US Midterm Elections America Looks for a Way Forward

Washington is witnessing a political upheaval. First the House, then Rumsfeld and now the Senate. But the biggest question remains: What do the results mean for US policy in Iraq?

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The balance of power has completely shifted in Washington.
AP

The balance of power has completely shifted in Washington.

It didn't take US President George W. Bush long to notice just how radically the climate had changed. He began his first press conference after the recent Democratic landslide with a crude joke about designated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "In my first act of bipartisan outreach since the election, I shared with her the names of some Republican interior decorators who can help her pick out the new drapes in her new offices," Bush said.

Almost no one laughed. The joke was a complete failure -- even though the transcript of the press conference defiantly features the note "(Laughter)."

The mood in the White House has changed, and it has done so practically overnight. First came the Democrats' victory in the House of Representatives, then the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Now it is looking more and more like the Republicans will lose the Senate to the Democrats as well. Tuesday's elections are producing shock wave after shock wave.

If the journalists at the press conference refused to laugh, that was partly due to their feeling personally offended. They had just discovered that Bush has been planning to replace Rumsfeld for weeks -- even though he denied this when he was asked directly. Only a few days earlier, Bush had ceremoniously assured a group of journalists in the Oval Office that Rummy would stay until 2008 -- and yet he was already preparing Rumsfeld's resignation. CNN's former White House correspondent John King was fuming, accusing Bush of having lied to journalists.

A botched farewell

It was a bad start both for President Bush and for Bob Gates, Rumsfeld replacement at the helm of the Defense Department. The midterm elections have cut Bush down to size. Rumsfeld's resignation -- an event hoped for by many, but still surprising when it occurred -- was meant to add a positive spin to the shock of the Republican Party's poor election-day performance, restoring the White House's dominance of the newspaper headlines.

After all, the most burning question for most US citizens is now that of what will happen to Iraq and the 133,000 US soldiers stationed there. Pelosi lost no time on Wednesday, demanding a "new direction" -- but she was wise enough not to provide any details of what that direction might look like. On Columbus Circle in New York, a woman started crying for joy when she heard of Rumsfeld's resignation: "I have a step-brother in Iraq," she explained.

In practical terms, Rumsfeld's departure was a completely botched operation. Bush stumbled through the two press conferences -- over both of which the issue of Iraq hung like a foul-smelling cloud -- as clumsily as he used to do during his Texas days. The elections seem to have rattled him.

Indeed, Bush was barely able to string a sentence together. He avoided the questions he was asked, lost track of what he wanted to say and produced verbal monstrosities like this one: "And he (Donald Rumsfeld) and I are constantly assessing. And I'm assessing, as well, all the time, by myself, about, do we have the right people in the right place, or do we -- got the right strategy? As you know, we're constantly changing tactics. And that requires constant assessment." Not much later, Bush said: "I think it sends a bad signal to our troops if they think the Commander-in-Chief is constantly adjusting tactics."

None of this bodes well for the future. The midterm elections were a clear referendum against the war -- but what will Bush and the newly empowered Democrats do with it?

Shades of Iran-Contra

This much is certain: US troops aren't likely to leave Iraq any time soon. President Bush hid behind platitudes about staying on the offensive and invoked his old catchword, "victory." He said he wanted US troops to return from Iraq, but stressed that "if we were to leave before the job is done, the country (Iraq) becomes more at risk." The Iraqi government needs to become "a government that can defend, govern, and sustain itself, and an ally in the war on terror," President Bush said.

Rumsfeld's successor Bob Gates didn't mention Iraq even once. He's probably saving his breath for his appearance in front of the US Senate's Committee on Armed Services, which will have to confirm his nomination. A CIA veteran who served in the Air Force at the end of the 1960s, Gates knows about intelligence work, but doesn't have much of a military background. President Bush praised him as a "patriot" and a "manager."

But what does his nomination mean? That the military is off the leash and that its officers will have more of a say again? Pentagon sources point out that one of the challenges facing Gates is that of patching up the strained relationship between the military and the civilian Pentagon leadership. And his first month in office will likely be make or break, one Air Force general suggested yesterday. Observers are already whispering that more heads will roll soon, including those of Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, and Edmund Giambastiani, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The two military officers are widely seen as Rumsfeld's vassals.

And then there's that new variable: the Democrats, who will now be calling the shots in Congress. True, they have a friendlier attitude to Gates than they had to Rumsfeld, despite their reservations about Gates's embroilment in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. But they're also already gearing up for a tough debate on Iraq -- a debate that will begin with Gates's congressional hearings, at the very latest.

Waiting for the Baker Commission

"George Bush has no credibility left on national security," says Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, arguing that Rumsfeld's resignation is no replacement for a full-blown change of strategy. "No matter how many stump speeches he (President Bush) gives on the campaign trail, the American people can see the damage his tough talk has done to America's safety. It's time to be tough and smart so we can change course and give Americans the real security they deserve.”

But the Democrats have still to agree on what exactly the change of course will look like. Will it be a gradual retreat? Does there need to be a precise schedule, or some kind of time frame? Or will US troops just stay in Iraq until they "finish their job," as Democratic congressman Bob Casey from Pennsylvania, a newcomer to the US Congress, puts it?

Each of these options is defended by someone or other in the Democratic Party -- but there's not a single word on the issue in any of the party's position papers. Still, Speaker Pelosi has made one commitment: The troops will not have to suffer any further budget cuts.

Reid has also invited Bush to participate in a non-partisan meeting on Iraq. Bush promised to give the new majority from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue a complete briefing on what he knows, in addition to "listening" to them.

The Iraq Study Group led by former Foreign Minister James Baker, a Republican, and Lee Hamilton, a Democrat and former congressman, could prove the way forward. Also known as the "Baker Commission," this 10-person, non-partisan body (which currently includes Bob Gates) will search for a solution to the Iraqi debacle until the end of this year. Both parties view the Iraq Study Group as highly competent.

But some level of skepticism remains -- especially among the Democrats. But Harry Reid, the Democrat now set to become Senate Majority Leader, is hoping for change. "I think, frankly, the arrogance of this administration is waning," he said just before the election. "I don't think they can continue to be uncompromising, refusing to admit mistakes."

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