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JOAN VENNOCHI

Rumsfeld must go

JOHN McCAIN is an excellent politician who would also make a very good newspaper editor. Why? He knows how to find the next big story: The Arizona senator is focusing on the weaknesses of the man who is now secretary of defense -- not on the weaknesses of the man who will not be secretary of homeland security.

In an interview with the Associated Press this week, McCain said he has "no confidence" in Donald H. Rumsfeld, citing the defense secretary's handling of the war in Iraq.

Rumsfeld recently reminded the nation of his arrogant and misguided management style on Dec. 8 in Kuwait. Asked why troops are fighting this war without proper armor for their vehicles, Rumsfeld replied, "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Add that statement to a performance review that includes going to war with some crazy, pared-down version of the troop strength that is actually needed in Iraq, the disaster of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, and continuing war casualties. Heading into his second term, President Bush is replacing nine Cabinet secretaries, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Why not Rumsfeld?

Rumsfeld gained some temporary cover with the ongoing saga of Bernard B. Kerik, the former NYPD commissioner whose bid to become homeland security czar exploded in an irresistible story line. The Kerik story involves extramarital sex, a "love nest" overlooking the ruins of the World Trade Center, alleged links to crime figures, and a very unfortunate link to his friend and business partner, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The juicy tale has the potential to greatly damage Giuliani's national ambitions, since it clearly calls into question Giuliani's judgment in recommending his former police commissioner and protege to the Bush White House. What did Giuliani know about the trail of wronged women and shady deals left in Kerik's egomaniacal wake? And if he didn't know about them, why didn't he? It also raises serious questions about the White House vetting system.

But soon enough the heat should be rightly back on Rumsfeld.

McCain is not the only Republican to publicly criticize Rumsfeld. "I don't like the way he has done some things. I think they have been irresponsible," Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said recently on CNN after returning from Iraq. "I don't like the way we went into Iraq. We didn't go into Iraq with enough troops."

And retired General Norman Schwarzkopf, interviewed recently on MSNBC-TV's "Hardball," criticized Rumsfeld for his reply in Kuwait regarding the lack of armor on many military vehicles. "I was very, very disappointed -- no, let me put it stronger -- I was angry by the words of the secretary of defense when he laid it all on the Army, as if he, as the secretary of defense, didn't have anything to do with the Army and the Army was over there doing it themselves, screwing up," said Schwarzkopf, a registered independent who campaigned for Bush in the last two presidential elections.

There is a drumbeat, and at this moment it is coming from the right, not the left. In The Washington Post, conservative columnist William Kristol wrote this week about Rumsfeld's tenure and pass-the-buck mentality regarding war in Iraq and other military matters and concluded, "These soldiers deserve a better defense secretary than the one we have."

During the recent presidential campaign, John Kerry, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee, called several times for Rumsfeld's resignation. Kerry cited the defense department's miscalculation on troop strength and the conclusion of an independent panel that higher command was also responsible for abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Kerry was correct. There should be accountability, and Rumsfeld should be held accountable.

McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former POW, has the clout and forum to make things uncomfortable for Bush and Rumsfeld. The Arizona Republican is viewed as a prospective presidential candidate in 2008 and commands huge respect in the national media. In the AP interview, he did not call for Rumsfeld's resignation, saying that Bush "can have the team that he wants around him."

In this case, the master of Politics 101 can follow the same script as any practitioner of Journalism 101: Who, what, when, where, and why?

Donald H. Rumsfeld continues as secretary of defense. Why?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com. 

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