Decline and Fall: Donald Rumsfeld's Dramatic End

Donald Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon with a plan to transform the Defense Department. Then America went to war with Iraq.
By Bradley Graham
Sunday, June 14, 2009

Face time with the president is political gold in Washington, so Donald Rumsfeld moved quickly after taking charge at the Pentagon to secure weekly private meetings with President George W. Bush. Now, nearly six years and many meetings later, the defense secretary arrived in the Oval Office prepared to raise a delicate, and personal, matter.

His opportunity came as the talk that day, in September 2006, turned to Iraq. The conflict there was going badly. Violence had metastasized into a civil war. Plans to begin a major drawdown of U.S. troops had stalled. Iraqi forces still appeared unready to assume charge of security, and the Iraqi government, riven by sectarian strife, was doing little to unite the nation. In Washington, much of the responsibility for the mess in Iraq had fallen on Rumsfeld. He had failed to plan adequately for the occupation, was slow to develop a counterinsurgency campaign and had alienated too many people with his combative, domineering personality.

By then, Rumsfeld had hung onto office longer than most of his predecessors in the top Pentagon job. But with congressional elections approaching in the fall, he had become a campaign target, vilified by Democrats and considered a political liability by many Republicans. If, as increasingly anticipated, Democrats won control of one or both chambers of Congress, it would mean more hearings for Rumsfeld and more punishing interrogations. In recent days, Rumsfeld and his wife, Joyce, had discussed the prospect of his stepping down.

"We said there's no way he would stay if either the House or the Senate went Democratic because he would be the issue," Joyce recounted months later. The criticism "would have been relentless until he was gone."

Sitting with Bush, Rumsfeld broached the possibility of his departure. A "fresh pair of eyes" on Iraq might not be a bad thing, the secretary said. He made no explicit offer to resign. Still, his inference was unmistakable.

Or so the president thought. Although Bush didn't pursue the point, he told a senior White House official afterward what Rumsfeld had said. Bush took the comment as a sign of Rumsfeld's own recognition of the political realities closing in on him. "In the president's mind, Rumsfeld had cracked the door open," the official recalled. "And whether the president wanted to kick it open or not was up to him."

The question of whether to keep Rumsfeld had dogged Bush and his senior advisers for months. It had been raised after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in early 2004, and several months later in the wake of Bush's reelection. It had come up again as the Iraq war worsened during 2005, and once more in the spring of 2006 when a number of retired generals publicly appealed for Rumsfeld's dismissal.

Each time, Bush resisted letting Rumsfeld go, even rebuffing several suggestions that he do so by some senior aides and advisers and rejecting the secretary's resignation letters. Bush worried that the disruption caused by replacing a secretary in wartime could be risky. Moreover, Rumsfeld had been unfailingly loyal to the president, and he had a powerful ally in Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who owed his own rise in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford four decades earlier to Rumsfeld. Cheney and his aides maintained that it was unfair to hang the blame for Iraq on Rumsfeld alone and noted that the secretary had been right on a number of things where others had been wrong.

Also important, the Pentagon leader had championed the administration's signature drive to reform the U.S. military. From the beginning of his tenure, he had proclaimed "transformation" his main slogan and had pushed to create a more agile, adaptable military. He had relentlessly challenged existing assumptions and had advocated new principles of warfare, insisting on the need for change in confronting new and evolving threats to the United States. Outside the Pentagon, in interagency deliberations, he had emerged as a forceful conservative voice on a range of national security policies and a fierce guardian of the chain of command and what he considered military prerogatives, such as troop deployments. All in all, Rumsfeld had become the most powerful secretary of defense since Robert S. McNamara.

But he also was the most controversial. His methods offended many. Senior officers complained that he treated them harshly. Legislators groused that he was either unresponsive to their requests or disrespectful in personal dealings. And senior officials at the State Department and the White House portrayed him as uncompromising, evasive and obstructive.

As the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq worsened in the middle of 2006, Bush and his White House team began challenging, in a way they had not before, their basic approach to Iraq. Intensified efforts over the summer to secure Baghdad by relying on Iraqi forces as well as U.S. troops failed to quell the violence for long. The failure called into further question Rumsfeld's strategic premise that Iraqi forces could be trained and rushed into service to take over the counterinsurgency fight so that U.S. troops could go home. As Bush started exploring the notion that significantly more U.S. forces might be needed to enhance security, Rumsfeld remained fixated on finding ways to facilitate the turnover of responsibility to Iraqi troops.

It was in this context that the president finally decided to replace Rumsfeld, according to interviews with former officials involved in the process. The decision came before Bush had settled on a plan to send a surge of more U.S. troops into Iraq but after he was resolved that a new approach was required.

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