Had President George W. Bush fired Donald Rumsfeld a month before, rather than a day after, November 7, the Republican Party could have retained control of both houses.  Still, doing it late is better than not doing it at all.  Rumsfeld was a liability and an embarrassment, the embodiment of all that went wrong in Iraq and a major culprit for much of it.  He disregarded sound military advice, ruled by intimidation, and made grave strategic mistakes.  To his credit, Rumsfeld developed a viable conceptual blueprint for a leaner, meaner 21st-century military.  To his disgrace, he then got it bogged down in a distinctly mid-20th-century, labor-intensive, open-ended mission, a war based on flawed assumptions and unrealistic expectations.

The departure of the longest-serving secretary of defense in American history was not lamented even by his erstwhile neoconservative associates, who were quick to claim that he was not really one of them.  Messrs. Perle, Frum, et al., nimbly shifted from asking “How do we win?” to “Who screwed up?”—and the culprits were supposed to be in the White House and the Pentagon.  But Rumsfeld’s betrayal by Neocon Central was well deserved.  He could not have been unaware that he was surrounding himself with riffraff of dubious integrity and uncertain loyalty.

In 2001, Rumsfeld made Richard Perle chairman of the Defense Policy Board—a position Perle had to resign in March 2003 after it was revealed that a venture-capital firm in which he was managing partner stood to profit from the Iraqi war.  Another favorite, Douglas Feith, was crafting “intelligence” from whole cloth.  Their Straussian mind-set was evident in Paul Wolfowitz’s now famous Vanity Fair admission that, in seeking justification for war against Iraq, “for bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”

They and Rumsfeld joined forces to construct an Iraqi pseudoreality many years before the war, notably through the Project for a New American Century, founded in 1997.  There was no proof, then or later, that Iraq had WMD capabilities; but Rumsfeld’s zeal on this subject bordered on fanaticism, memorably exemplified in his 2002 Beria-like quip that the failure of U.N. arms inspectors to find weapons of mass destruction “could be evidence, in and of itself, of Iraq’s noncooperation.”

Rumsfeld was equally wrong in his conviction that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators by the Iraqis.  His initial plans, providing for only 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq three months after the invasion, were followed by assurances to Jim Lehrer that “There is no question but that they would be welcomed.  Go back to Afghanistan, the people were in the streets playing music, cheering, flying kites.”  He was also wrong in his expectation that a government led by someone such as Ahmed Chalabi would be able to take swift control and that, faced with defeat, the fighting remnant of Saddam’s loyalists would surrender, assimilate, or be destroyed.  Rumsfeld was not only wrong, he was seen to be wrong: The lean and mean force that so swiftly took Baghdad was far too light to occupy, secure, and defend the country after the war.

The deeper problem with Rumsfeld has less to do with Iraq than with his global vision.  He remains an advocate of NATO expansion into Russia’s backyard in Georgia and the Ukraine, and he still favors an antimissile defense system built on assumptions that are both politically and technically flawed.  The 1999 “Rumsfeld Report” stated that this system was needed because “a number of countries with regional ambitions do not welcome the U.S. role as a stabilizing power in their regions and . . . they want to place restraints on the U.S. capability to project power or influence into their regions.”

Eight years and over 3,000 American soldiers’ lives later, Rumsfeld still doesn’t understand that the pursuit of global hegemony—for that is what the unrestrained projection of power is all about—will doom America.  A “doctrine” that demands the capability to project power everywhere and all of the time cannot be sustained economically, physically, or culturally, because the threat is limitless, and the commitment, open-ended.  No man who succumbs to this dangerous obsession should be allowed to head the Pentagon.

Rumsfeld’s firing heralds the endgame in Iraq; it will be messy, and the accompanying score settling in Washington will not be for the faint of heart.