Rumsfeld Speaks on Iraq and Legacy

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2006

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in his first public remarks since announcing his resignation, acknowledged yesterday that progress in the Iraq war has been too slow and said history will judge his effectiveness at the helm of the Pentagon.

"I will say this: It is very clear that the major combat operations were an enormous success. It is clear that, in phase two of this, it has not been going well enough or fast enough," Rumsfeld said in a speech at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

Rumsfeld noted that Iraq has ratified a constitution, held elections in which 12 million people voted, and opened schools and hospitals. "That is impressive," he said.

"Now, you put all that on a scale against the fact that there's violence and sectarian violence -- and there is -- and that people are being killed and Muslims are being killed by violent extremist Muslims, and it's important to know that that's what's happening over there," he said.

Rumsfeld -- who will soon become the longest-serving American defense secretary -- announced his resignation Wednesday after Democrats captured control of Congress in what was widely interpreted as a vote against the conduct of the war in Iraq.

He was asked yesterday by an audience member what grade he thought he should receive in the job. "Oh, I'd let history worry about that," he replied tersely.

Rumsfeld spoke as some U.S. military officials inside the Pentagon said his departure will have little impact on day-to-day operations. The U.S. military has its own leadership, they said, and will keep pursuing its mission.

No detailed preparations were yet underway for the transition to ex-CIA chief Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to be the next defense secretary, because he has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Hearings could take place early next month.

"It's pretty amazing how indifferent people are," Lt. Col. Shelly Walker said as she headed out of a Pentagon cafeteria with a takeout dinner. She said many of her colleagues were not following the news on television, and as of yesterday morning a few still had not heard the news that Rumsfeld would step down. "It doesn't seem to translate into anything that affects them personally," Walker said.

But some inside the Pentagon -- including senior military officials -- had stronger opinions on Rumsfeld and his departure.

"Rumsfeld is a distraction," said one senior military officer. "What did he do to help the president? What did he do to help the Republican Party?" he asked, suggesting that the defense secretary should have left months ago.

The changing of the guard is unlikely to seriously disrupt U.S. military operations, said several senior officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "DOD is not a fragile community. We can deal with it," one general said.

"We have leaders," another general said.

Some officers said they are hopeful that Gates will be more receptive to military advice than Rumsfeld sometimes was. "A lot of people in the military feel they haven't been listened to. Hopefully that will change," one colonel said.

Gates, while lacking significant military experience, "is not coming into this job cold. He's been working on the Baker commission," said one officer, referring to the independent Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, which is formulating new recommendations for Iraq. "He's been in theater and met with the combatant commanders. He knows the issue of Iraq, which matters because he will be implementing the commission recommendations."

Some Pentagon insiders said they will be sad to see Rumsfeld leave but understand the political rationale behind his stepping down.

The muted reaction could reflect Rumsfeld's relative insulation from most Pentagon workers over the past six years. He held occasional town hall meetings with employees but otherwise rarely mingled in the corridors.

A rare exception, one defense official recalled, was the day in June when the military announced it had killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. "He was so excited, he was walking around the hallways, and people's reaction was 'So this guy really works here?' "

© 2006 The Washington Post Company