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(CNN) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who revamped and streamlined the U.S. military as it went to war first in Afghanistan and then Iraq, is resigning.
"I must say that it's been the highest honor of my life to serve with the talented men and women of the Department of Defense, the amazing men and women, young men and women in uniform," Rumsfeld said Wednesday at a White House announcement. "It's a privilege."
President Bush had backed Rumsfeld, even as the defense chief grew as a target for opponents of the administration and even as the criticism came from inside military circles.
A week before Tuesday's critical midterm elections, Bush said he wanted Rumsfeld to stay until he leaves the White House in 2009.
"History will record that on Don Rumsfeld's watch the men and women of our military overthrew two terrorist regimes, liberated some 50 million people, brought justice to the terrorist [Musab al-] Zarqawi and scores of senior al Qaeda operatives and helped stop new terrorist attacks on our people," Bush said Wednesday, announcing the resignation.
But Rumsfeld's legacy will hinge on Iraq and how that war turns out.
In the first three weeks of the war, U.S. troops quickly deposed Saddam Hussein and captured Baghdad with a relatively small force and lightning speed.
But with Iraq on the verge of civil war three years later, the defense chief now admits that no one was well-prepared for what would happen after major combat ended.
"Well, I think that anyone who looks at it with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight has to say that there was not an anticipation that the level of insurgency would be anything approximating what it is," Rumsfeld told CNN for the documentary, "CNN Presents Rumsfeld -- Man of War," which ran in September.
In a rare one-on-one TV interview, Rumsfeld talked with CNN special correspondent Frank Sesno about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the transformation of the U.S. military and his approach to management.
Rumsfeld's style and policies have rankled many, and several former top military officers have called for him to resign. One of those is the man who led the 1st Infantry Division in northwest Iraq in 2004. Former U.S. Army Maj. Gen John Batiste said he asked for more troops and was turned down.
"We're in a real fix right now [in Iraq]," Batiste told CNN. "We're there because Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ignored sound military advice, dismissed it all, went with his plan and his plan alone."
Batiste argued that had he been given more troops the military could have secured Iraq's border with Iran as well as the country's oil facilities. (Watch Batiste describe how Rumsfeld ignored the military's advice -- 5:50)
Rumsfeld's plan was to win the war with low troop levels and superior technology, let democracy take root and then have the Iraqis secure the country. That strategy appeared to be working in Afghanistan, where 1,000 troops had ousted the Taliban with the help of the indigenous Northern Alliance.
Critics: Rumsfeld doesn't like dissent
Several retired generals told CNN the 74-year-old secretary is inflexible, especially when he has staked out a position. However allies, including his top aide, disputed that assertion.
"He's tough. He's smart. He's fair. He's focused," said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "But he's not the guy that most people think he is."(Watch Pace talk about an "incredible patriot" -- 4:22)
Rumsfeld said he welcomes debate and that he tells people to make their case.
"And we've ended up adjusting or changing or calibrating [the plan]," he said.
But retired Army Gen. Paul Eaton told CNN that if you spoke up and the Pentagon disagreed, "Then you're going to have a problem."
Eaton reflects what many critics said about Rumsfeld's management style and the decisions that stem from it: that the defense secretary doesn't listen; he doesn't like dissent; and he dismisses ideas that differ from his own.
The secretary shrugged off such criticism.
"Well, you know, I mean it's awfully easy to be on the outside and to opine on this and opine on that and critique that," Rumsfeld said.
His concern with detail left one former general perplexed.
Former Lt. Gen. Mike DeLong said that Rumsfeld corrected his grammar the first time he briefed the secretary.
"He said, 'Stop. ... General, there was no verb in the last sentence," DeLong said.
Assistant Defense Secretary Stephen Cambone said Rumsfeld once asked him how many words were in a paragraph in a brief. There were 93.
"It was to make a point," Cambone said, adding that he hasn't written a 93-word paragraph since. (Watch deputy talk about what irritates the secretary -- 4:22)
'I don't worry about me'
Rumsfeld, given a mandate by Bush to pursue a space-based missile defense program and to modernize the military, said the transformation has had its issues.
"[The Pentagon] is a big place. It's like any big institution. It's resistant to change," he told CNN.
"Change is hard for people, and there [have] been a lot of squealing and screeching and complaints as, as the change took place in this department. And I would say that it's attitude and culture as much as anything else."
And if change makes people feel uncomfortable?
"Well, it's unfortunate," Rumsfeld said. "But life has to go on and the things have to get done, and the American people have to be protected."
James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, called Rumsfeld the "perfect historical figure."
"Historians will reinterpret him over and over," Carafano said. "They will find brilliant, insightful, clearheaded decisions, and they will find boneheaded, jarring, dumb mistakes."
When asked how he will define his own success, Rumsfeld answered:
"I don't worry about me. I get up in the morning and [my wife] Joyce rolls over and says, 'If those troops can get out there and do what they're doing, you can do what you're doing. Get out there and do it.' "
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought to win the Iraq war with low troop levels and superior technology.
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