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Time for Rumsfeld to go?

Are the wagons being circled around the defense secretary?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS

George W. Bush
Donald H. Rumsfeld
Donald Regan
Gerald Rudolph Ford

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Since our modern, civilized society has outlawed bear baiting and cock fighting, we have to make do with watching high government officials try to fend off demands for their heads.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is only the latest example. But how do we know when the White House is circling the wagons -- or greasing the skids?

Sometimes you don't need any guidance; the departure is swift, the reason blatantly obvious. Vice President Spiro Agnew quit in 1973 as part of a plea bargain to stay out of prison for taking bribes. President Ford fired Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz in 1976 for telling an obscene, racist joke.

And sometimes there is no backroom campaign. President Carter fired four Cabinet secretaries in 1979 with virtually no warning shortly after delivering a speech about the national mood.

Other times the maneuvering is worthy of drama -- or maybe farce. President Reagan's chief of staff, Donald Regan, incurred the wrath of staffers for not protecting the president from the Iran-Contra mess, along with his imperious style.

But when he angered Nancy Reagan, his fate was sealed. A series of leaks to the media set the stage for Regan's exit. In fact, that was how he learned of his departure. (Regan responded with the shortest, least gracious resignation letter in memory.)

And when John Sununu, chief of staff for the first President Bush, lost the confidence of his boss -- he'd used White House transportation for personal business, among other things -- stories of his imminent exit from "insider" leaks kept popping up. Finally, George W. Bush was dispatched to let Sununu know it was time to go.

But sometimes, it's hard to read the tea leaves or smoke signals from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. For more than a year we've been reading "insider" assurances that Treasury Secretary John Snow would soon be shown the door. But he's still at his post -- at least, as of post time.

And in the case of Donald Rumsfeld, it's not the White House hinting that he should go. It's critics of the Iraq war policy, including those half-dozen retired generals, a critique which implicates President Bush and Vice President Cheney every bit as much as Rumsfeld.

What critics may be hoping for is that a change in personnel would lead to a policy reversal, the kind that happened during Vietnam when President Johnson replaced Defense Secretary Robert McNamara with longtime LBJ ally Clark Clifford. The hawkish Clifford quickly decided the war was unwinnnable and persuaded LBJ to move toward negotiation, rather than escalation.

Which raises this question: in all the clamor over Rumsfeld -- in all the obsession with whether he will leave, how he might leave, who would replace him -- is there any suggestion that a new defense secretary would have a new approach that would increase the chances for progress in Iraq?

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