Donald Rumsfeld, influential but controversial Bush defense secretary, dies at 88

Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose roles overseeing the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and efforts to transform the U.S. military made him one of history’s most consequential as well as controversial Pentagon leaders, died June 29 at his home in Taos, N.M. He was 88.George Casey, Donald Rumsfeld are posing for a picture: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld answers a reporter’s question during a briefing with George W. Casey Jr., commanding general of multinational forces in Iraq, at the Pentagon in 2005.© Win McNamee/Getty Images Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld answers a reporter’s question during a briefing with George W. Casey Jr., commanding general of multinational forces in Iraq, at the Pentagon in 2005.

The cause was multiple myeloma, said his former chief of staff Keith Urbahn.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s political prominence stretched back to the 1960s and included stints as a rebellious young Republican congressman, favored counselor to President Richard M. Nixon, right-hand man to President Gerald Ford and Middle East envoy for President Ronald Reagan. He also scored big in business, helping to pioneer such products as NutraSweet and high-definition television and earning millions of dollars salvaging large troubled firms.

His greatest notoriety and national effect came during a six-year reign as defense secretary under President George W. Bush. Hailed initially for leading the U.S. military to war in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Rumsfeld’s handling of the Iraq War eventually led to his downfall. Widely criticized for poorly planning the invasion’s aftermath, he was slow to recognize the development of an insurgency, draft an effective strategy for countering it and set clear policy for the treatment of prisoners.

Dogged for months by mounting calls for Mr. Rumsfeld’s removal, Bush finally let him go in late 2006 — 3 1/years into the Iraq War and just after an election in which the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress. Mr. Rumsfeld’s forced exit under clouds of blame and disapproval cast a dark shadow over his previously illustrious career.

None of his predecessors had come into the Pentagon’s top job with as much relevant experience. Having served as defense secretary once before under Ford, Mr. Rumsfeld was the only person ever to get a second shot at the position. He held the record as the youngest Pentagon leader — and early in his tenure under Bush, he became the oldest.

Mr. Rumsfeld was more complex and paradoxical than the public caricature of him as a pugnacious, inflexible villain would suggest. A Midwestern conservative, he nonetheless exhibited a persistent drive throughout his life to shake up the institutions in which he served. A hawk on defense, he strongly supported civil rights legislation as a young congressman, worked on anti-poverty programs under Nixon and promoted microenterprises as a wealthy investor.

At the Pentagon, he ruled with a strong hand, persistently challenging subordinates, poring over details of troop deployments and insisting on a greater role in the selection of top officers than his predecessors had exercised. While capable at times of great charm and generosity, he often seemed to undercut himself with a confrontational, gruff and belittling manner that many found offensive. Senior officers complained that he treated them harshly, legislators groused that he was either unresponsive to their requests or disrespectful in personal dealings, and senior officials at the State Department and the White House portrayed him as uncompromising, evasive and obstructive.

“He wielded a courageous and skeptical intellect,” Douglas Feith, Mr. Rumsfeld’s senior civilian policy adviser at the Pentagon, wrote in a memoir. “But his style of leadership did not always serve his own purposes: He bruised people and made personal enemies, who were eager to strike back at him and try to discredit his work.”

A complete obituary will be published soon.

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