oh, just call it idiosyncratic."

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter, also issued a statement of "strong and continuing support" for Rumsfeld.

The California Republican said the secretary's decision on the size of the force needed to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "turned out to be sound."

"Clearly the lightning strike to Baghdad in 18 days validated Secretary Rumsfeld's invasion strategy," Hunter said. "With respect to the occupation, it is clear that asymmetric operations of the insurgents that focus mainly on roadside bombs and suicide bombers are not tactics which can be overwhelmed by simply increasing troop levels."

Proud of changes

In the Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld presented a long list of developments of the past five years -- ranging from arms reduction agreements with Russia, to strengthening the role of special operations forces, to base closings -- and added, "Every one of those changes that I just described has met resistance."

Rumseld said he was proud of the changes he had made, and continued, "At the same time, we had a war in Afghanistan, we've got a war in Iraq, and we've got the global war on terror going on."

He said he understood that there would always be differences of opinion about his decisions regarding Iraq.

"That's a healthy thing in this country. We ought to respect it and get about our business.

"But if it paralyzes people because someone doesn't agree with them, my goodness gracious, we wouldn't be able to do anything," Rumsfeld said.

Recently, six retired generals -- including former commanders of two Army divisions that saw combat in Iraq -- have called for Rumsfeld to resign.

They accuse him of ignoring advice from senior officers about how to prosecute the war and sending too few troops into Iraq to manage the occupation after the March 2003 invasion.

Those calling for Rumsfeld's resignation are retired Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, who led the 82nd Airborne Division during its mission in Iraq; former U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Anthony Zinni; retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who led the 1st Infantry Division in northern Iraq in 2004-2005; retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton; retired Army Maj. Gen. John Riggs; and retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold.

Meeting of generals

Tuesday afternoon, Rumsfeld met with a group of about 15 retired generals and other military analysts who regularly appear on television and in newspapers. The meeting was apparently called in response to the recent uproar.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald Shepperd, a CNN military analyst who attended the session, said very little of the direct criticism of the secretary was discussed during the meeting, though it appeared that Rumsfeld was distracted by the retired generals' comments.

However, despite the criticism, Shepperd said, Rumsfeld and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to be upbeat.

"The secretary was really in a good mood, so was the chairman," Sheppard said. "These people are not troubled people. They are concerned people and they are concerned about what is going on."

According to Sheppard, Pace said he was surprised by the criticism of the policy in Iraq from the retired generals, because he said the commanders were invited to discuss the Iraq war plan while it was being formed.

When discussing the current status of the war, Rumsfeld and Pace pointed to the formation of an Iraqi government as the next key sign of progress in Iraq, Sheppard said. Negotiations on a unity government have been hampered by sectarian squabbles since the elections in December.

"They are happy with the progress of the Iraqi security forces," Sheppard said, but those forces "have to be loyal to an elected government that is competent."

"That's the most difficult challenge in Iraq," he said. "It's not the insurgency. It's the formation and election and performance of an Iraqi government that gains the confidence of the people, just like in this country."

CNN's Ed Henry and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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