With a wry smile, Donald H. Rumsfeld gently alluded to the controversies of his tenure as defense secretary, perhaps the most consequential since that of Robert S. McNamara during the Vietnam War.
Thanking the president for the opportunity to serve, Rumsfeld said in a brief Oval Office session yesterday afternoon that the experience brought to mind the words of Winston Churchill -- "something to the effect," he quipped, "that I have benefited greatly from criticism, and at no time have I suffered a lack thereof."
It was a rare melancholy moment for the alpha male and onetime Princeton wrestler who ran roughshod over the military brass, sparred bitterly with the media and mounted fierce rear-guard battles against the State Department during a six-year run that saw him become, first, an unlikely television celebrity and then the face of an unpopular war.
Though Bush affectionately patted Rumsfeld on the shoulder as he ushered him out of the Oval Office, there was little sugarcoating the reality that the defense chief, 74, was being offered as a sacrificial lamb amid the repudiation of Bush and his Iraq policy that the American electorate delivered on Tuesday.
Andrew H. Card Jr., then the White House chief of staff, had actually recommended this course of action to Bush two years ago. The fact that the defense chief lasted so long in the job was essentially a reflection of the fact that, in firing Rumsfeld, "you are basically admitting you made some serious mistakes in the conduct of the war," observed former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta.
What legacy for Rumsfeld?
What is certain to be long debated is Rumsfeld's legacy at the Pentagon, which involved two tours. The first lasted 14 months in 1975 and 1976, when, at just 43, he served as the youngest defense secretary ever under President Gerald R. Ford and as a close ally of then-White House chief of staff Dick Cheney. (It was Rumsfeld who first recruited Cheney into the Nixon administration.)
Admirers and detractors alike credit Rumsfeld with an unusual willingness to question prevailing assumptions, such as where U.S. troops should be deployed overseas, and to shake up a Pentagon bureaucracy that he regarded as an impediment to making changes necessary to confront new and evolving threats to the United States.
Where they split is over whether Rumsfeld had the capacity to carry out true institutional change at the Pentagon, since from Day One he alienated top military brass and powerful congressional figures with his brusque manner and confusing decision-making process.
On Iraq, Rumsfeld found himself increasingly questioned by generals, lawmakers and others over miscalculations that included not planning adequately for the post-invasion occupation and failing to recognize soon enough the nature of the insurgency, as well as what they regarded as his derelict handling over the past five years of the detainee and interrogation controversies at the Pentagon.
With Rumsfeld's departure, most of the top Pentagon civilians responsible for planning the invasion and early occupation of Iraq are gone.
Early into the Iraq occupation, Rumsfeld was being compared by many military men to McNamara, resented by the military for the perception that he micromanaged matters during the Vietnam War.
"McNamara, for four years of Vietnam going down the toilet, was absolutely convinced with a religious zeal that what he was doing was the right thing," Thomas E. White, who was Rumsfeld's first Army secretary, once said. "It wasn't until 30 years later that it dawned on him that he was dead wrong. And I think you have the same thing with Don Rumsfeld."
‘An evolving process’
Aides said Bush began thinking about making a change about a month ago, increasingly convinced that he needed to do something dramatic to shake up an Iraq situation that was deteriorating by the day.
"It was an evolving process," said one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "It was a cumulative effect of where we are in the war, where the president wants to take us in the next two years."
Bush brought up the subject at one of his regularly scheduled weekly meetings with Rumsfeld, the first of several searching conversations about what to do in Iraq. But the president resisted making the change until after the elections out of concern that it would get caught up in the white-hot campaigns.
In the past, Vice President Cheney resisted proposals to dump Rumsfeld, according to a book by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward. White House officials said they did not know whether he did so again this time. Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said the vice president "doesn't discuss the advice given to the president."
Bush was already thinking about sacking Rumsfeld when he met with news service reporters on Nov. 1, but, by his own account, he decided to mislead them to preserve the secret. One reporter asked Bush if he wanted Cheney and Rumsfeld to remain through the end of his term, on Jan. 20, 2009. The president answered yes.
In fact, Bush was then busily searching for a replacement for Rumsfeld. Former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a close friend and ally of Bush's father who is heading a blue-ribbon commission studying options for Iraq, had praised Robert M. Gates to the president, but he did not recommend him for the Pentagon job, nor did he recommend that Rumsfeld be ousted, the senior official said.
Other candidates were considered, but Bush met only with Gates, on Sunday at his Texas ranch. After flying back to Washington on Election Day, Bush met with Rumsfeld in the Oval Office to tell him that he was going forward with the move. The president sat down with Gates again at the White House yesterday morning before announcing the appointment.
Clashes with State Department
Although Rumsfeld contributed position papers to the Bush campaign in 2000, he was not a close member of the Texas governor's brain trust; and he was not the president-elect's first choice for defense secretary. But Bush turned to him at Cheney's suggestion, made in part as a way of providing a counterweight to Colin L. Powell, who had already been chosen as secretary of state. Conservatives were nervous about the power that the moderate, multilateralist Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, might wield over defense as well as foreign policy.
Rumsfeld's assertive voice on foreign policy matters stems from the early days of the Bush administration, when he advised the new president to limit his involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to adopt a tough line on issues including North Korea and China. Although Rumsfeld was considered less an ideologue than an unyielding iconoclast, he brought with him to the Pentagon's executive suites and advisory councils a collection of neoconservatives with strong views on the Middle East, Russia, China and other foreign policy issues. They clashed at nearly every turn with officials of Powell's State Department, setting up an internal conflict that would run through Bush's entire first term.
Rumsfeld's early efforts to speed military transformation were stymied by resistance to requested budget increases. Many in Congress -- in both parties -- were put off by his abrasive style, and he had already alienated many in the Defense Department. There were widespread rumors in the summer of 2001 that he would not last through Bush's first year. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Rumsfeld suddenly appeared on the cover of the conservative National Review, drawn with bulging muscles and wearing a Superman costume. Once the Taliban and al-Qaeda were vanquished in Afghanistan, he quickly turned his attention to Iraq as a testing ground for his transformation ideas.
"There is an upside and a downside to Rumsfeld," said one retired four-star general who had been close to Rumsfeld and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more candidly. "The upside is that he came to the job with a valid vision of the need for, and ideas about how to transform the military and to make it more suitable for the new century. The downside is that he muddled the [Iraq] war so badly that nobody is ever going to remember the upside."
Rumsfeld seemed uninterested in the ideas of others around him, particularly those within the uniformed services. By numerous accounts of those who worked with him, he did not encourage the questioning of his ideas or orders and was quick to ridicule ideas with which he did not agree.
Eliot A. Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University who closely follows the Pentagon, offered a more sympathetic account of Rumsfeld's tenure.
"This is a guy who has devoted an enormous amount of his career to service and doing his best as he understood it," said Cohen. "To a large extent, he got turned into a scapegoat and also a caricature -- the fire-breathing bully. My experience with him is that he could be an excellent listener.
"He deserves his share of the blame for what happened," Cohen added. "but to think that it is entirely his fault . . . would be missing the point."
Rumsfeld's account yesterday in the Oval Office of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan might also stand as his defense of his record: "The first war of the 21st century . . . is not well known, it was not well understood. It is complex for people to comprehend."
Staff writers Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung also contributed to this report.