By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 9, 2006
Departing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that his most difficult moment on the job was when he learned of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison. His best moment, he said, may come the day later this month when he leaves office.
In his final town hall meeting with Pentagon employees, Rumsfeld ranged from serious and emotional to humorous and sarcastic as he mused about his legacy as one of the nation's longest-serving defense secretaries.
On Iraq, Rumsfeld warned of "the dire consequences, were we to fail there," saying the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims could spill over into the entire Middle East. He said it would be "a terrible mistake" for the United States "to pull out precipitously and inject that instability into . . . that region."
"We have every chance in the world of succeeding" in Iraq and Afghanistan, "but only if we have the patience and only if we have the staying power," Rumsfeld said.
When asked about his best and worst days in office, Rumsfeld chose not to cite any missteps in Iraq or U.S. troop casualties. Instead, he pointed to his shock and disappointment over the events at Abu Ghraib.
"Clearly the worst day was Abu Ghraib and seeing what went on there and feeling so deeply sorry that that happened," Rumsfeld said of the abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops uncovered in early 2004. He said the news "stunned him," calling the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees "egregious wrongdoing."
The incident prompted Rumsfeld twice to offer his resignation to President Bush -- the only times he has acknowledged doing so until Nov. 8, when Rumsfeld announced he was stepping down in the aftermath of Democrats winning Congress in the midterm elections.
"I guess my best day, I don't know, maybe a week from Monday," Rumsfeld quipped. Dec. 18 is when his successor, former CIA chief Robert M. Gates, will be sworn into office in a formal ceremony at the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld, 74, said he has met twice with Gates in preparation for the transition and has "every confidence that he will do a terrific job." Asked what advice he would offer his successor, Rumsfeld received some prodding from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who stood beside him on the Pentagon stage.
Pace whispered something to Rumsfeld, who then told the crowd, "The advice should be: He should listen to the chairman."
Both men defended the defense secretary against an accusation lodged by several generals, both active-duty and retired, that Rumsfeld tended to brush aside their advice. Pace called Rumsfeld "demanding" but said he also took the blame for subordinates and was careful to present their dissenting viewpoints.
Rumsfeld pointed to his decision to set up a senior leadership group, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders, to "engage them at the beginning of the process" of making decisions.
As for his legacy, Rumsfeld deflected some questions with humor, saying he hopes that history will judge him "better than the local press."
Over time, he said, he hopes that most of his decisions will turn out to have been "the right ones."
Rumsfeld gave the Pentagon moderately good marks on one of his top priorities, the transformation of the military from a Cold War organization to a more agile and adaptive force. While people's attitudes have changed markedly, he suggested, concrete progress has been harder to achieve.
But he gave the military and the government overall a "D-plus" in their efforts to counter extremist ideologies overseas. He defended the controversial decision of U.S. commanders in Iraq to pay a contractor to place positive news articles in Iraqi newspapers but acknowledged that "there's always that line where you begin to propagandize. And you have to be careful."
As he prepares to leave office, Rumsfeld sounded two of his deepest and most long-held beliefs, saying he feels much the same as he did upon leaving the Pentagon the last time, in 1977, after serving as the country's youngest defense secretary.
"America's leadership in the world is not just useful, but . . . urgently needed," he said, repeating a worldview he first embraced as a Princeton University student in the late 1950s. "Ours is a troubled and very dangerous world, and we must not forget it," he cautioned, citing another core belief. The Pentagon today, he said, is in the midst of the most challenging period of its 59-year history.
Rumsfeld did not divulge his future plans, but some people in the audience urged him to write a book. "I always thought I was too young to write a book. I can't use that anymore," he said, drawing laughter. "I might. I might."