At a White House press conference on Wednesday, President Bush said that he was bowing to Tuesday's Democratic electoral wave, spurred in part by public uneasiness about the war in Iraq, and finally letting Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld go. "There were different factors that determined the outcome of different races," an often testy president told reporters, "but there is no question that Iraq was on people's minds ... I am making a change at the secretary of defense to bring a fresh perspective as to how to achieve something I think most Americans want, which is a victory." By replacing Rumsfeld with Bob Gates, a member of the Iraq Study Group that is currently cooking up new war strategies, the president said he was showing that change was coming.
Later on Wednesday, Rumsfeld appeared with Bush and Gates in the White House for a ceremonial announcement of his resignation. Normally combative and confident, Rumsfeld appeared crestfallen and emotional. He spoke haltingly about the Iraq conflict, calling it "this little understood, unfamiliar war." "It is not well known, it was not well understood, it is complex for people to comprehend," Rumsfeld said.
He ended his testimonial by addressing the military rank and file. "Their patriotism, their professionalism, their dedication is truly an inspiration," Rumsfeld said. "They have my respect. They will remain in my prayers always."
A significant chunk of the American armed services does not return his warm feelings. As much as it was about public disaffection with the war, Rumsfeld's ouster was the Bush administration's attempt to make peace with the military brass and active-duty personnel by granting their most fervent wish.
The end of the Rumsfeld era came just two days after the editors of all four Military Times newspapers, which are widely read by the nation's 1.4 million uniformed service personnel, published the same editorial demanding the secretary's head. The impact of that editorial should not be underestimated, said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, because the editors are believed to reflect the widespread sentiment of the military officers' corps. "On Monday, the Military Times newspapers call for his resignation and on Tuesday the country has a referendum on Iraq in the form of an election," Segal noted, calling the two events a "one-two punch." Segal said the White House knew Rumsfeld's support inside the military had withered. "The president had to understand that the Military Times papers would not have done what it did if they did not know that senior officers were behind that position."
Indeed, opposition among senior military leaders to the administration's goals and strategies in Iraq has increased steadily since a handful of retired commanders, including several who served in Iraq, publicly called for Rumsfeld's removal last spring. In addition to grievous tactical mistakes, some in the military brass bristle when the Bush administration continues to insist that a true democracy can be established in a country with such powerful tribal and religious mores. They suggest it might be better to dump the democracy idea and effectively split Iraq into three parts.
One of those angry commanders, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004, said in a telephone conversation late last month that the Pentagon was desperate for new leadership. "The uniformed guys are looking for adult leadership and they are not getting it." Retired Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, now a senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, agreed that opposition to Rumsfeld and the White House policies on Iraq had become intense. "There is a lot of feeling under the surface," Gard said, "though people on active duty are somewhat reluctant to speak out."
Military personnel were so opposed to the Bush administration's policies that in a desperate attempt to get the White House to adopt more realistic strategies in Iraq, some former commanding officers went further than calling for Rumsfeld to resign in a Salon article last month. Eaton and Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who led the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, told Salon that even though they were lifelong Republicans, they were hoping Democrats would take control of Congress to jump-start serious congressional oversight of the war.
The Democrats did take over Congress, and Bush responded to the power shift and the military newspaper editorials by dumping Rumsfeld not a week after he had pledged unstinting support for the secretary of defense. Bush said Wednesday that he had been mulling a Rumsfeld replacement since at least last week, suggesting that the election and the recent statement from the Military Times editors were just contributing factors.
But will a change in defense secretaries actually mean anything on the ground in Iraq? Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who will chair the Senate Armed Services Committee next year, released a statement saying that he "hopes" that Rumsfeld's departure represents a willingness to try something new. "The president's willingness to do so," he scolded, "is long overdue."
But it is unclear whether any change that would be acceptable to the president will be dramatic enough to salvage some kind of victory from a war that has increasingly become a quagmire. Observers agreed that by removing Rumsfeld, the president had eliminated one of the chief architects of the current plan. "It will give the president more flexibility to change policy," noted Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University who has lectured at West Point. But Wayne noted that Rumsfeld was just one part of a "three part anchor to the stay-the-course policy in Iraq." That anchor, Wayne noted, was made up of "the president, the vice president and the secretary of defense."
"Will this change policy?" Rep. Ike Skelton pondered during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "I don't know." The Missouri Democrat is Levin's counterpart in the House. "I certainly hope so, rather than having a new face with the same stay-the-course policy." Skelton said that policy currently amounted to "feeding young people into the cauldron without anything to show for it."
At the very least, dumping Rumsfeld and hiring Gates gives the president an opportunity to shore up his support in the military. "The president needs the support of the military in designing or moving toward a new strategy," said Georgetown's Wayne.
Robert Gates is an old associate of the Bush family, having worked as an assistant to the first President Bush from 1989 to 1991 before the elder Bush appointed him head of the CIA. Gates has served the federal government under six presidents, joining the CIA fresh from graduate school in 1966, but he has never worn a military uniform. He does have experience managing large bureaucracies; besides running the CIA, he has been president of Texas A&M, the nation's sixth largest university, since 2002, but he will certainly find a far greater challenge at the Pentagon. "Part of his task is not simply to try to talk the president off the edge in terms of Iraq policy, and implement the Baker commission, but to try to lead the military in a time of war," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the Center for Security and International Studies, a think tank. "There are just a lot of unknown unknowns." But, as Donnelly noted, "One thing that he isn't is a defense expert."
In the short term, however, Gates is at least certain to be a far less polarizing figure than Donald Rumsfeld. Yet Zbigniew Brzezinski, an Iraq war critic who served as national security advisor for President Jimmy Carter, thinks the change in defense secretaries could have more far-reaching consequences. "This appointment may be marking the beginning of a major corrective in American policy towards the Middle East," said Brzezinski in a prepared statement.
Two years ago, Brzezinski and Gates co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations study on Iran that advocated a change in White House policy toward that country. "Direct U.S. efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime are not likely to succeed," the report concluded. The report added that the administration should engage in immediate political dialogue with the Iranian regime, before any deal was struck over the nation's nuclear ambitions, a policy that the Bush administration has so far avoided.