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Rumsfeld career ending in ignominy in Iraq

History seems to be in a hurry to judge Donald H. Rumsfeld.  And despite his half century in public service, a defense secretary who served three presidents and oversaw two wars is being sized up not by the long reach of his career but by its ending - the body slam of Iraq.
President Bush, left, sits with outgoing Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, right, before the start of their meeting with Senior U.S. Department of Defense Officials on Iraq at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

History seems to be in a hurry to judge Donald H. Rumsfeld.  And despite his half century in public service, a defense secretary who served three presidents and oversaw two wars is being sized up not by the long reach of his career but by its ending - the body slam of Iraq.

With an eye on his legacy, Rumsfeld asked to be judged by the extraordinary nature of today's threat, like none that has come before.

"There's no road map, no guidebook," he said. "The hope has to be - not perfection - but that most decisions, with the perspective of time, will turn out to be the right ones and that the perspective of history will judge the overwhelming majority of those decisions favorably."

A dark epitaph
In the early going, the assessment is harsh.

Ex-generals asserted he was a failure months before his continued service became untenable, an extraordinary airing of protest. Then came a clamor from Democrats and some Republicans for President Bush to show the door to a man who leaves the Pentagon on Monday after nearly six years on the job.

Fairly or not, he is the public face of a war gone bad, and therefore a tragic figure in the first draft of history.

The primary knocks against him are that he resisted sending enough troops to Iraq, that he was in denial about the likelihood - and then the existence - of an insurgency after Saddam Hussein was brought down, and that he threw out a war plan and went with a flawed one.

"I think his epitaph will be a dark one," said Justin Logan, a foreign policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute. "Rumsfeld's one-line epitaph will be, 'The man who was at the helm of the Defense Department and supported what was doomed to be a losing war effort that Americans will remember as a national tragedy'."

Rumsfeld was hardly alone in a national security apparatus that did not see the ferocity of the Iraqi insurgency coming, and prepare for it. Does that make him a scapegoat?

"He was the primary architect of the war plan," said military analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "He was no scapegoat. He deserves the blame he received."

Outsized personality riveted public
Bullheaded and square-jawed, Rumsfeld is also courtly in an old-fashioned way, one of the qualities that made him seem like a man from a different age. He is given to exclamations like "by golly" and "my goodness."

At the height of his power and popularity, Rumsfeld riveted the public with his expansive war briefings, exhibiting an outsized personality that seemed all of a piece with the bold strokes of a military machine rolling up successes in Afghanistan and then Iraq.

He could be dismissive. "Life's hard," he said when members of Congress complained that he didn't give due regard to their concerns. But he could choke up over the sacrifice of the troops.

He seemed to be thinking out loud, in public, a startling thing for anyone in public life in Washington to do.

He'd think out loud about how Osama bin Laden might escape, which he did.

Then he'd put himself in the mind of a terrorist, imagining what must go through a killer's head in deciding whether to keep killing or do something else.

The Iraq war toll
"It's when a person gets up in the morning and says it's not worth it," Rumsfeld mused. "'I'm either dead or I'm wounded or there is no place to go or I don't have food, and I can't get anyone on the telephone, and I don't know what to do next.'"

It turned out insurgents in Iraq decided it was worth it.

The toll to date is more than 2,930 U.S. military personnel dead, and Iraqis getting up in the morning to the near certainty of bloodshed that will kill dozens or scores or more by the end of the day.

Beyond the loyal cadre under and around him, Rumsfeld finishes his service with few defenders. To those who opposed the war or came to be against it, he is one among many who deserve blame. He can't win either, among those who continue to believe the war was just.

"They will argue the decision to invade was a good one, the Bush doctrine was sound, but flawed execution by Rumsfeld doomed the enterprise," Logan said.

In sizing up what he hopes new Defense Secretary Robert Gates will bring to the job that Rumsfeld didn't, military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute mentioned humility.

Tragic figure because of talent and promise
"Donald Rumsfeld liked to carry a list of priorities in his pocket," Thompson said in a retrospective on the defense chief. "There were 10 of them, and they were very ambitious - items like 'transform the joint force' and 'optimize intelligence capabilities.'

"Unfortunately, 'learn to get along with Congress' wasn't one of them. 'Treat the officer corps with respect' wasn't either. As a result, Rumsfeld's agenda never got much traction outside the hermetically sealed circle of ideologues that surrounded him."

O'Hanlon, co-author of "Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security," says what makes Rumsfeld a tragic figure was his talent and promise. Leaders from whom little is expected don't make for tragedies.

"He would generate debate and generate a reassessment of assumptions," allowing himself to be talked out of ideas that weren't sound, O'Hanlon said.

"In regard to Iraq," O'Hanlon continued, "his instincts were very bad and he refused to be talked out of them."

At 74, Rumsfeld, a former Navy aviator, is the oldest defense secretary in U.S. history. He became the youngest one in history when he began his first stint as defense chief in 1975. He is the only person to have held the position twice.

And he will fall 10 days short of becoming the longest-serving ever, a distinction held by Vietnam-era Robert S. McNamara, who left under a cloud of another war gone wrong.

Rumsfeld always took on critics with relish, and he's had plenty lately. Early on, he called the doubters "Henny Penny" from the Chicken Little fable. Since then, to growing numbers in the U.S. and Iraq, the sky really is falling.