Bowing to Reality

Donald Rumsfeld has resigned. It was not a voluntary resignation. President Bush wanted a change at the Pentagon and got it.

It would be a mistake to assume that President Bush bowed to the American people, who so forcefully registered their disapproval of the Iraq war in Tuesday’s elections. Rumsfeld’s ouster had been in the works for months. There is a strong possibility it would have happened sooner had not a group of retired generals openly called for his head earlier in the year. Instead of going through with Rumsfeld’s removal at the time, the White House decided to back their man, so as not to appear to be succumbing to outside pressure.

What is ironic is that President Bush had every opportunity once the retired generals had faded into the abyss of news cycles past to replace Rumsfeld without ever making his independence appear jeopardized. There is a very simple reason the resignation was kept under wraps until the day after the election: the President thought it would hurt the Republicans’ chances of holding onto Congress if Rumsfeld were ousted. The mind boggles at the prospect. The president thought it would be good for his party in the midterm elections if it appeared no progress was being made towards establishing a new strategy, any strategy, for Iraq. Because of this intractableness, the Democrats will take control of Congress in January.

Without a doubt, however, the Bush administration is not happy with how the war is proceeding. The man tapped to replace Rumsfeld, Robert M. Gates, is a former Director of Central Intelligence from the administration of George H.W. Bush. The Gates nomination is the latest indication that the Bush administration is moving towards a realist foreign policy, at least in how it deals with Iraq. Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker III, H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, which is set to deliver its package of recommendations to the president for our further involvement in Iraq within the next few weeks. Whether or not this signals a realist revolution in the White House remains to be seen, but it is clear that neoconservative doctrine has run its course within this administration. Even President Bush, as stubborn a man as has ever held the Oval Office, recognizes the bankruptcy of an ideology that has us stuck in the mud in two countries, and has proven powerless in preventing Iran and North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons technology.

In a related sense, this nomination heralds the break-up of the powerful Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld tandem, which was primarily responsible for pushing and implementing the policies that got us into Iraq. Cheney and Rumsfeld are veteran partners of many a political battle, and were used to having their way in any argument since the days of the Halloween Massacre, a Rumsfeld engineered White House purge during his time as the Ford administration’s chief of staff ostensibly performed to improve Ford’s chances for reelection, but was in reality a naked power grab. During the bloodletting, in which Rumsfeld earned his first nomination to head the Pentagon, H.W. Bush was sent to his own post as Director of Central Intelligence. Rumsfeld believed he was putting a political rival out to pasture, as no DCI had ever been able to attain high office. Soon, however, Rumsfeld was out of government and H.W. Bush was on his way to being nominated as Ronald Reagan’s running mate in the 1980 election.

Cheney himself was a realist, having been a stalwart member of that camp during his term as Secretary of Defense during H.W. Bush’s presidency, surrounded by realist icons like Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Sometime during the Clinton administration he changed allegiances, allying himself with his old compatriot Rumsfeld, and adopting the world outlook of neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol. During the 2000 election and the following transition, George W. Bush did everything he could to distance himself from his father’s presidency. Picking Cheney as his running mate at first appeared to be the exact opposite of distancing, considering Cheney’s position in H.W. Bush’s cabinet, but while the suit was the same, the man in it had changed. After the election, picking Rumsfeld, at the insistence of Cheney, as a cabinet secretary was not just a refutation of his father’s foreign policy, but considering Rumsfeld and H.W. Bush’s run-ins during their respective careers, must have felt like a gut punch to the ex-president.

Cheney and Rumsfeld moved expertly through Washington upon their return to power, and it is their unilateralist ideals that have led us to where we are today, back full circle to 1991. The breakup decreases Cheney’s power to browbeat policy implementation, and has leveled the playing field for other members of the cabinet.

Now that we have been led to the brink, the realists may very well be back. Their task is extremely difficult. President Bush may believe there is still a possibility we can prevail militarily in Iraq. The first job of these resurgent realists is to disavow him of any notions he may have of righting that sinking ship of state. Their job is to get us out as painlessly as is possible, to salvage what we can from defeat, and prepare us quickly for future challenges.

President Bush has bought himself some time with the Rumsfeld ouster by shifting responsibility to some highly qualified foreign policy specialists. Indeed, Gates, Baker, and whomever else makes their way back to Washington from ideological exile, deserves time to implement new policies. But not too much time. After all, Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger are still out there, somewhere.