Behind Rumsfeld's Fall: The Perils of Hubris

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President George W. Bush announces his nominee to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (middle), former CIA Director Robert Gates (R), in the Oval Office, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006.

Donald Rumsfeld was dispatched to the political gallows Wednesday as swiftly and surprisingly as he arrived at the Pentagon, for a second tour, nearly six years ago. A hard-nosed businessman, tough political infighter, and Dick Cheney's mentor, he was a good choice to retool a Pentagon that had grown fat and complacent since his last tour as Pentagon chief ended in the Ford Administration.

But he quickly stumbled in his stubborn effort to remake the Pentagon. He, and the Bush Administration, failed to make the tough choices necessary to build a 21st century fighting force. Instead, they stuffed billions of dollars into a 20th century weapons system that sprang from the drawing board when Russia was still the Soviet Union. As F-22 attack planes and Virginia-class submarines consumed the Pentagon's purse, there weren't enough soldiers to prevail in Iraq — and those dispatched lacked the necessary armor to do their jobs.

It's hard to recall it now, but Rumsfeld was on the ropes before the 9/11 attacks. His roughshod treatment of many in the military — fairly or unfairly — had many officers, especially in the Army, setting their bayonets into place by the middle of 2001. It was only the al-Qaeda attacks that saved Rumsfeld's job later that year, many Pentagon insiders believe. Overnight, he achieved pop-culture status, his stern countenance and parrying of press questions bringing him a peculiar kind of Washington fame in those scary weeks following 9/11. Yet it was the pair of wars launched in the wake of those terror strikes that, over time, highlighted on a far bigger stage his short-sighted and subordinate-ruffling demeanor. The cracks in his management acumen began showing as the insurgency surged in Iraq in late 2003, and widened when the heinous photographs of the abuse at Abu Ghraib exploded in the spring of 2004.

Rumsfeld and the generals around him puffed with pride when their fairly audacious war plan for Afghanistan succeeded in ousting the Taliban from power before the end of 2001. If anything, that increased the hubris that came to doom the U.S. mission in Iraq. It was that same sense of imperiousness, more than anything else, that toppled G.O.P. control of Congress on Tuesday. On Wednesday, almost as an afterthought, it also brought to an inglorious end to Rumsfeld's Pentagon tenure.