With the swearing in of Donald Rumsfeld's successor as the Secretary of Defense, now is perhaps a good time to look back on how Rumsfeld did in the job.
Rumsfeld has caught a lot of flak during his time in office. He had strong opinions on policy issues that went well beyond the Defense Department, particularly with respect to U.S. foreign policy. It's likely that his counterparts at the State Department sometimes felt his contributions to be less than constructive.
At the Defense Department itself, though, his actual achievements are difficult to argue with. When you compare the 2003 invasion of Iraq with the Gulf War a decade earlier, Rumsfeld's objectives were far more challenging - driving all the way to Baghdad rather than merely driving Saddam Hussein's forces out of the much smaller Kuwait - and he achieved them in half the time, using half the forces that Dick Cheney used in the earlier conflict.
Rumsfeld has been criticized for his handling of the subsequent occupation of Iraq; however, when you compare what he did to the sanctions and occasional bombings that followed the Gulf War, Rumsfeld's strategy has done far less damage to the U.S. image in the Arab world, and far less harm to the Iraqi civilian population. Its only downside is that it has involved more headline grabbing casualties among U.S. forces. Unfortunately, Iraqi civilian deaths don't get the same attention from the press that U.S. casualties do, even when there are an order of magnitude more Iraqis dying.
Perhaps most importantly, Rumsfeld managed to axe a number of big cold war style programs - designed to fight a Soviet Union that no longer exists - replacing them with a more flexible military force. This transition was opposed by a number of retired generals who would have preferred to fight the last war rather than the current one, but the truth is, the transition was already more than a decade overdue. The changes that Rumsfeld implemented move the military away from being a 20th century dinosaur, and towards being a 21st century fighting force. These changes are likely to be Rumsfeld's most important legacy.
Mr. Rumsfeld, I thank you for a job well done.