But he has the defects of his qualities. In pursuit of a strategy, abrasiveness may be acceptable; not so when it becomes a substitute for a strategy. Although impatience with mediocrity can be justified, that ceases to apply when the Secretary of Defense gives the impression that everyone he deals with is a mediocrity.
After George Bush won the presidency, there was work to be done. When Charles Guthrie became the UK's Chief of the General Staff, he said that his reading of military history had alerted him to a problem. During long periods of peacetime, there was a danger that officers would earn promotion by their success in commanding desks. When a war broke out, their inadequacies would rapidly become apparent, which is why it has always been necessary to sack a lot of generals during the first few months of hostilities. To obviate this, General Guthrie tried to ensure that all the key commands were held by warriors.
The US urgently needed its version of the Guthrie doctrine, for its difficulties were much greater. The wounds of Vietnam had not all healed. Doubtful alike of their men's appetite for combat and their public's reaction to casualties, many senior officers had become risk averse. This was exacerbated by political correctness. During its eight years, the Clinton presidency seemed to have only two military priorities; to be as accommodating as possible to homosexual soldiers and to make every effort to recruit women.
The Bush administration had different goals, and Don Rumsfeld seemed the right man to pursue them. He could never be accused of being politically correct or risk averse. It was not unreasonable for him to be politely and subtly suspicious of the generals who had flourished during the Clinton years. Don Rumsfeld ought to have made some rapid assessments: which general should be transferred to command the paper clips depot; which untainted young warrior should replace him. But there was no evidence of a systematic personnel review. Instead, Mr Rumsfeld was wearisomely rude to almost everyone he dealt with. Morale suffered: needlessly, pointlessly. A friend of mine in the administration put it well. "You can go into a meeting on Don Rumsfeld's side and about 30 seconds later he'll have one hand round your throat and the other round your balls. And that's when you're on his side.''
This had consequences. By the autumn of 2001, Donald Rumsfeld was not only the most unpopular member of the Bush Cabinet. He was just about the most unpopular Cabinet member there had ever been. In a matter of weeks, he had fallen out with the generals and the admirals, the senators and the congressmen - plus the White House. His dismissal seemed imminent.
Then came 9/11. After the plane crashed into the Pentagon, the rescue workers in uniform were surprised to see a late-middle aged guy in shirt sleeves working alongside them. They were about to tell him to move to safety. Then they recognised their boss. The emotions of those early hours brought everyone together. Suddenly, discontents over personalities seemed a childish distraction.
A different Secretary of Defense could have used this to re-launch his relations with his good subordinates. That was not Don Rumsfeld's way. But as he was effective on television, his standing was enhanced. For a time, he was just about the most popular member of the Bush team, at least with the viewing public. The old curmudgeon had become a lovable old curmudgeon.
He also benefited from the White House's lack of confidence in the State Department, because of State's lack of enthusiasm for the Iraq war, reflected by Colin Powell. Though General Powell remained a figure of great personal authority, it was never clear where he stood. The trumpet gave an uncertain sound: another charge which could never be levelled at Don Rumsfeld.
From all this, there arose a tragic mistake which had echoes in Britain. Most of the State Department was against the war, as was most of our Foreign Office. In response, the politicians not only overrode the doubts; that was legitimate. They overrode the expertise; that was calamitous. If State and the FO had been in charge of the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, it is likely that the hideous mistakes of sacking the army and de-Baathising the civil service would have been avoided. Instead, we had a lethal combination: Don Rumsfeld's ruthlessness and the neoconservatives' idealism.
Whatever his place in history, Mr Rumsfeld has made one enduring contribution, to the language. The "unknown unknown'' ought to join "this pig doesn't weigh as much as I thought it did, but then I never thought it would'' and "original sin'' as succinct insights into the human condition. But Mr Rumsfeld never lived up to his own apothegm, which ought to have inspired certain caution, as in a man entering a dark and haunted house. There was no caution, only recklessness.
As for the neocons, they had a vital role in providing intellectual and moral momentum. Like most intellectuals, however, they should never have been allowed near the implementation of policy. Often with Marxist influences in their intellectual formation, several of them propounded a neocon equivalent of vulgar Marxism: open the tailgate of the Jeep, hand out candies to the kids and votes to the parents, and all will be well. If only it had been that simple.
Secretary Rumsfeld must take a lot of the blame for succumbing to the seduction of simplicity, and there was a further problem. If you were as rich as the Americans, you can always deceive yourselves into believing that technology can remedy the enlisted men's deficiencies. We British know better. We know that if men are properly trained and led, flesh and blood can still overcome lead and steel. Equally, we understand that unless the flesh and blood are animated by courage and leadership, the lead and steel are useless.
By 2000, the Americans no longer grasped that basic truth. It was Don Rumsfeld's job to rectify that, and he has failed. All the evidence suggests that the morale of the American military is - at best - no better than it was when he took over. The same is true of training.
Mr Rumsfeld has failed. If that was true of anyone else, he would delight in telling them about the consequences of failure. He should now apply that same rigour to himself. He should go.Reuse content