WASHINGTON – President Bush issued a strong statement of support for Donald Rumsfeld on Friday despite several calls for the defense secretary's resignation by six ex-generals this month.
When the president spoke to Rumsfeld earlier in the day about ongoing military operations in the War on Terror, Bush said he "reiterated my strong support for his leadership during this historic and challenging time for our nation."
"I have seen first-hand how Don relies upon our military commanders in the field and at the Pentagon to make decisions about how best to complete these missions," Bush said in a statement issued while he was spending Easter weekend at Camp David. "Secretary Rumsfeld's energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this critical period. He has my full support and deepest appreciation."
Some former top military generals say Rumsfeld has not been held accountable for failures in Iraq and ignores the advice of generals. Rumsfeld has no plans to step down, a senior Pentagon official said Friday.
"The fact that two or three or four retired people have different views, I respect their views," Rumsfeld said in an interview aired Friday on Al-Arabiya television, adding he intends to serve at the pleasure of the president. "But obviously if, out of thousands and thousands of admirals and generals, if every time two or three people disagreed we changed the secretary of defense of the United States, it would be like a merry-go-round."
Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, one of the men calling for Rumsfeld's ouster, on Friday denied that the slew of anti-Rumsfeld comments constitute a coordinated effort to get him fired, and called the recent series of critical statements "absolutely coincidental."
"I have not talked to the other generals," Batiste, interviewed from Rochester, N.Y., said on NBC"s "Today" show. Nevertheless, he said he thinks the clamor for Rumsfeld to step down is "happening for a reason."
Asked why he was focusing his criticism on Rumsfeld and not Bush, Batiste replied, "My focus is on the Department of Defense. It's what I know."
The White House backs Rumsfeld, saying Bush is confident in the top military leader's abilities.
"The Department of Defense has been tasked with many difficult missions," Bush said in his Friday statement. "Upon assuming office, I asked Don to transform the largest department in our government. That kind of change is hard, but our nation must have a military that is fully prepared to confront the dangerous threats of the 21st century. Don and our military commanders have also been tasked to take the fight to the enemy abroad on multiple fronts."
The concerns come as the White House sees its first big change in Bush's loyal staff with the departure of Chief of Staff Andy Card. White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten takes over the reins next week.
"The president believes Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a very fine job during a challenging period in our nation's history," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said as two more retired generals called for the secretary's resignation Thursday, bringing the number this month to six.
Rumsfeld told reporters earlier this week that he's not surprised to hear criticism during a war.
"I think one ought to expect that when you're involved in something that's controversial as certainly this war is, one ought to expect that," Rumsfeld said.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, told FOX News that she finds the criticism by ex-generals "troubling."
"It is troubling and I think there are many facets to generals speaking out after they have retired," Hutchison said. "I think that the president has to make the decision and you don't dump someone because of a personality conflict, you dump someone if you don't have confidence in the direction the Pentagon is going, and the president needs to make that decision."
Military experts say the parade of recently retired military brass calling for Rumsfeld's resignation is troubling and threatens to undermine strong support that Bush has enjoyed among the officer corps and troops.
With public anti-war sentiment increasing, "the president and his team cannot afford to lose that support," said Kurt Campbell, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division forces in Iraq, said he declined an opportunity to get a promotion to the rank of lieutenant general and return to the country as the No. 2 U.S. military officer because he could not accept Rumsfeld's tough management style.
He said he doesn't think Rumsfeld has been sufficiently accountable for the plan that led to the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein, although he also said that "we have no option but to succeed in Iraq."
"I support civilian control (of the military) completely," Batiste told interviewers on CBS's "The Early Show."
But, he added, "we went to war with a flawed plan that didn't account for the hard work to build the peace after we took down the regime. We also served under a secretary of defense who didn't understand leadership, who was abusive, who was arrogant, and who didn't build a strong team."
Retired Army Major Gen. John Riggs told National Public Radio that Rumsfeld fostered an "atmosphere of arrogance." Retired Army Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack said he also has doubts of Rumsfeld's abilities to understand the principles of war.
"I really believe that we need a new secretary of defense because Secretary Rumsfeld carries way too much baggage with him. ... I think we need senior military leaders who understand the principles of war and apply them ruthlessly, and when the time comes, they need to call it like it is," Swannack said.
Another ex-general said Rumsfeld should be held accountable for failures in Iraq.
"He has shown himself incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically, and is far more than anyone responsible for what has happened to our important mission in Iraq. ... Mr. Rumsfeld must step down," said Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton.
Earlier calls for Rumsfeld's replacement came from retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold.
The defense secretary has been a lightning rod for criticism since the war began in March 2003.
He was blamed for committing too few U.S. troops and for underestimating the strength of the insurgency. He took heat in 2004 over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the U.S. Army-run Abu Ghraib prison, and for a brusque response he gave to an Army National Guard soldier in Kuwait who questioned him on inadequate armor.
Pentagon spokesman Eric Ruff said Thursday that Rumsfeld has not talked to the White House about resigning — and is not considering it.
"I don't know how many generals there have been in the last five years that have served in the United States Armed Services, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds," Rumsfeld said. "And there are several who have opinions, and there's nothing wrong with people having opinions."
FOX News' Nick Simeone and The Associated Press contributed to this report.