Defending Donald H. Rumsfeld in the face of a furious critique by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Vice President Cheney paid tribute last week to the former defense secretary's "superb job in managing the Pentagon under extraordinarily difficult circumstances."

Cheney's is not a unique view. Even many of Rumsfeld's detractors tend to assume that he was an effective manager, however disastrous his decisions on Iraq may have been. Throughout his Pentagon tenure, he carried the useful reputation, bolstered by his well-advertised spell as a college wrestler and his experience as a corporate CEO, of being a tough executive who brooked no nonsense from trembling subordinates to get the job done.

"Let them hate me so long as they fear me," boasted the emperor Caligula. Rumsfeld appeared to profit by the same leadership principle.

Anyone doubting this had only to listen to generals lamenting their master's disregard for professional military opinion, his rudeness and the terrible things that happened to anyone who stood in his way. But an examination of his record reveals that, in fact, Rumsfeld was a very poor manager. Despite his gruff theatrics, he shirked the task of leadership at the Defense Department, failing to restrain the services in their pursuit of parochial agendas. Though he spewed ideas and injunctions daily, he routinely neglected to follow them up. Pledged to the "transformation" of the cold war military establishment in 2001, he left it six years later almost entirely untransformed, save for the wreckage wrought by the Iraqi adventure. Even in concept, his program for "transformation" amounted to little more than notions articulated as bumper stickers, and poorly thought out ones at that.

Although he inherited dead wood in the senior ranks of the military, Rumsfeld dismissed not a single general, either for poor performance or for defying his edicts. No Iraq commander was summoned home as punishment for the unfolding disasters there.

Civilians were slightly more vulnerable. Army Secretary Thomas White was ultimately fired for his egregiously mutinous behavior over the cancellation of the Army's Crusader gun program.

The case of former Army chief of staff Eric K. Shinseki is instructive. It is widely believed that he sacrificed his career by speaking the truth in public about the inadequate number of troops being sent to invade and occupy Iraq. The true story gives little credit to Rumsfeld, but it also doesn't exactly accord with the legend.

Shinseki made his remarks about "several hundred thousand soldiers" being required to occupy postwar Iraq as an offhand response to a question at a Senate hearing in late February 2003, less than a month before the invasion. Eight months earlier, Rumsfeld and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz had agreed to a suggestion by adviser Steve Herbits that they leak the name of the next Army chief of staff, though Shinseki still had more than a year to serve.

The two officials, irked by Shinseki's opposition to their plan to cut Army force sizes -- and, it seems, by his personality -- saw the leak as undercutting the Army chief's authority. They expected that he would resign promptly rather than submit to the humiliation of lame-duck status. But Shinseki failed to oblige. He stolidly served out his term although, apart from that moment in front of the Senate, he took no apparent advantage of his eminent official position to contest the ongoing invasion plan.

The notion that Rumsfeld at least exercised tight control of the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy is encapsulated in his well-known use of "snowflakes," short memos of injunction, query or complaint that he dictated and distributed in manic quantities. True, junior officials may have quaked at the sight of a Rumsfeld emissary approaching with the dreaded missive in hand. As often as not the note reflected some querulous Rumsfeld whim, such as the July 2001 complaint, notorious among his personal staff, regarding the width of the lemon slices served with the secretary's iced tea. Over time, subordinates came to realize that their fearsome chief seldom followed up on these memos. Once written (and there were often more than 100 a day) they were often forgotten.

The missives usually set a date, sometimes within a day, for confirmation that the assigned task had been completed. "In the beginning," said one formerly high-ranking individual who routinely received scores of snowflakes, "I'd work late to get the job done and respond by the set time. Then I started letting it slide for a week, and no one seemed to notice." Eventually he stopped responding altogether, and still heard nothing.

This striking contrast between the superficial aspects of Rumsfeld's management style, all sound and fury, and the lack of follow-through to ensure constructive results, was summed up for me by another veteran of the secretary's management team: " 'Stir the pot,' Don would tell us, 'Stir the pot.' But no one was making soup."

Why did the senior military apparently quiver in their boots in fear of Rumsfeld's wrath for so long? When Rumsfeld derided as "absurd" the military's initial recommendations on troop levels for Iraq in November 2001, Gen. Richard B. Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Marine Gen. Peter Pace, then vice chairman; and Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, then of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, made no effort to rebut his assertions, though they were all aghast at Rumsfeld's pronouncement. "Shame on us," Newbold commented to me ruefully in describing the session. (In November 2002, unable to stomach the misguided rush to war in Iraq, Newbold quietly resigned, the sole senior officer to do so on principle.) This sort of behavior may well emanate from a careerist culture increasingly discernable in the officer corps, in which the gratification of superiors is the surest path to promotion, while obdurate adherence to principle can end chances of higher rank.

Rumsfeld was crafty enough to advertise his close supervision of the promotions process, interviewing all candidates for three- and four-star rank. That, combined with an aggressive personal manner, may have been enough to earn him the appearance of dominance. Every bully needs quiescent victims, and Rumsfeld found plenty at the Pentagon.

Andrew Cockburn is a Washington journalist. His book, "Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy," will be published this week by Scribner.