Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the hard-driving and super-confident Pentagon boss who came to symbolize President Bush’s controversial Iraq policy, is resigning, President Bush announced today.
Mr. Bush, appearing at the White House the day after the Republican Party suffered sweeping defeats in Tuesday’s midterm elections, said he and Mr. Rumsfeld had had “a series of thoughtful conversations” and agreed that “the time is right for new leadership at the Pentagon.”
Mr. Bush said that as the leader of the Republican Party, he bore the responsibility for its losses on Tuesday. The Democrats picked up 27 seats and took control of the House, and so far it has gained five seats in the Senate.
Mr. Bush also emphasized today that he took full responsibility for the Iraq war, and he acknowledged that Americans are frustrated by the “lack of progress” in that country. But while praising Mr. Rumsfeld as “a superb leader in a time of change,” Mr. Bush said both he and the departing secretary recognized the “value of a fresh perspective.”
Only days ago, Mr. Bush had voiced confidence in Mr. Rumsfeld, as he had consistently done since the start of his presidency. But Tuesday’s elections produced a furious reaction from the American public over a military campaign that has cost the lives of nearly 3,000 members of the armed forces and that many people of all political stripes have described as poorly managed.
Democrats responded instantly to the announcement. “If it were up to me, he would have been gone a long time ago,” said Senator Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin.
“Yesterday’s election was a cry for change, and for the first time it looks like the president is listening,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, vowing to work with the new secretary on “an Iraq policy that is both strong and smart.”
Whether the president asked Mr. Rumsfeld to go, or whether Mr. Rumsfeld took the cue from the elections, was not immediately clear. But people who know the secretary have said he might step aside on his own if he concluded that he had become a liability, and there was no indication from Mr. Bush that he had tried to talk Mr. Rumsfeld out of leaving.
Democrats have accused Mr. Rumsfeld of ignoring the advice of some generals that imposing a peace in Iraq would be harder and bloodier than just winning the war to topple Saddam Hussein. Several retired generals have said Mr. Rumsfeld should go.
As the months have dragged on since Mr. Hussein was overthrown, and Iraq has been riven by sectarian violence, the Democrats have intensified their complaints. They have blamed Mr. Rumsfeld and his top aides not just for the loss of American lives but, in the Democrats’ view, lowering America’s stature in Europe and elsewhere around the world.
Mr. Bush said Mr. Gates was an ideal choice to apply a new perspective to Iraq, since he has been an adviser to several presidents. Perhaps more important, Mr. Gates is a member of the bipartisan commission that has been studying the Iraq campaign with the possibility of charting a new direction.
That panel, formally the Iraq Study Group, is headed by James A. Baker 3d, secretary of state and a top adviser to the first President Bush, and Lee Hamilton, former Democratic Congressman from Indiana and co-chairman of the 9/11 commission.
Before the White House announcement, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, now the Democratic minority leader and perhaps the majority leader in the new Senate, said Mr. Bush should convene a bipartisan Iraq summit with Congressional leaders.
“Yesterday’s message was clear: Americans want change,” Mr. Reid said.
While there may be adjustments in Iraq, Mr. Bush said America’s enemies should not mistake change for retreat. As for bringing American troops home, Mr. Bush said, “I want them to come home with victory.” By victory, he said again that he means a country that “governs itself, sustains itself and defends itself.”
The president praised Mr. Rumsfeld as a “patriot” who has served his country with “honor and distinction.”
Mr. Rumsfeld is in his mid-70s, and by all accounts he has the drive and energy of many men decades younger. He served as Defense Secretary under President Gerald R. Ford, and he made it clear when he joined the Bush administration in 2001 that he wanted to bring the vast Pentagon bureaucracy under control — a goal that has eluded many previous secretaries.
But he was damaged by predictions about the Iraq campaign that came to be seen as over-optimistic as the months dragged on and the deaths mounted. He was even accused occasionally of being unfeeling about deaths in wartime, even though he said often that he mourned every life lost.