US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 (Image: G Fabiano/Sipa USA)

Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary who died this week at the age of 88, was a latter-day exemplar of what the journalist David Halberstam called “the best and the brightest”: a shining intellect and commanding personality who in the end was brought down by his own overconfidence.

Rumsfeld, an ultra-hawk who once declared “I don’t do quagmires” is likely to be most remembered for his pivotal role in orchestrating the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the two-decade-long quagmire in Afghanistan.

A standout collegiate wrestler at Princeton University and former naval aviator, Rumsfeld rose swiftly in Washington, holding the same job at two very different times in American history. In 1975, at 43, he became the youngest defence secretary ever under president Gerald R Ford, and then in 2001 he took on the job again as one of the oldest Pentagon chiefs ever sworn in. Much earlier in his career, starting in the 1960s, he served as a three-term congressman from Illinois and then as head of president Richard Nixon’s Office of Economic Opportunity, helping to orchestrate the rise of his long-time friend Dick Cheney in politics. In between, he became a Fortune 500 CEO and turnaround specialist.