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ARLINGTON, Va. — Army Secretary Thomas White’s abrupt resignation Friday may have caught some parts of the Army staff flat-footed, but Army watchers say the good-bye was a given: the only unknown was its timing.

Like a cat with the proverbial nine lives, White came close to losing his job several times since he was appointed in May 2001. His troubles began with his status as President Bush’s highest-ranking appointee to be associated with the Enron scandal, extended to the Crusader cancellation, and recently culminated with a public spat regarding the number of U.S. troops it might take to secure Iraq in peacetime.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who allegedly has a special intolerance for “underlings who go off the reservation … has been aching to get rid of [White], but the timing just hasn’t been right,” a Pentagon official said Monday.

Circumstances always seemed to come up that would have made it politically awkward for Rumsfeld to fire White outright — the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan, Iraq.

Now, with the war in Iraq a success and the combat phase all but wrapped up, the timing was apparently right.

White tendered his resignation after meeting with Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on Friday, hours before Rumsfeld left for a trip to the Middle East.

“His resignation was asked for before [Rumsfeld] took off,” the official said.

Although White’s bruising public battles with Pentagon leadership were splashy and memorable, they are not the only legacy of his tenure as Army secretary, according to John Grady, a spokesman for the Association of the United States Army (AUSA).

“I think he did a lot of good,” Grady said in a Monday telephone interview from the association’s Arlington, Va., offices.

White “worked very, very vigorously to make sure the Army set aside funds” for the Future Combat System, the service’s “transformational” technology architecture, Grady said.

White also “really worked the Stryker issue,” pushing to make sure the wheeled armored combat vehicle stayed on schedule and met its developmental milestones on time, Grady said.

But perhaps White’s most enduring legacy, Grady said, “is the rapprochement he [fostered] between the uniformed and the civilian side” of the Army.

“White really loves soldiers, and they knew it,” Grady said. “He was always happiest when he was with the troops.”

Some media reports have characterized White’s departure as a firing, while others refer to it as a resignation, but it doesn’t really matter, Army observers and officers said.

“I think he was catching the hints,” one former Army officer who works closely with the service said dryly in a Monday telephone interview.

The big question now is who will replace the long-beleaguered former Enron executive.

Central Command leader Gen. Tommy Franks is the widely favored front runner for the Army’s top uniformed position, chief of staff, which will be open when Gen. Eric Shinseki retires in June. But no names have publicly been floated for White’s replacement.

Rumsfeld is likely to have, if not an outright successor to White, at the very least a short list of names already prepared.

Rumsfeld “wouldn’t have gotten rid of White unless he had a replacement in mind,” the former officer said.

Service secretaries, unlike chiefs of staff, are often more political appointments than they are strategic. Some presidents have used the service secretaries almost like ambassadorships, offering the posts to campaign supporters with little or no government experience.

But with Rumsfeld at the helm, that’s highly unlikely to be the case with the Army spot, especially since Rumsfeld now has an opportunity to form a handpicked triangle at the top of the service: the secretary, the chief and the chief’s second-in-command.

Rumsfeld is almost certain to tap a person with whom he has worked before, either in his former life as a CEO or in one of his many reincarnations as a political appointee in Washington, Army watchers said.

Most important of all, Rumsfeld “is going to pull someone from the outside, someone who understands his transformation strategy and who [Rumsfeld] thinks can push [transformation] down into the Army,” the former Army officer said.

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