Rumsfeld Resignation: Mission Not Accomplished

By in New York

Donald Rumsfeld was the oldest and the most controversial member of the Bush administration. Now he's being made a scapegoat for the Iraq disaster and has to go. His mission to radically reorganize the US armed forces has failed. His huge mistakes will continue to haunt Bush.

Donald Rumsfeld liked to cultivate the legend of himself as a tough warrior. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 -- a plane had just crashed into the Pentagon -- the defense secretary ignored the warnings of his anxious security advisors and ordered his staff to remain in their offices until the end. He only allowed people to leave when the smoke had become too thick to breathe. The message of this often-told anecdote: The captain is the last to leave the ship.

Rumsfeld managed to lived by his maxim until Wednesday of this week. His era ended early in the afternoon, US time, when George W. Bush announced in brief words that his most stubborn warrior was stepping down. Three sentences -- that's all Bush devóted to Rumsfeld during a news conference on the day after the midterm elections. Bush said that while his defense secretary had been "a superb leader during a time of change," he and Rumsfeld had decided together that "the timing is right for new leadership at the Pentagon."

Two-and-a-half hours later, Bush held a joint news conference with Rumsfeld and his successor Robert Gates, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This time Bush sang Rumsfeld's praises, saying he had made the United States and the world safer. Referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush said that two dictators had been overthrown and 50 million people liberated during Rumsfeld's time in office.

Both Rumsfeld and the White House had stoically dismissed all criticism of him during the past months -- even though everyone knew he had become a liability. Rumor had it that at first the defense minister was simply too self-righteous to see any need for his resignation. Then, by the summer of 2006, an orderly retreat became impossible because of the impending elections: The 74-year-old roughneck had to stay. But it was clear he would have to go in the case of an electoral defeat.

Rumsfeld's resignation is that of a man who has shaped the image of the United States like no other. He will be remembered for his way of responding to criticism -- it always rolled him off him like water off a duck's back. He'll be remembered for scenes like the one in 2003, when he responded to news about looting in Basra by declaring it a logical result of the new freedom enjoyed by Iraqis, and laughed out loud. Rumsfeld always polarized public opinion and never doubted the rightness of his goals. For a long time, he was the solid rock that Bush could rely on to weather any storm. And then he became the millstone around the President's neck.

Rumsfeld has been considered the culprit responsible for the disaster in Iraq for many months, perhaps even for years. He always wanted the war against Saddam Hussein. The military strategy employed in Iraq was devised by him. His resignation is only logical, now that the unstable situation in Iraq (which cost 102 US soldiers their lives in October alone) has driven the majority of US citizens into the Democrat camp.

The end of Rumsfeld's term as secretary of defense also marks the definite failure of his political mission. From the beginning, he made a case for a radical re-structuring of the US military apparatus. Rumsfeld wanted to move away from a large, heavily equipped army and towards a leaner, swifter military capable of bringing about successful regime change anywhere in the world and at short notice. He wanted task forces instead of large numbers of tanks, pinpoint attacks instead of laborious aerial warfare. A former CEO, Rumsfeld followed a clear economic maxim: War needed to become cheaper.

Settling the score

The invasion of Iraq was meant to be the prime example of this new era of military intervention. The number of troops mobilized by Rumsfeld was only a third of the number of at least 450,000 recommended by CENTCOM, the US military's Central Command. At first, everything seemed to confirm Rumsfeld's choice -- from the US military's rapid advance toward Baghdad and the breakdown of Saddam Hussein's regime to the absence of significant resistance by the Iraqi military. Things stayed that way until the summer of 2003. That was the period of US operations in Iraq sometimes referred to as the "golden days."

Then things started to go wrong, and Rumsfeld made one wrong decision after another, in the opinion of many involved in operations at the time. The war became "his war," as investigative reporter Bob Woodward writes in his book "State of Denial." The book reads like a grand settling of the scores with Rumsfeld, whose arrogant, aggressive and inconsiderate behavior made him so many enemies that all Woodward needed to do was compile the anecdotes they readily recounted.

Woodward describes the way in which Rumsfeld took charge of all aspects of the war. He talked his generals into risky military plans without informing the President about the doubts of those generals. And he eliminated every opponent in a brutally calculated fashion. Even former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice -- one of the most important figures in the Bush administration -- found out what Rumsfeld can be like. He didn't answer her calls until the President personally asked him to do so.

There are many stories about Rumsfeld humiliating or exploiting his staff members. But experts mostly accuse him of having made tactical mistakes. On the one hand, the defense minister was too slow to recognize the importance of planning for the time after the end of major combat operations. He focused only on the invasion and wasn't interested in planning Iraq's future political order. He made decisions without consulting experts -- dissolving the Iraqi security forces, for example.

Rumsfeld's views were already controversial then. The White House Chief of Staff at the time, Andrew H. Card, twice advised Bush to replace Rumsfeld, according to Woodward. Even Bush's wife Laura is said to have told him once that Rumsfeld had become a liability. But the defense secretary had supporters too. Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential adviser Karl Rove convinced Bush that replacing the Pentagon leader would amount to admitting mistakes. Those same advisors will now have told Bush that Rumsfeld simply couldn't be allowed to retain his position any longer.

It started with an editorial

For a long time, military officers stayed out of discussions about Rumsfeld -- partly out of loyalty to him, but mostly because they feared the irate politican's revenge. Generals and strategists only said what they thought about their boss behind closed doors. That changed this year: More and more military officials started voicing strong criticism of Rumsfeld in interviews. Shortly before the midterm elections, the military gazette Army Times published an article that passed a devastating judgement: "Time for Rumsfeld to go," the editorial stated in its title.

The defense secretary's budgetary measures contributed to his loss of popularity among soldiers. His cynical remarks were the straw that broke the camel's back. When a soldier stationed in Iraq complained about the lack of protective equipment in December, 2004, for example, Rumsfeld replied in his typically blunt manner. "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want," the defense secretary said.

But when the Army Times decided to publish its courageous editorial, Rumsfeld's imminent resignation was probably already decided. True, Bush says he hadn't yet made up his mind as recently as last week, But that's just political rhetoric, and no one will believe it. Rumsfeld's resignation amounts to an admission that his strategy for Iraq hasn't worked out -- that it was flawed. Bush even confirmed this indirectly last week, when he said that he, Rumsfeld and the people of America wanted faster progress.

Insiders recently took note of a detail foreshadowing Rumsfeld's resignation. The defense secretary didn't appear in Congress to justify the Pentagon's massive $137 billion budget for 2008. Normally, Rumsfeld loves such rhetorical battles. But that day, his chief of staff, General Peter Schoomaker, appeared in his place. The military press interpreted this as a sign that Rumsfeld's political career was over.

Still, Rumsfeld's resignation will only bring temporary relief for the Bush administration. On the one hand, Rumsfeld's successor Bob Gates will have to spend years struggling with the defense secretary's problematic legacy -- US soldiers will continue to die in Iraq. What is more, Gates will have to do his best to patch up relations between the Pentagon and the White House -- not an easy mission.

But most importantly, the Democrats won't let Bush off the hook just because one member of his administration has resigned. It's already clear that several committees will be formed to investigate the road to Iraq and the decisions made during the time following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld will use the hearings to defend himself and his time in office. He may have accepted resignation, but he won't admit to his mistakes.

A tough warrior like Rumsfeld stays true to himself until the end of the battle -- and he may yet spring a few surprises.

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