WASHINGTON (AP) – Calling Donald H. Rumsfeld vigorously was like shouting the Pacific wide. When others would rest, he ran. While others were sitting, he got up. But as hard as he tried, at the height of his career as Secretary of Defense he was unable to outmaneuver the ruinous politics of the Iraq war.
Regarded by previous colleagues as equally clever and combative, patriotic and politically cunning, Rumsfeld had a fabled career in government under four presidents and almost a quarter of a century in the American corporation. After retiring in 2008, he led the Rumsfeld Foundation to advance public service and partner with charities that provide service and assistance to military families and wounded veterans.
The two-time defense minister and former presidential candidate died on Tuesday. He was 88.
“Rummy,” as he was often called, was ambitious, funny, engaging, and capable of great personal warmth. But he irritated many with his confrontational style. A man who was apparently always in a hurry sent a flood of memos to his helpers every day – some of them far down the bureaucratic chain – which he dictated into an audio recorder and typed up by an assistant. They came to be known as his “snowflakes”.
Rumsfeld, an accomplished wrestler in college, enjoyed verbal sparring and made it an art form; acrid humor was a popular weapon.
Still, he built a network of loyalists who admired his work ethic, intelligence, and impatience with those who did not share his sense of urgency.
From his earliest years in Washington, friend and foe alike viewed him as a formidable political force. An associate of President Richard Nixon’s, Bryce Harlow, who helped convince Rumsfeld to step down from Congress and join Nixon’s cabinet as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969, called him “rough and ready, ready to get involved “and” the kind of “guy who would go on a blue flame to do a job.”
Rumsfeld is the only person who has served as Pentagon chief twice. The first time, 1975-77, he was the youngest ever. Next time, 2001-06, he was the oldest.
He made a quick run for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, a spectacular flop he once described as humiliating for a man accustomed to success at the highest levels of government, including posts as White House chief of staff, US ambassador and Member of the Congress.
For all of Rumsfeld’s accomplishments, it was the setbacks in Iraq at the dawn of his career that are likely to shape the most vivid features of his legacy.
When he arrived at the Pentagon for his second term as Secretary of Defense in January 2001, the military he inherited from Rumsfeld was in a slow transition from the Cold War era to that of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa and terrorist attacks. Other prominent concerns include: China’s military build-up and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
But nine months into his tenure, on September 11th, Rumsfeld literally faced the threat that would devour the remaining years of his tenure. When a hijacked American Airlines jetliner crashed into the Pentagon, Rumsfeld was in his third-floor office with nine members of the House of Representatives. He later recalled that the little wooden table they were working on trembled at the moment of impact.
Rumsfeld was one of the first to reach the smoldering crash site, and he helped carry the wounded on stretchers before returning to his duties in the building.
The nation was suddenly at war. US forces invaded Afghanistan on October 7th, and with Rumsfeld at the helm of the Pentagon, the Taliban regime was overthrown in a matter of weeks. Rumsfeld, who led frequently televised briefings about the war, became something of a television star who was admired for his clear language.
Within months of this success, President George W. Bush’s attention shifted to Iraq, which played no part in the 9/11 attacks. Rumsfeld and others in the government claimed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was armed with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and that the US could not afford the risk that Saddam would one day deliver some of these weapons to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
The US-led invasion of Iraq began in March 2003 with the approval of Congress but without the approval of the UN Security Council. Baghdad fell quickly, but the US and Allied forces were soon consumed in a violent uprising. Critics accuse Rumsfeld of rejecting the Army’s top general Eric Shinseki’s public assessment that several hundred thousand Allied troops would be needed to stabilize Iraq.
With an angular jaw and a caustic tongue, Rumsfeld became combative in defending the war effort and became a lightning rod for criticism from the Democrats. Years later, the extent to which the White House, Rumsfeld and the US military should be held responsible for the disaster in Iraq continued to be debated.
In his 2009 biography of Rumsfeld, writer Bradley Graham wrote that “it is both wrong and unfair to place a single guilt on Rumsfeld on Iraq.”
“But much of what happened to Rumsfeld resulted from his own behavior,” wrote Graham in “By His Own Rules.” âYou remember both how he did things and what he did. And here too it was an internal contradiction. Capable of real charm, friendliness and grace, he all too often appeared gruff and domineering, he often alienated others and made enemies wherever he needed friends. “
On Wednesday, Bush praised Rumsfeld’s “continued service as Secretary of Defense in wartime – a duty he performed with strength, skill and honor.”
Iraq war survivors were more critical. Rasha Al Aqeedi, now a US-based analyst from the Iraqi city of Mosul, said: “The legacy he left … the Iraq war has so tarnished American foreign policy. It shaped how an entire generation sees every United States intervention.
In his 2011 memoir, titled “Famous and Unknown,” Rumsfeld gave no trace of regret about Iraq, but admitted that its future remained in doubt.
“Although the untravelled path looks smoother and smoother, the cold reality of a Hussein regime in Baghdad would most likely mean a Middle East that is far more dangerous than it is today,” he wrote. He did not sound convinced that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq opened a hole in the justification for the invasion.
“Our failure to confront Iraq would have sent the message to other nations that neither America nor any other nation was ready to stand in the way of their support for terrorism and the prosecution of weapons of mass destruction,” he wrote.
Rumsfeld twice offered to resign to Bush in 2004 when it became known that US troops had abused inmates in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison – an episode he later described as his darkest hour as Secretary of Defense.
It wasn’t until November 2006, after the Democrats took control of Congress by riding a wave of antiwar sentiment, that Bush finally decided that Rumsfeld had to leave. He left office in December and was replaced by another Republican, Robert Gates. Defiant to the last, Rumsfeld did not regret any regrets at his farewell ceremony when the US death toll in Iraq had exceeded 2,900. The number would eventually exceed 4,400.
“It may be comforting to some to contemplate graceful exits from agony and, indeed, the ugliness of combat,” he told his colleagues. “But the enemy thinks differently.”
Born in Chicago to George and Jeannette Rumsfeld’s second child, Rumsfeld wrote in his memoir that he and his father shared a favorite sports team: the Chicago Bears of the National Football League. He recalled the announcer listening to a game of bears on the radio at home on a Sunday in 1941, interrupting the broadcast to announce that Japanese planes had launched a surprise attack on Hawaii.
Rumsfeld was 9 years old.
“I could feel that something terrible had happened,” he wrote. “I saw it on my parents’ faces and heard it in the tense voices that reported the news of the attack.”
After Pearl Harbor, Rumsfeld’s father joined the Navy at the age of 38 and the family moved frequently to be near him on the west coast.
In high school he met his future wife, Joyce Pierson. He came to Princeton on a partial scholarship and joined the Campus Navy ROTC program to cover his other expenses. In June 1954, Rumsfeld graduated and was appointed Ensign of the Navy. Six months later he married Joyce.
He began his Washington career in 1957 by enrolling as an assistant to Rep. Dave Dennison, R-Ohio. Soon he was himself a congressman, first elected in 1962 to represent Illinois. He served four terms.
One of his early acts as a member of the Nixon White House was to hire a young Dick Cheney and begin a lifelong friendship.
Rumsfeld was serving as the U.S. Ambassador to NATO in Brussels, Belgium when he was recalled to Washington to lead President Gerald Ford’s transition team after Nixon resigned in August 1974. He became the new president’s chief of staff and then his defense minister in November 1975.
After leaving the Pentagon in 1977, Rumsfeld embarked on a successful business career in the private sector, including serving as chief executive officer, president, and then chairman of GD Searle & Co., a major prescription drug maker.
He still tried his hand at civil service, including serving as special envoy for the Middle East to President Ronald Reagan from 1983-84. In this capacity, he met Saddam in Baghdad in December 1983, whose nation was at war with Iran at the time.
“None of us in the Reagan administration had any illusions about Saddam,” Rumsfeld wrote in his memoir. âAs with most despots, his career has been forged in conflict and hardened by bloodshed. He had used chemical toxins in the war he had started with Iran three years earlier. But given the reality of the Middle East, America then, as now, often had to deal with rulers who were considered ‘less bad’ than the others. “
Two decades later, Rumsfeld faced Saddam again – this time overseeing an invasion that overthrew the tyrant and, ironically, led to Rumsfeld’s own downfall.
He leaves behind his wife Joyce, three children and grandchildren.