Decline and Fall: Donald Rumsfeld's Dramatic End

By Bradley Graham
Sunday, June 14, 2009; W10

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.


The story of Rumsfeld's final months in office shows the secretary slow to accept a shift in strategy, despite being pressed by others in the administration to reexamine basic assumptions. Retired general Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff on friendly terms with Rumsfeld, urged the embattled Pentagon leader in a lengthy discussion to change course but made little headway. Eric Edelman, the Pentagon's own top civilian policy adviser, also had growing reservations about the existing strategy, but recalls feeling largely shut out of the tight connection between Rumsfeld and his field generals, who were of like mind about staying the course.

Rumsfeld's difficulty in adapting to the challenges of Iraq -- a difficulty that had plagued him from the start of U.S. military operations there -- was all the more curious given his famous penchant for questioning and probing. He was often restless with the status quo, innately suspicious of conventional wisdom, prone to look at all the angles and imagine what could go wrong before embarking on a path. Yet with Iraq he got tied to a plan -- one that called for going in with a pared-down U.S. force and coming out as quickly as possible -- then had trouble moving beyond it as conditions changed.

This irony was compounded by another: Despite his reputation as a shrewd politician and skilled bureaucratic infighter, he burned so many bridges on Capitol Hill and strained so many relations in the administration that few apart from Cheney were willing to stand up for him in the end. Although he anticipated that he likely would have to leave after the U.S. midterm elections in November, Rumsfeld was not aware of the exact timing of his exit until shortly before his resignation was announced. Plans to make the announcement on Nov. 8, the day after the elections, were drafted several weeks in advance by the president's top aides without consulting Rumsfeld. Ultimately advised of Bush's decision, Rumsfeld quickly wrote a letter of resignation on Nov. 6. His wife and son helped type it up, without the knowledge of Rumsfeld's staff. Rumsfeld then personally delivered it to the president on Election Day.

As late as June 2006, Rumsfeld had remained wedded to plans to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq. The formation of a new Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, together with the killing in early June of al-Qaeda's top operative in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had buoyed hopes of a turning point. Whatever concerns Rumsfeld may have had about the possibility that all-out civil war still might erupt, he was sufficiently optimistic about Iraq's future to approve a drop in the number of U.S. combat brigades from 15 to 14, leaving 127,000 U.S. troops in the country.

"He knew there was sectarian violence, but he said Iraqis have to sort it out," said Edelman, who was the undersecretary of defense for policy.

But the loss of a combat brigade had not gone over well with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She considered any drawdown at that time unwise because of the risk that a fresh spike in violence could undermine the new Maliki government. For months, she and senior aides had been concerned about what they regarded as an overeager Pentagon rush to pull out of Iraq.

Rumsfeld used a surrogate to deliver the news to Rice that another brigade was coming out. He asked Edelman, a career foreign service officer on assignment to the Pentagon, to notify her of the move. Decisions about U.S. force levels in Iraq were not something that Rumsfeld tended to put before other members of Bush's national security team for consent. His practice had been to make such decisions with the president and then to inform his colleagues after the fact.

"He knew that she wasn't going to like" the latest decision, Edelman recounted. "So I got sent off to call her and tell her that we were going to take the brigade out."

And indeed, as Edelman recalls, Rice erupted at receiving the news. "What are you guys doing! You're going to destabilize Maliki!" she exclaimed.

"Look, Madame Secretary, I'm the messenger here. It's not my decision," Edelman replied, weakly.

It wasn't the first time Rumsfeld had used Edelman as a buffer with the secretary of state. Not infrequently, Rumsfeld would send him to high-level administration meetings when he expected some Pentagon position or action to come in for a tongue-lashing from Rice.

"There was a part of him that was very amused that I would go and take this beating from her," Edelman said.

The top U.S. Army generals in the region -- John Abizaid, who oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and George Casey, who commanded U.S. troops in Iraq -- strongly supported the idea of continuing to shrink U.S. military involvement in Iraq. They shared Rumsfeld's sense of urgency about placing more responsibility in the hands of the Iraqis and avoiding greater dependency on U.S. involvement. They also recognized that the sooner the strain on U.S. forces could be lightened, the better the U.S. military would be able to manage a likely long-term commitment to helping Iraq. On a visit to Washington in late June, Casey outlined plans for a further cut in combat brigades to 10 by the end of 2006 and five or six by the end of 2007.

The recommendation came despite what Casey recognized were significant changes in the assumptions on which U.S. strategy in Iraq had been based. The general outlined these changes in a June 21 briefing to Rumsfeld. Instead of having a new government early in 2006, Casey noted, six months had passed without fresh leadership, and the security situation had worsened. Greater Sunni participation in the political process had been expected, but that had not occurred. Instead of Shia military violence being contained by Iraqi security forces, a confrontation with the activist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was looming, and there were doubts about the new Iraqi government's will and capability to deal with that threat. Additionally, although Iraqi security forces had been projected to grow and strengthen, fresh concerns had arisen about police loyalty in some areas, and ministerial capacity was developing more slowly than anticipated. Moreover, amid troublesome evidence of clandestine Iranian activity in support of attacks on U.S. and government forces, it could no longer be assumed that Iran would refrain from direct action in Iraq.

Casey's revealing then-and-now comparison starkly showed just how much conditions in Iraq had fallen short of optimistic U.S. predictions. Yet the general and his staff did not favor any change in course. Nor was Rumsfeld pressing for one. Some of Rumsfeld's readiness to look past the evident warning signs may be explained, at least in part, by the encouragement he had taken in al-Zarqawi's death and in the long-awaited establishment of a legitimately elected Iraqi government. Rumsfeld was so eager, moreover, to diminish America's exposure and involvement in Iraq that he may not have absorbed the full implications of the shift in basic assumptions noted by Casey.

But his failure at this critical point to appreciate the need for a new strategy marked a grave misjudgment. It underscored the ultimate failure of his management of the Iraq war and effectively doomed his tenure, leaving Bush little choice before the year was out but to remove him and pursue a different path.

In July, with violence in Baghdad threatening to spiral out of control despite tightened security measures, Casey changed his mind about proceeding with more troop withdrawals and received Rumsfeld's approval to summon back a brigade that was in the process of leaving. Meanwhile, Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, quietly embarked on a fundamental reexamination of the war strategy.

Edelman, Rumsfeld's top civilian policy adviser, had also become increasingly uncomfortable during the spring and summer of 2006 with the way things were going in Iraq. But even with his high Pentagon rank, Edelman felt marginalized by Rumsfeld in setting Iraq strategy and frustrated by his inability to persuade the secretary to consider an alternative approach. Rumsfeld tended to listen chiefly to Abizaid and Casey and had made it clear that he didn't want his policy chief getting between him and his military commanders -- not just on Iraq policy but on most matters. In fact, one of the biggest surprises for Edelman after assuming the Pentagon job in 2005 had been the considerable deference that Rumsfeld showed the regional four-star officers.

To Edelman, Rumsfeld was a larger-than-life figure who could be absolutely brilliant in dissecting information. He had a keen sense for imperfections and flaws. He also had a very charming side and, for the most part, had treated Edelman with considerable decency. One of Rumsfeld's redeeming qualities, in Edelman's eyes, was the secretary's level of self-awareness. Rumsfeld knew he was an impatient perfectionist who could drive others crazy. Even so, Rumsfeld couldn't seem to stop himself from savaging people in ways that undercut his own effectiveness and created deep resentments. Even after months of working closely with him, Edelman found Rumsfeld ultimately enigmatic.

By September 2006, Edelman's frustrations with Rumsfeld and with his own inability to influence military strategy had driven him to consider resigning. He told his wife and a couple of close friends that he was no longer sure he could help Rumsfeld, although he never shared this doubt with the secretary.

The dismal facts on the ground in Iraq were such that now even Rumsfeld, with his customary glass-half-full outlook, couldn't gloss over them. In private conversations with Bush and other senior administration officials, he had begun by the fall of 2006 to acknowledge that things in Iraq weren't going "well enough or fast enough." Joshua Bolten, the White House chief of staff, encouraged Bush to work Rumsfeld's phrase into his own public remarks.

Bolten remembers being concerned about a disconnect between the administration's stay-the-course message and American public opinion about the war, opinion that had become exceedingly negative during 2006. In advance of the midterm elections, Democrats had increasingly pressed a case that Republicans were wedded to a failed strategy in Iraq. Administration officials, in turn, had been trying to tag Democrats as wanting to "cut and run" from Iraq. But strategists in both parties considered the Democrats' approach to have been fairly successful, especially as violence had mounted.

Rumsfeld eventually agreed that the U.S. approach had to change, but the shift he had in mind was nowhere near as significant as some were advocating. He contended that Iraqi authorities needed new explicit "benchmarks" against which to measure progress. An original set of governance targets had been met. The Iraqis had held three elections, culminating in a permanent government. But those achievements were being overshadowed by rising attacks and mounting casualty figures.

"At present, Coalition progress is being measured not against those types of benchmarks but instead by the level of violence in Baghdad which, of course, is determined by the enemy," he wrote in a confidential Oct. 10 memo to Edelman and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

During the summer, Rumsfeld had discussed drafting a new benchmark plan with Abizaid and Casey, and the idea had been reviewed at an NSC meeting with Bush, who had given the go-ahead. It essentially called for asking the al-Maliki government to agree to a schedule of milestones that would include such measures as disarming sectarian militias, holding provincial elections and passing laws on amnesty and oil revenue-sharing intended to stabilize the country and advance political reconciliation.

It did not propose any new military approach or any increase in U.S. force levels. To the contrary, it still was based on the idea of moving as quickly as possible to turn over responsibility to Iraqi authorities. Its underlying objective was to facilitate the planned reduction in U.S. and coalition forces. The advantage of the approach, Rumsfeld argued, was that it would provide a transparent, rational plan for turning over responsibility to Iraqi authorities and standing down U.S. and coalition forces.

"This is not a timetable -- this is a forecast," Rumsfeld stressed in the memo, which was titled "A New Construct for Iraq."

By then, the NSC staff was fully engaged in its own review of overall Iraq strategy, groping for new ways to try to stabilize the situation -- among them, a possible surge in U.S. troops. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon's uniformed leadership were cool to the idea, arguing that an increase in U.S. force levels would only reinforce the notion of a military solution for Iraq and deepen Iraq's dependence on U.S. military support. But as Bush's doubts about the existing course deepened and he started looking for a new approach, he had to confront the question of whether to retain the secretary so closely associated with what looked like a doomed strategy.


By early October, Bush had all but resolved to let Rumsfeld go. Even so, he was adamant that the announcement of Rumsfeld's departure be postponed until after the elections. He did not want it seen as a politically expedient attempt to boost Republican chances at the polls. Bush's aides, in turn, advised against waiting too long after the elections and running the risk of triggering a Democratic drumbeat for Rumsfeld's head.

A White House rump group was formed to choreograph the change in Pentagon leadership in the context of other post-election moves. It included Bolten, Hadley, top presidential political adviser Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett, Bush's counselor and communications chief. They settled on making the announcement about Rumsfeld the day after the elections; that was contingent on Bush finding a replacement. He started looking seriously at Robert Gates, a former CIA director who was then president of Texas A&M University.

Rumsfeld suspected his time was running out. But he was not informed of the White House plan. For his part, Bush, hiding his intentions, went so far as to engage in a deliberate deception, telling news service reporters a week before the elections that the defense secretary would be staying on.

The president's feint confused even Rumsfeld's wife, whose own political instincts were keen. "I thought, What is that about?" Joyce Rumsfeld recalled. "I had kind of been winding down, thinking it's almost over. And then that statement came out, and I thought, Oh, my gosh! So then I started thinking, I've got to get myself -- forget Don -- I just have to get myself the energy to get through another two years."

The weekend before the elections, as Bush met secretly at his Texas ranch with Gates and decided to make the switch, Rumsfeld rushed to complete an options paper on Iraq for the president. As was his custom with important documents, Rumsfeld asked Pace and Edelman to help refine it. To prevent copies from circulating outside his office, Rumsfeld insisted that the two senior officials come in person and make changes on the spot. "He really got frantic about it -- that it be done and given to the president," said Delonnie Henry, Rumsfeld's personal secretary. "He was just obsessed about this options paper."

Dated Nov. 6, the memo, titled "Iraq -- Illustrative New Courses of Action," showed Rumsfeld accepting some change in approach. "In my view it is time for a major adjustment," he wrote. "Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough."

But what Rumsfeld favored fell well short of the shift being contemplated by Bush and the NSC staff. He did not present a coherent new plan. Instead, he provided a laundry list of 21 "illustrative options," many purely tactical. His aim appeared to be to provoke discussion rather than to rally others around a decision.

Rumsfeld had confided nothing even to his closest Pentagon aides about the possibility that he might soon be gone. His staff joked that they would probably be the last to know. But hints began emerging in mid-October.

Henry noticed an increased interest by her boss in his archives. Rumsfeld kept lots of personal files -- and had done so for years -- checking from time to time that the records were being properly organized, updated and digitized. He was a stickler especially for tallies -- of when and how long he had conferred with members of Congress, met with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked to the media. Other records tracked the trips he had taken and foreign dignitaries he had seen.

Measuring things seemed to satisfy a certain compulsion in Rumsfeld and allowed him to gauge progress. He had even devised a way to measure how he was doing as secretary of defense in a list labeled "accomplishments and initiatives" that was periodically updated. The staff referred to it as "Rumsfeld's greatest hits." Although he often had denied worrying about his legacy, his private record-keeping and public touting of achievements suggested otherwise.

Other subtle signs also indicated that Rumsfeld might be anticipating the end. He put a hold on his regular purchase of season tickets for sports events. He seemed less concerned about getting prompt responses to the many memos he issued to subordinates.

Victor E. "Gene" Renuart Jr., who as a three-star Air Force general was Rumsfeld's senior military assistant at the time, detected a change in the secretary's mood before the elections. "He clearly was more thoughtful about things," the general recounted. "I didn't press him; nor did he offer. But you could sense something was on his mind. He was a little more quiet, more reserved, just not quite his normal personality."

After Bush decided on Gates, Cheney called Rumsfeld to deliver the news. Rumsfeld remembers responding: "Fair enough. That makes sense. Let's get on with it." He then proceeded to get his affairs in order.

His then-39-year-old son, Nick -- the youngest of his three children -- had arrived in town with no advance notice to Rumsfeld's staff, which was unusual. The trip was presented as a last-minute thing -- a chance to visit with the folks and watch the election returns. Actually, Nick spent Monday, Nov. 6, with Joyce at the family's house in Washington, preparing a letter of resignation that Rumsfeld had composed. While Joyce entered it into a computer, Nick helped set up the printer using stationery with the letterhead "The Secretary of Defense." The letter consisted of four brief paragraphs. It thanked Bush for having been given the "opportunity to serve," expressed "great respect" for the president's leadership and noted simply, "It is time to conclude my service." Left unstated was any particular reason for the resignation. Rumsfeld chose not to try to explain.

At a meeting with Bush the next afternoon, on Nov. 7, Rumsfeld presented his resignation letter. The election results that evening revealed an overwhelming victory for the Democrats, handing them control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1994. American voters had delivered a repudiation of the Bush administration and its Iraq policy.

The next morning, a White House courier arrived at the Pentagon with an envelope for Rumsfeld and instructions not to leave until the secretary of defense had received it. Rumsfeld, attending a briefing on Iraq across the hall from his office, took the envelope and placed it in his briefcase to look at later. It contained a handwritten letter from Bush accepting Rumsfeld's resignation and praising him for his service to the nation.

Shortly before word of his departure was officially announced, Rumsfeld began calling in his most senior aides one by one, telling each the news. Pace came walking out of Rumsfeld's office appearing pale. "He looked like he'd seen a ghost," Henry observed. Matt Latimer, the secretary's main speechwriter, teared up. "You've been a star," Rumsfeld told him, sounding unusually effusive. Such expressions of appreciation were not Rumsfeld's style. Stories about how sparingly he voiced gratitude, let alone praise, were legendary among those who had worked for him. Aides knew they were doing a good job if he didn't tell them they weren't or if he gave them more work to do. "That was just the way it was," Henry said. "But I think at the end there, he was really awkward. He was overwhelmed."

Preparing for a White House appearance with Bush that afternoon, Rumsfeld scribbled some notes for a few remarks on the yellow legal-size paper he often used. He faxed a draft to Joyce at home to review. He was particularly concerned that his remarks not sound defensive.

Shortly before 3 p.m., Rumsfeld headed to the White House, where, in a brief Oval Office session, Bush declared that "new leadership" and a "fresh perspective" were needed to guide the military through the difficult war in Iraq. He portrayed Rumsfeld's departure as a mutual decision, saying that he and the secretary had held "a series of thoughtful conversations" and that Rumsfeld understood "Iraq is not working well enough, fast enough."

Bush's reference to a series of talks evidently referred to broader discussions between the president and the defense secretary about the situation in Iraq, potential changes in U.S. strategy and plans to dispatch new U.S. military commanders to the region. There had been no explicit conversation between the two men about Rumsfeld's departure ahead of Bush's decision to pick a replacement.

"The president, at least in his own mind, felt that through some of these conversations about the strategy, Rumsfeld was also giving clear signals that new leadership made sense," one former presidential aide explained later. A blunt discussion about Rumsfeld leaving was not necessary, another former White House official suggested. "I think they both understood where they were in the conversation," the former official said.

Additionally, there was often a certain formality about Rumsfeld, and the president, until he had finally decided the time had come for Rumsfeld to go, may have been reluctant to say something that could have been misunderstood. "Rumsfeld is businesslike and might have interpreted a comment from the president as sending a signal, prompting him to tender his resignation immediately," the former White House official said.

Rumsfeld, for his part, was wary of making a formal offer to resign. He had done so twice in the spring of 2004 after the Abu Ghraib revelations, and he did not want to be seen as someone who kept submitting his resignation as a technique to try to defuse calls for his removal and shore up his political standing. If he were to have talked to Bush this time about stepping down, it would, in his view, have been final.

When it was Rumsfeld's turn to speak at the White House event, he limited his remarks, thanking the president for the opportunity to serve and praising the professionalism and dedication of U.S. forces. He made no effort to defend his record, nor did he acknowledge any missteps on Iraq. But recognizing the target for blame that he had become, he invoked the words of an earlier civilian warrior who considered himself misunderstood by critics. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, he said, "I have benefited greatly from criticism, and at no time have I suffered a lack thereof."

He made only one reference to the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and the hunt for terrorists worldwide, calling it a "little understood, unfamiliar war, the first war of the 21st century -- it is not well known; it was not well understood; it is complex for people to comprehend." The comment, coming at the tail end, sounded like a parting shot tinged with the frustration Rumsfeld had felt in trying to understand the new global fight and figuring out how best to combat it.


Even with the heated speculation about Rumsfeld before the elections, the defense secretary's exit stunned Washington. In bearing the brunt of attacks for the administration's conduct of the Iraq war, Rumsfeld had to some extent shielded Bush from criticism. His departure confirmed what a damaging political liability he had become, although Bush was still unwilling to concede publicly that his defense secretary had made serious mistakes. To the contrary, the president praised Rumsfeld for having been "a superb leader during a time of change."

Many of Rumsfeld's friends were offended by the White House's seemingly rushed and unceremonious handling of the announcement of Rumsfeld's resignation. To his supporters, the day-after news conference -- which concluded with the defense secretary being patted on the shoulder as Bush ushered him out of the Oval Office -- was insensitive and unbefitting of Rumsfeld's long career of public service.

To others, though, the end of Rumsfeld's tenure came too late. A number of Republican lawmakers complained bitterly that Bush had not cut Rumsfeld loose before the election, when the move might have provided a boost at the polls for some GOP candidates. While presidential aides had anticipated some gripes about the timing, the extent of the anger within party ranks surprised them.

Since leaving the Pentagon, Rumsfeld has purposefully assumed a low profile, giving few public speeches and granting few interviews. He maintains an office in Washington that allows him ready access to his Pentagon files and has facilitated his work with the Library of Congress to archive his personal papers. But he spends large chunks of his time at two other homes outside Washington -- an old manor in St. Michaels, Md., and a farm in Taos, N.M.

One public ceremony at which he did speak was the 2008 dedication of the Pentagon memorial to the victims of 9/11. He showed up with his right arm in a blue sling from recent shoulder surgery. Occasionally when he has surfaced elsewhere, there have been shows of opposition. He drew street protests outside closed-door appearances in California and France, and more than 2,600 faculty and students at Stanford University signed a petition objecting to his one-year appointment as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he was to play a limited role advising a panel on ideology and terrorism several times a year. John McCain, running as the Republican nominee in the 2008 campaign for the presidency, continued to hammer the former Pentagon leader for mismanaging the Iraq war, telling audiences that Rumsfeld would be remembered as the worst defense secretary in history.

Several longtime friends who visited Rumsfeld in the weeks after he left office described him as somewhat subdued initially, but it wasn't long before the former secretary was exhibiting his customary exuberance in private gatherings. "He's extraordinarily resilient," said Frank Carlucci, a former wrestling teammate at Princeton and himself a onetime defense secretary. "You could bash him all you want, and he'll bounce back right away. It rolls off him."

Another close friend reported that Rumsfeld was not happy with how abruptly he was removed. A former subordinate who spent several days with Rumsfeld in Taos heard him fume about disagreements with other top administration officials, particularly Rice.

But whatever grumbling he did, Rumsfeld remained very careful not to sound critical of Bush. "I have a friend who is totally convinced that Don was the scapegoat and that he must be bitter towards the president," said Margaret Robson, whose late husband, John, had been one of Rumsfeld's best friends. "I told him: 'You don't understand Don. He's never going to say anything critical about the president of the United States.' "

In my own early contacts with him as I began work on a biography, Rumsfeld wanted to be sure I saw the many letters of praise and kind words he had received following the announcement of his resignation. He had sorted the letters according to source -- members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, U.S. military personnel, former associates, friends -- and filed them in large, three-ring binders. The correspondence noted Rumsfeld's contributions to the war on terrorism, commended him for his drive to transform the U.S. military and thanked him for his public service.

John Howard, then Australia's prime minister, singled out the example Rumsfeld had set by his "good humor and willingness to engage the news media." Even Jim Jones, the retired Marine Corps general who is now President Obama's national security adviser and who had publicly carped about Rumsfeld's leadership, offered supportive parting words. "Those of us who were privileged to serve with you during the entire length of your appointment have not only been fortunate to participate in the outcome of the important issues of our time, but we have also benefited enormously by your unsurpassed example of commitment, energy and dedication," Jones wrote in a letter dated Nov. 20, 2006. "Your loyalty and ability to clearly articulate the enormous complexities of the problems facing the nation ensured that the president was well prepared for the uniquely difficult decision only he can make. I can't imagine a more reliable or more dedicated secretary of defense. If integrity stands as an asset in today's arena, you can be certain that yours is intact as you leave your post."

Such letters seemed to give Rumsfeld solace amid media commentary that tended to focus on all that had gone wrong -- the mistakes made in the Iraq war, the difficult relations with the military chiefs, the tensions with Congress, the quarrels with other NSC members. As low as his popularity was when he stepped down -- Gallup and Harris polls showed him at 34 percent -- Rumsfeld still found that when he dined out at a restaurant or walked along a street, people approached him eager to shake his hand.

Over the course of his life, when Rumsfeld had faced criticisms and denunciations, a sense of certainty in his own rightness had helped sustain him. Indeed, so confident was he in his ability to discern how best to do the job that, since the mid-1970s, he had distributed his own compendium of do's and don'ts known as "Rumsfeld's Rules." And although public opinion of him now was as negative as it had ever been, he seemed largely unrattled. Instead, he held fast to an abiding belief that he had done what he thought best and had served honorably.

Among Rumsfeld's major preoccupations since returning to private life has been establishment of a charitable foundation. The organization has several aims: to provide fellowships for graduate students interested in public service, to fund charitable organizations that support troops and their families, to help finance loans to "micro-enterprises" in developing countries and to back programs aimed at assisting the former Soviet-controlled republics of Central Asia.

He also has embarked on a memoir, overcoming a longstanding aversion to writing such a book. For years, Rumsfeld had privately criticized the memoirs of others for misrepresenting events in which he himself had participated. Nor is he much accustomed to introspection. Preparing to write his autobiography, Rumsfeld read Katharine Graham's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, "Personal History," and confessed that the book's frankness scared him. But Joyce told him it was time to tell his own life's story, and so did others whose judgment he respected.


The sheer number of initiatives that Rumsfeld undertook as defense secretary, and the long time he served, has ensured that his impact on the Pentagon will last far beyond the Iraq war. In his six-year tenure, he launched a dizzying list of reforms, all aimed at getting the Pentagon to think about warfare differently and to develop more flexible plans for dealing with a world of heightened uncertainty, of small wars as well as big ones, of multiple contingencies, and of unconventional threats.

"There has, in fact, been a change in attitudes and cultures over the last decade," said a former official who worked on strategy issues in the department's policy branch. "The Pentagon has become far more receptive to change now than when I came in the early 1990s. We used to base contingency plans on a very small set of scenarios. Now there's a much bigger set. Rumsfeld's theme about contending with surprise and uncertainty and having the agility to adapt has, I think, over time been embraced by the bureaucracy and has led to far more resilience and capacity within the department than there was before 9/11."

But as Rumsfeld himself has recognized, his record on transformation is mixed. While his efforts brought noticeable shifts in thinking, they were slower to translate into actual changes in weapons programs. Some initiatives, too, like the reshaping of the U.S. Special Operations Command into a force that would lead the hunt for terrorists around the world, have proved too hard to push past entrenched interests. Other Rumsfeld projects -- involving the global repositioning of U.S. troops, the revamping of military intelligence and the funding of ambitious satellite programs -- have been scaled back in the months since he left.

To this day Rumsfeld maintains that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan energized his transformation campaign rather than delayed or distracted it. In his view, the pressure provided impetus to what had to be done.

"People said there's no way you can have a major transformation program and simultaneously be involved in a war. I said just the opposite," Rumsfeld recalled in one of eight interviews he provided me. "That's the time you've got the best opportunity to make the changes. When things are in motion, it's a lot easier to make adjustments." In a peacetime environment, Rumsfeld added, nowhere near the same kind of progress could have been made. "The forces would have been marshaled against you much more than they even were, and they were significant even in a time of war." Asked if there was ever a time he thought about slowing up, Rumsfeld replied, "Nope. I thought about hurrying up."

Rumsfeld's initial notion for how the military should change rested on a strong bias for technological advances, including dramatic improvements in information management and precision weaponry. These advances, he contended, should enable the military to generate considerably more combat capability with the same, or in some cases fewer, numbers of weapons systems and with fewer troops.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were triumphs that seemed, at first, to confirm Rumsfeld's vision of a transformed battlefield marked by long-range precision strikes and rapid, decisive operations. But the picture changed as the enemy continued to fight back and proved to be different from what had first been imagined. As impressive as the overthrows of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes had been, they ended up far from decisive. U.S. forces found themselves battling not Iraq's elite Republican Guard divisions and Taliban militias but assorted bands of insurgents and foreign fighters. It was a different kind of 21st-century conflict, one where speed and precision weapons mattered less than patience and constructive community relations.

Rumsfeld resisted the idea that combating shadowy, resourceful insurgents could require more forces on the ground, not just alternative tactics. At times he seemed, even to close associates, to treat the Iraq war more as an irritating diversion from his mission of transforming the military than as the defining challenge of his time in office.

"It's my belief that he had an expectation of what his job would be as secretary of defense, and it probably centered around transformation -- building a foundation that a Defense Department could stand on for the next 40 years," observed Andrew Card, who served as Bush's chief of staff. "And then a war got in the way. Transformation had been a labor of love for him. The war became a labor of responsibility. It was the beautiful siren of transformation that had attracted him to the job, but the shoals ended up being the shoals of war."

Assessing Rumsfeld's tenure, former defense secretary James Schlesinger gave him high marks as a secretary of defense trying to revamp the U.S. military, but scored Rumsfeld low as a secretary of war. The same, Schlesinger added in an interview, was true of McNamara.

Both Rumsfeld and McNamara came to the Pentagon from the corporate world exhibiting arrogance and impatience, and both showed similar characteristics in office: keen analytical minds, insatiable appetites for data, predilections for new methods and approaches for problem-solving. McNamara may have been more soullessly analytical, and Rumsfeld more intuitive, but both sought tighter civilian control of the military and ordered reappraisals of U.S. strategy. Both brought with them contingents of civilian aides who shared their determination to shake things up and a propensity to clash with the Joint Chiefs. And both became embroiled in unpopular wars.

Where they differed significantly was in how they ultimately viewed their own tenures. Despite his public cheerleading for the Vietnam War, McNamara privately became dubious about its wisdom and effectiveness while still in office. In later years, he increasingly recognized that he had failed as defense secretary because of mistakes he and others had made in Vietnam.

By contrast, Rumsfeld did not leave office doubting his handling of the Iraq war. He has acknowledged no major missteps or shown any remorse on the subject to date. Asked in our final interview last November whether he harbored any regrets, Rumsfeld sounded dismissive. "Oh, that's the favorite press question: What was your biggest mistake?" he remarked.

Nor was he interested in discussing how, having come into office so well prepared for the job, he had run into so much difficulty. "I wouldn't be in a position to tell you how to explain it," he said. "You'll have to divine it."

Part of the answer lies in the circumstances. He and the rest of the Bush administration were confronted with extraordinary challenges for which, as Rumsfeld often said, no guidebook or blueprint existed. (Although, in the case of counterinsurgency warfare, there was a wealth of established doctrine that, while out of use for decades, was readily available on the Army's shelves to be dusted off.)

And Rumsfeld was hardly alone in his mistakes. It is both incorrect and unfair to heap singular blame on him for the disaster that Iraq became. Many wrong shots were called by L. Paul Bremer III, the senior U.S. civilian in Iraq during the first year of the U.S. occupation. Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, proved inadequate. And Casey and Abizaid readily agreed with Rumsfeld's notion of trying to fight in Iraq with as few U.S. forces as possible. The generals tended to reinforce Rumsfeld's thinking, not challenge it.

Other top administration officials were complicit, as well. Bush was exceedingly deferential toward Rumsfeld and failed to question the Iraq strategy sufficiently until 2006. Cheney consistently lobbied to keep his old friend in power and, in the case of detainee policy, led him down a path of dubious legality and damaging morality. And the rest of the U.S. government, as Rumsfeld frequently complained, was unable to muster the personnel and resources needed to supplement the Pentagon's security measures with economic reconstruction and diplomatic assistance. The administration was trying to fight a 21st-century adversary using a dysfunctional 20th-century interagency structure, one that lacked the ability to integrate the work of separate departments or a clear precedent for how to coordinate postwar operations of the magnitude required in Iraq. Critical decisions about such central matters as whether to establish, after the invasion of Iraq, an interim Iraqi government or a longer-term U.S. occupation authority were made without full discussion with all the principals.

But much of what befell Rumsfeld was caused by his own behavior. With him, it was often hard to divorce style from substance. He is apt to be remembered as much for how he did things as for what he did. And here, too, he was an internal contradiction. Capable of genuine charm, humor and grace, he all too frequently came across as brusque and domineering, often alienating others and making enemies where he needed friends.

Even some who remain largely sympathetic to Rumsfeld have acknowledged that the former secretary too often undercut himself. "He bruised people and made personal enemies, who were eager to strike back at him and try to discredit his work," Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld's policy chief for 41/2 years, wrote of his former boss in a memoir.

Stuart Rochester, a senior Pentagon historian, recalls receiving several research requests from Rumsfeld asking whether, as secretary, he had the authority to take a particular action -- to merge some Joint Staff functions with those in the secretary's office, for instance, or to combine the operations centers of each of the military services into a single center. "He had no patience for moving in a consensual way," Rochester said. "He felt he needed to act in a decisive way. He'd always be asking, 'Can I do this without having to consult with the service chiefs and with Congress?' A lot of what Rumsfeld was trying to achieve made sense; a lot of his instincts were right, but the problem was the way he went about things. In the end, he had to settle for less because he'd alienated so many."

For all his grousing that other government agencies didn't do enough in Iraq and in the larger war on terrorism, Rumsfeld did not make it easy to work with his Pentagon. His lack of collegiality and his strained relations with other Cabinet members inhibited interagency cooperation. "Unfortunately, he was not collaborative with the rest of the government," Abizaid said. "He closely guarded so many of his prerogatives as secretary. That, I think, contributed to a sense that the Pentagon itself wasn't approachable."

Rumsfeld is in many respects an honorable man, deeply patriotic, a good friend to many and unfailingly loyal to those he has served and to a number who have served him. He is smart, cunning and capable of great geniality, all highly desirable qualities in a leader with such power. And the challenges he faced as secretary were considerable. But in the end, Rumsfeld's biggest failings were personal -- the result of the man himself, not simply of the circumstances he confronted.

While he was unwilling to profess regrets to me, it is unlikely that he doesn't have some. Nor do I expect him simply to fade away. That has never been his style. Withdrawal is not on his list of Rumsfeld's Rules.

Bradley Graham served as a Pentagon correspondent for The Post for more than a decade. He can be reached at This article is adapted from his book, "By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld," published this month by PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

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