George Bush brought it upon himself.

He could have seen out the 2006 campaign season without discussing the fact that no one – with the exception of some joker who road out the Vietnam conflict defending Texas – thinks Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is doing a good job. Or, better yet, he could have acknowledged that there may be some, er, problems with Rumsfeld’s approach to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and just about every other responsibility with which he has been entrusted.

But, no, the president chose the final week of the most critical mid-term election campaign of any president in recent history to declare that he would stand by his Rummy.

Asked about Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush said that “both men are doing fantastic jobs.”

He then hailed Rumsfeld’s oversite of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’m pleased with the progress we’re making,” the president said of Rumsfeld’s work, before announcing that he wanted the defense secretary to remain on the job until the end of Bush’s second term in January of 2009.

It was Bush who made this coming Tuesday’s national vote into a referendum on Rumsfeld. And, when referendum elections are held, newspapers make endorsements.

To the question of whether the defense secretary should keep his job, the four newspapers that cover the branches of the U.S. military are answering: “No!”

The Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times and Marine Corps Times, independent publications that are broadly distributed in the commissaries of military bases around the world, will on Monday jointly publish an editorial headlined: “Time for Rumsfeld to go.”

The editorial begins with a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Marguerite Higgins during the Korean War: “So long as our government requires the backing of an aroused and informed public opinion … it is necessary to tell the hard bruising truth.”

Then it goes on to bemoan the fact that, “until recently, the ‘hard bruising’ truth about the Iraq war has been difficult to come by from leaders in Washington.”

Then the editors let loose:

One rosy reassurance after another has been handed down by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “mission accomplished,” the insurgency is “in its last throes,” and “back off,” we know what we’re doing, are a few choice examples.

Military leaders generally toed the line, although a few retired generals eventually spoke out from the safety of the sidelines, inciting criticism equally from anti-war types, who thought they should have spoken out while still in uniform, and pro-war foes, who thought the generals should have kept their critiques behind closed doors.

Now, however, a new chorus of criticism is beginning to resonate. Active-duty military leaders are starting to voice misgivings about the war’s planning, execution and dimming prospects for success.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate Armed Services Committee in September: “I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it … and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war.”

Last week, someone leaked to The New York Times a Central Command briefing slide showing an assessment that the civil conflict in Iraq now borders on “critical” and has been sliding toward “chaos” for most of the past year. The strategy in Iraq has been to train an Iraqi army and police force that could gradually take over for U.S. troops in providing for the security of their new government and their nation.

But despite the best efforts of American trainers, the problem of molding a viciously sectarian population into anything resembling a force for national unity has become a losing proposition.

For two years, American sergeants, captains and majors training the Iraqis have told their bosses that Iraqi troops have no sense of national identity, are only in it for the money, don’t show up for duty and cannot sustain themselves.

Meanwhile, colonels and generals have asked their bosses for more troops. Service chiefs have asked for more money.

And all along, Rumsfeld has assured us that things are well in hand.

Now, the president says he’ll stick with Rumsfeld for the balance of his term in the White House.

This is a mistake. It is one thing for the majority of Americans to think Rumsfeld has failed. But when the nation’s current military leaders start to break publicly with their defense secretary, then it is clear that he is losing control of the institution he ostensibly leads.

These officers have been loyal public promoters of a war policy many privately feared would fail. They have kept their counsel private, adhering to more than two centuries of American tradition of subordination of the military to civilian authority.

And although that tradition, and the officers’ deep sense of honor, prevent them from saying this publicly, more and more of them believe it.

Rumsfeld has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with Congress and with the public at large. His strategy has failed, and his ability to lead is compromised. And although the blame for our failures in Iraq rests with the secretary, it will be the troops who bear its brunt.

This is not about the midterm elections. Regardless of which party wins Nov. 7, the time has come, Mr. President, to face the hard bruising truth:

Donald Rumsfeld must go.

The editors of the Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times and Marine Corps Times are right: “This is not about the mid-term elections.” No matter which party wins, the problem of the administration’s approach to the Iraq War in general and to Rumsfeld in particular must be addressed.

But the mid-term elections will decide how seriously and how quickly that problem is addressed. And an editorial like this one, published on the day before national elections, cannot be read as anything but a clarion call to the American people to vote “no” in what the president has made a referendum on retaining Rumsfeld.