San Diego Union Tribune

December 9, 2006

An emotional day for Pentagon's old soldier

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said goodbye to his Pentagon “family” yesterday, expressing pride in what he saw as a list of accomplishments, but warning that the nation needed patience and better government coordination to win “the long war” against extremists.


 
HARAZ N. GHANBARI / Associated Press
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld greeted Defense Department staffers during a town hall-style farewell session yesterday at the Pentagon.

Rumsfeld, who will be succeeded by Robert Gates on Dec. 18, said his strongest feelings on leaving the Pentagon post were pride and gratitude.

“Every day, in one way or another, I've seen the strength of men and women in uniform, and the dedication of the many thousands who serve here, military and civilian, who do their jobs knowing that theirs is the essential business of protecting a nation and protecting a people,” he said at a final town hall-style session with hundreds of military and civilian Pentagon workers who repeatedly broke into applause.

“I suspect this will be among my last public remarks as secretary of defense,” he said in one of the rare public appearances he has made since President Bush announced Nov. 8 that he was replacing Rumsfeld with Gates to get a “fresh perspective” on the Iraq war.

Rumsfeld has a unique place in Pentagon history. He is the only person to have been defense secretary twice, having held the post for a little over a year under President Ford. He was the youngest defense secretary then, and now, at 74, he is the oldest.

Asked what were his best day and his worst day as secretary, Rumsfeld answered without hesitation.

“Clearly, the worst day was Abu Ghraib, seeing what went on there and feeling so deeply sorry that that happened.”

The scandal, which erupted in April 2004 when images from an Iraqi prison became public, triggered worldwide condemnation and prompted Rumsfeld to twice offer his resignation to Bush. Bush rejected those offers.

“I guess my best day, I don't know, may be a week from Monday,” he said with a grin, referring to the day Gates takes over.


 
HYUNGWON KANG / Reuters
"I suspect this will be among my last public remarks as secretary of defense," Donald Rumsfeld, 74, told Pentagon workers yesterday. He is the only person to have held the post twice.

He also said he might write a book about his tenure at the Pentagon, and predicted that Gates would do a good job as his successor. When asked what advice he had for Gates, who was confirmed by the Senate this week, Rumsfeld replied, “Any advice I give him, I'll give him in private.”

Mixing an unusual show of emotion with his usual acerbic wit, Rumsfeld said the transformation of the military from a rigid Cold War structure into a flexible 21st century force, which many believe was his primary goal, was only about half completed. But he said the mindset of military leaders has changed substantially, shifting from fighting to advance their own service needs to working to improve joint capabilities across services.

He talked about the federal government's inability to coordinate its economic, political and military efforts in combating extremism. And, he said, the experience of the Cold War shows the nation needed patience.

“This is a long struggle.”

He also spoke at length about his hopes that the United States does not let Iraq and Afghanistan collapse.

“We have every chance in the world of succeeding in both those countries, but only if we have the patience and only if we have the staying power,” he said.

In response to a question from the audience, Rumsfeld said he has not read this week's report from the bipartisan Iraqi Study Group, which is viewed as rejecting the Bush administration's conduct of the war. But Rumsfeld did say that none of its recommendations were new.

Frequently criticized by military officers – usually anonymously – as having ignored professional military advice, Rumsfeld said that he came to the Pentagon in 2001 committed to “engaging the military, not at the end of the process, but from the beginning.”

And while alternately praised and criticized for being perhaps the strongest defense secretary ever, the former corporate chief executive said the Pentagon was “so big and complex there is no way anyone can lead by command, you must do it by persuasion.”

He cited a long list of “achievements” during his tenure, which he attributed to the Pentagon team and the military.

They included coming to peoples' aid after the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the earthquake in Pakistan and the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast; deploying “an initial missile defense system”; creating the Northern Command to “better protect the homeland”; conducting the largest-ever base closure and global force change; and operating the Guantanamo detention center for terrorist suspects in the face of “grossly uninformed and irresponsible charges.”

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Many critics say the detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been held in violation of international law and suffered abuses similar to prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

The questions from department employees during the session were gentle ones, in contrast to the news conferences at which Rumsfeld never bothered to hide his disdain for reporters he considered ill-informed, cynical, or naive. But even in yesterday's friendly setting, Rumsfeld was in fine form.

He gave a backhanded compliment to Pentagon reporters, with whom he has sparred vigorously, saying they were “the most professional press corps in Washington,” but noting that might not mean much “given the competition.”

Only one other defense secretary has held the post longer than Rumsfeld: Robert McNamara, who served for seven years, one month and eight days.

Rumsfeld – who served for 14 months in his first stay, and five years and nearly 11 months in his current tour – will leave office 11 days short of passing McNamara's record.

The Associated Press and New York Times News Service contributed to this report.