Rumsfeld’s final ‘snowflake’

Seen off with military fanfare at a Pentagon ceremony, Mr Rumsfeld was showered with praise and hailed as a great defence secretary who rose to the challenge of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

In a cautionary farewell speech not far from where a hijacked airliner struck the Pentagon on September 11, Mr Rumsfeld said the threat had not passed and America had to invest more in defending itself and not let down its guard.

“This is a time of great consequence,” he said. “Our task is to make the right decisions today so that future generations will not have to make much harder decisions tomorrow.”

“It may well be comforting to some to consider graceful exits from the agonies and, indeed, the ugliness of combat. But the enemy thinks differently,” he said.

“Our country has taken on a bracing and difficult task. But let there be no doubt: It is neither hopeless nor without purpose,” he said.

Mr Rumsfeld made no direct reference to the war in Iraq or the intense debate now underway over how to salvage a US mission that has been battered by a protracted insurgency and a chaotic descent into sectarian violence.

But he used his speech to warn that even the perception of a loss of will on the part of the United States was dangerous in a world of “unstable dictators, weapon proliferators and rogue regimes.”

“Today, it should be clear that not only is weakness provocative, but the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative as well,” he said.

With 2,933 US military dead and more than 22,000 wounded, the Mr Rumsfeld-directed war in Iraq has become the most divisive inside the United States since Vietnam.

A lightning rod for criticism who had survived repeated calls for his removal, Mr Rumsfeld resigned the day after a crushing Republican defeat in November 7 mid-term elections.

The vote was widely seen as a repudiation of the administration’s conduct of the war, and has spurred President George W. Bush to launch a search for a new way forward in Iraq.

‘Finest ever defence secretary’

Mr Bush described Mr Rumsfeld as a man of energy and vision who had brought about the most profound changes in the US Defence Department since its creation in 1940s.

“This man knows how to lead and he did, and the country is better off for it,” Bush said.

Vice President Dick Cheney said his old friend was “the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had.”

Military brass, members of Congress and Mr Rumsfeld’s aides and colleagues turned out to watch him review the honour guards on a Pentagon parade ground.

Some aides were seen brushing away tears.

General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commended Mr Rumsfeld’s courage to speak his mind when the current of opinion was running in the opposite direction.

He said “sometimes the course of the nation change(d) because he had the courage to speak at those times.”

When he hands over the reins on Monday, Mr Rumsfeld will be 11 days shy of breaking Robert McNamara’s record as the longest-serving defence secretary.

Mr Rumsfeld was the youngest defence secretary when he served for the first time under president Gerald Ford in 1975, at age 43; he is the oldest now at age 74.

His tart remarks about “unknown unknowns” and “Old Europe” by turns sparked delight or anger, while his brusque, combative style raised hackles in Congress and the officer corps.

Blizzard over

On Friday, Mr Rumsfeld sent out the last of more than 29,000 “snowflakes,” the brief memos he showered down on the Pentagon bureaucracy to prod it into action.

“The Blizzard Is Over,” it said.

Mr Rumsfeld entered office determined to transform the military into a smaller, more deployable high-tech force.

But his tenure has been defined by the US military’s response to the
September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda, the deadliest on American soil in the country’s history.

He led a swift and innovative campaign in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban and scattered Al-Qaeda by December 2001. US forces invaded Iraq next in March 2003, seizing Baghdad in less than three weeks.

Both conflicts remain unfinished, however, with the Taliban on the rebound in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden still at large and US forces bogged down in Iraq.

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