Just hours after Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives and appeared poised to also take the Senate, President Bush made the surprise announcement that he had accepted the resignation of embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. At a press conference Wednesday (November 8), Bush said he’d chosen former CIA head Robert Gates to replace the lead military planner of the Iraq war and leader of the Pentagon for the past six years.
“After a series of thoughtful conversations, secretary Rumsfeld and I have agreed that the timing is right for new leadership at the Pentagon,” Bush said. “Don Rumsfeld has been a superb leader during a time of change, yet he also appreciates the value of bringing in a fresh perspective during a critical period in this war.”
Bush held another press conference later in the afternoon, thanking Rumsfeld and Gates as they stood by his side. Rumsfeld also made brief remarks, during which he said the Iraq conflict is a “little understood, unfamiliar war” and that it is “complex for people to comprehend,” according to The Associated Press.
Wednesday does not mark Rumsfeld’s departure. A Pentagon spokesperson told AP that he was not leaving immediately, and Rumsfeld is set to give a speech at Kansas State University on Thursday.
Bush was asked just last week if Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney would remain in their jobs until the end of the president’s administration, and he insisted they would. Rumsfeld even offered to resign at least once before in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal.
During the press conference, Bush said he met with Gates on Sunday at his Crawford, Texas, ranch to discuss the job. Gates is the president of Texas A&M University, and Bush praised him for his historic climb over 26 years from an entry-level position at the CIA to director of central intelligence during George H.W. Bush’s administration. Before taking the top Texas A&M job, he also briefly served as interim dean at the George Bush School of Government and Service at the school.
Gates — a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group currently preparing a report looking for alternative strategies in Iraq — would need to be confirmed by the Senate before taking over Rumsfeld’s post.
When asked at the press conference about last week’s assertion that Rumsfeld would serve for the remainder of his presidency, Bush said that he hadn’t spoken to Gates about the job or to Rumsfeld about stepping down at that point and that he didn’t want to inject that issue into the election.
“I know there’s a lot of speculation about what the election means for the battle we’re waging in Iraq,” Bush said. “I recognize that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made there.” Bush stressed that the need for a “fresh perspective” on the war in Iraq was something he was exploring and was not necessarily tied to the Democrats’ congressional victories in Tuesday’s election (see “Blue Streak: Democrats Take Over House, Make Headway In Senate” ). “Win or lose, Bob Gates was going to become the nominee,” Bush said.
Behind ethical issues, exits polls showed that opposition to the war in Iraq was one of the most prevalent issues on voters’ minds, and Rumsfeld has often been a focal point of scorn over the mounting death toll and the apparent lack of an exit plan in the conflict. Though Bush tried to characterize Rumsfeld’s decision as one that had been unfolding over the past few weeks, judging by some press accounts, it seemed to come out of nowhere.
AP ran a story early Wednesday morning in which the Pentagon’s press secretary said he was in meetings with Rumsfeld that morning and heard no talk of changing war strategies or of Rumsfeld leaving. Similarly, a Reuters story that crossed the wires just two hours before Bush announced Rumsfeld’s resignation was titled: “Democrats’ win alone won’t drive Rumsfeld out.” The story speculated that the election results might not drive Bush to dump Rumsfeld, but “voters’ repudiation of the Iraq war might cause President George W. Bush to decide life would be easier without Rumsfeld around.”
The Democrats’ ascension to leadership in the House of Representatives almost ensures investigations into the Pentagon’s management of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Reuters speculated, even as senior and former administration officials close to Rumsfeld said he would not be driven out by the threat of Democrats throwing their weight around in Congress. “He’s not resigning,” said one of those officials. “He’s best when he’s criticized.”
Rumsfeld, a flinty-eyed speaker given to blunt talk, was the second-longest-serving defense secretary in history, counting his tenure from 1975-1977 under President Gerald Ford. He has taken much of the blame over Iraq, facing criticism for the Abu Ghraib scandal and the poor conditions at the Guantanamo Bay jail, as well as for the lack of appropriate amounts of body armor for American troops. He’s also been criticized, along with Bush, for his failure to anticipate the deadly insurgency in Iraq and gauge the appropriate number of troops needed to quell that insurgency and stop the country from tipping into civil war.
In addition to a number of prominent Democrats and retired generals calling for Rumsfeld’s replacement, last week the Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times and Marine Corps Times called for his resignation.
Just an hour before Bush announced the change, soon-to-be House Speaker Democrat Nancy Pelosi reiterated her election-night pledge to look for a “new direction” in Iraq and said Bush must “signal a change of direction.” One place he could start, she suggested, was to “change the civilian leadership at the Pentagon,” a not-so-veiled reference to ousting Rumsfeld. “That would signal an openness to new, fresh ideas on the subject,” she said, adding that she planned to discuss that topic with Bush in their upcoming meetings.