Leading article: Misplaced loyalty will only harm the President

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The Independent Online

So far, Mr Bush is heeding the Texas senator's advice and giving no quarter to what has already been excitedly dubbed "the generals' revolt". Firstly the President has come out with fighting talk of his own, breaking off his holiday to restate his "full support" for the Defense Secretary. Secondly, we have had an unusual public counterblast to the generals in the form of a one-page memorandum from the Defense Department, which a spokesman has described as a "fact sheet". Noting Mr Rumsfeld's 139 meetings with the joint chiefs of staff since 2005, among other matters, it explains that more than 8,000 active or retired US officers are alive today - a "fact" whose release was designed to put talk of seven generals' criticisms in perspective.

Tactically, Mr Bush may have a point in fearing that if he lets Mr Rumsfeld go at this juncture, he will not end the blame game in Washington over Iraq, for history is replete with awful warnings of leaders, from Louis XVI to Harold Macmillan, whose predicament worsened the moment they allowed their circling opponents to scent fear, or blood.

Mr Bush's problem is that he is demonstrating loyalty to the wrong man, and it may do him no good at all. When historians look back on his presidency and ask why it unravelled in the second term, they will fix on Abu Ghraib in 2004 as a defining moment and a lost opportunity. Had Mr Bush dispensed then with his Defense Secretary, he might have put some distance between his presidency and a scandal which, as much as the actual invasion itself, has inflicted irreparable damage on America's standing abroad, shattering its claim to be exercising some kind of moral supremacy.

Certainly, Mr Rumsfeld deserved to go, and not simply on account of the grotesque acts which Lynndie England and others perpetrated in the Baghdad jail, but for his insistence that Iraq could be subdued with minimal troop numbers and a good deal of high tech - a monumental error for which the US has paid dear. Instead, with Mr Cheney whispering self-interested counsels of fortitude into his ear, Mr Bush clung on to his aide, assuming the White House could tough it out and wait for Iraq to disappear from the agenda.

The gamble has failed, simply because Iraq is very much still with us, while, an inchoate demand for someone important to be sacrificed, somewhere, over the war, grows louder. Nevertheless, the test of Bush's strategy of no surrender will not come until the autumn mid-term elections, when Republicans will have a fight on their hands to defend majorities in both houses of Congress from the Democrats.

If Republicans do better than their poor ratings now suggest, Bush will feel vindicated. If not, and he finds himself hostage to a Democrat majority in either house, he may wonder whether clinging to such a discredited figure as Mr Rumsfeld was such a good idea.

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