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Rumsfeld's Defeat on Home Front

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: November 9, 2006

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Facing the prospect of confrontation with a Congress dominated by his Democratic rivals, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stepped down on Wednesday (NYT). President George W. Bush, announcing the move, said Iraq required “a fresh perspective” and proposed turning the Pentagon over to Robert M. Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who is president of Texas A&M University. Gates is also a member of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, which has been reviewing U.S. policy in Iraq (Weekly Standard).

Bush told reporters that those who expected a major course change in Iraq were mistaken. Yet Rumsfeld’s resignation coincided with a tectonic shift of political power in Washington as Democrats took control of both the House and the Senate following the November 7 midterm elections. Democrats described the vote as a referendum on Iraq; one senior lawmaker, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), told NPR the Democrats plan to use their mandate to force a change in Iraq policy.

Rumsfeld’s head has been in demand since shortly after the Iraq war began to disintegrate into chaos in 2003. Democrats, citing the fact that weapons of mass destruction never materialized, were first to make the demand. As Iraq’s insurgency grew, Rumsfeld dismissed its adherents as “deadenders” (Newsweek) and his resistance to adding additional forces to the relatively small invasion force became a sticking point for those in both parties dismayed by events in Iraq. Rumsfeld himself says he twice offered to resign (CNN) in the wake of revelations in 2004 that American troops abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. At this juncture, Rumsfeld leaves a "very negative" legacy, Retired Marine Lieut. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman in a new interview. Trainor, coauthor of a book on the planning of the Iraq conflict says Rumsfeld will be remembered for his “miserable execution” of the war.

Rumsfeld should have resigned by early 2005, once he became “a serious lightning rod,” Leslie H. Gelb, CFR’s president emeritus, told Gwertzman earlier this year. “It was hard both for Democrats and a number of Republicans to work with him; and inside the Pentagon, the poisonous atmosphere had begun to develop.” A number of his senior military officers joined the chorus as the situation in Iraq worsened last spring (TIME).

By late summer, even the Bush administration itself was mulling “Plan B” scenarios, a debate outlined in this Backgrounder. As the political season progressed, that debate became afflicted with what CFR President Richard N. Haass dubbed “withdrawal syndrome,” caused by the realization, even among the war’s supporters, that “the U.S. Army cannot stand the current level of deployments and operational tempo indefinitely.” An Online Debate, currently in progress, pits two prominent military experts on the question of whether a more lasting “Iraq Syndrome” will afflict post-Iraq America.

While Iraq may define his tenure, Rumsfeld’s Pentagon years are also notable for his highly praised handling of the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, and his controversial insistence that an agenda of “military transformation” continue even as the two wars raged. Reflecting his fear of being outflanked by more agile foes, Rumsfeld said in a speech at CFR last autumn that the government still functions as a “five-and-dime store in an eBay world.” He spent a generation at the top of the defense establishment, serving twice as secretary, first under President Gerald R. Ford (1975-77), and then under George W. Bush (2001-2006).

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