A Meek Departure From the War Cabinet

In May 2004, Donald H. Rumsfeld flew in an Army helicopter from Baghdad to Abu Ghraib to tour the prison where abuse of detainees became an embarrassment for the administration.
In May 2004, Donald H. Rumsfeld flew in an Army helicopter from Baghdad to Abu Ghraib to tour the prison where abuse of detainees became an embarrassment for the administration. (By David Hume Kennerly -- Associated Press)
By Thomas E. Ricks and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 9, 2006

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 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."

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