Donald Rumsfeld seemed safe again in his job yesterday following an unequivocal show of support from President Bush for his beleaguered Pentagon chief. But the morass in Iraq, Mr Bush's own dismal approval ratings and the widespread dislike of the Defence Secretary within the military mean that the respite could be short-lived.
Mr Bush's unusual written statement, issued on Good Friday afternoon from the presidential retreat at Camp David, came in answer to a barrage of demands for Mr Rumsfeld's resignation from half a dozen former senior generals - complaints that are believed to mirror the mood of many active-duty officers unable to speak out.
White House officials said yesterday that a key factor in Mr Bush's decision to go public was his concern that the controversy might sap morale among US troops on the ground in Iraq, where casualties are again on the rise after a lull in March. More than 40 US soldiers have been killed this month so far, and Thursday saw one of the bloodiest engagements in months in rebellious al-Anbar province, in which two Marines died and 22 were wounded. In all, almost 2,400 American servicemen have been killed in the war.
Even more importantly, however, Mr Rumsfeld - abrasive, aggressive and widely criticised inside and outside the Pentagon for micro-managing the war - is the embodiment of the Iraq strategy that, for better or worse, now defines Mr Bush's entire presidency.
The statement confronted the complaints head on and in deliberately personal terms. Mr Bush stressed: "I have seen firsthand how Don relies upon our military commanders in the field and at the Pentagon to make decisions about how to best complete these missions." Mr Rumsfeld's "energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this period", the President declared. The Defence Secretary enjoyed "my full support and deepest appreciation".
Typically, the man at the centre of the storm was breezily dismissive of the criticism. He said that he respected the views of his critics, and told an interviewer from al-Arabiya television that there were "thousands and thousands of admirals and generals". It would be like a "merry-go-round" if "every time two or three people disagreed we changed the Secretary of Defence of the United States".
That is how the administration, too, sees matters. But Democrats liken the moment to the President's infamous "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" praise for Michael Brown, the former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in the wake of last year's Hurricane Katrina - an endorsement followed days later by Mr Brown's forced resignation.
"Does this chorus [of criticism] become more pronounced? I think that might happen," said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, predicting that other former senior officers may speak out against Mr Rumsfeld. If they do, the US could find itself at a dangerous juncture, calling into question the civilian control of the military enshrined in the constitution. Twice before, the Defence Secretary has offered to resign, in the aftermath of the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal. But each time he was turned down by Mr Bush.
The latest show of support comes amid new allegations of Mr Rumsfeld's responsibility for prison abuse. The humanitarian group Human Rights Watch said yesterday that Mr Rumsfeld could be "criminally liable" for what it described as the torture of a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. It was referring to documents obtained by online magazine Salon.com, suggesting he had been "personally involved" in the interrogation of Mohammed al-Kahtani, a top al-Qa'ida suspect in 2002 and 2003.Reuse content