WASHINGTON - In the old Hollywood westerns, the white settlers circle the wagons to defend themselves against attacks by the Indians until the U.S. Cavalry can arrive to rescue them and chase off their assailants. But in Washington over the last few days it seems that the Cavalry has joined the Indians.
U.S. President George W. Bush, backed by his vice president and national security adviser, have been circling the wagons around Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld since the White House told reporters that the president had given him a mild rebuke over the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq.
But the embattled Pentagon chief may have made too made enemies -- particularly within his armed forces -- to be saved.
While Bush praised Rumsfeld for ”doing a superb job” during a rare visit to the Pentagon Monday morning, his words were somehow unable to overcome the distinct sounds of knives being sharpened in the hallways just outside, as well as across town on Capitol Hill and at the State Department, where Secretary of State (and former army general) Colin Powell compared the possible impact on U.S. foreign policy of the abuse photographs to the 1969 disclosure of the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam.
The big news of the day was that the Army Times, which, along with the major dailies of the other armed services, is published by a private company, called for both Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, to step down in light of the scandal surrounding the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
''This was not just a failure of leadership at the local command level'', said the Army Times lead editorial, which also appeared in the other service newspapers. ''This was failure that ran straight to the top. Accountability here is essential -- even if that means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war''. It said Rumsfeld's moves from the outset of the ''war on terror'' had delivered the message to the U.S. troops that ''anything goes''.
The editorial came as new photos documenting abuses -- including prison dogs attacking a naked Iraqi detainee -- were published by newspapers across the country Monday morning, and reflected a growing sense here that the scandal is far from playing out, if only because many of Rumsfeld's -- and the Bush administration's -- critics see the abuse crisis as symptomatic of all that has gone wrong in Iraq and the ''war on terrorism''.
Foremost among these are the ex-military and even active-duty military who have become increasingly outspoken about their unhappiness with the way the war has been conducted.
A number of prominent retired officers, such as the former head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Anthony Zinni, and his counterpart in the Southern Command, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, have warned for more than a year that Rumsfeld, in his zeal to ''transform'' the military into a ''leaner, meaner'' global force, was dangerously overstretching the U.S. army, particularly in Iraq.
Top army officers have also made little secret of their resentment of the way Rumsfeld and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- who, like other top Pentagon civilians in the Bush administration, have never served in combat -- dismissed the former Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki.
Shinseki presciently warned before the war that at least 200,000 troops would be needed to occupy Iraq after an invasion. Wolfowitz denounced that estimate as ''wildly off the mark'', while, in a major break with tradition, neither Rumsfeld nor Wolfowitz attended Shinseki's farewell ceremony where he cautioned against ''a 12-division strategy for a 10-division army''.
What began as the shouts of a few top retired officers when the first Abu Ghraib photos were published ten days ago has now become a veritable clamour. The Army Times editorial is just the latest, if most striking, example.
''Rumsfeld is paying the price for the way he has run the Department of Defence for more than three years, but the price is being paid by George W. Bush'', wrote Robert Novak, a Washington Post columnist whose close ties to the military brass go back more than 30 years.
''From the first month of the Bush administration, I have heard complaints from old military hands -- some in uniform, some not -- that the new secretary's arrogance and insularity were creating a dysfunctional Pentagon'', he wrote in a column that also quoted the private intelligence group, Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting), as concluding that Rumsfeld has ''consistently managed to get the strategic and organisational questions wrong''.
Even more remarkable, perhaps, was the a front-page article Sunday by the Post's veteran military correspondent, Tom Ricks, titled, ”Dissension Grows in Senior Ranks on War Strategy”. The article quoted army Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq, as insisting that U.S. forces were winning the war in Iraq at the tactical level but, ''strategically, we are (losing it).''
The article also cited army Col. Paul Hughes, the first director of strategic planning for the U.S. occupation in Iraq, as comparing the situation there with the U.S. defeat in Vietnam: ''Unless we have coherency in our policy, we will lose strategically'', he said, adding, ''We don't understand the war we're in''.
''It is doubtful we can go on much longer like this'', said one unidentified ''senior general'' at the Pentagon who pointed to Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz as responsible for the lack of adequate planning before the invasion. ''The American people may not stand for it -- and they should not''.
Ricks reported that a number of his interviewees had stressed that Rumsfeld and his top civilian aides were the object of a ''profound anger (that) is building within the army''.
That anger may well be responsible for the most significant defection to date among Republican Party lawmakers from the White House line that calls from members of the Democratic Party for Rumsfeld's resignation are politically motivated.
On Sunday, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a TV interview on the CBS network, ''It's still in question whether ... Rumsfeld and, quite frankly, General Myers can command the respect and the trust and the confidence of the military,'' given their handling of the prison abuse scandal.
He was followed on the television programme by another more conservative Republican senator who also served in the military, Lindsey Graham. He echoed Democratic arguments, saying he believed the scandal indicated a ''systemic failure'' and that ''we just don't want a bunch of privates and sergeants to be the scapegoats here.''
Their remarks came on the heels of the widely quoted statement last week by a senior conservative Democrat and veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars, congressman John Murtha, that the conflict in Iraq was ''unwinnable''.
Murtha, who is regarded as particularly close to the uniformed military and who strongly supported the invasion, has travelled frequently to Iraq since last July.
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service