A New Man. Next, A New Plan For Iraq?
Rumsfeld's exit opens the door to fresh thinking
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn't appear on any ballot last week, but the war that he and President Bush have waged in Iraq emerged as perhaps the most decisive factor in the Republican defeat. After a dreadful year of worsening sectarian violence and revenge attacks, polls have clearly shown a diminishing faith in the Bush administration's ability to turn things around in Iraq-nearly 6 in 10 voters said they disapprove of the war.
President Bush wasted no time in announcing Rumsfeld's resignation (though insisting that the departure was planned regardless of the election's outcome). The nomination of former CIA Director Robert Gates for the Pentagon post is a clear signal that the White House is trying to shake off its history of "stay the course" rhetoric. But while Bush's motivation might have more to do with politics than with military strategy, Gates could make a real difference. A member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group led by former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former Secretary of State James Baker, who served in the first President Bush's administration, Gates could be a critical bridge between the White House and the clutch of foreign-policy graybeards many Republicans and Democrats are looking to as a lifeline a last-gasp chance to reverse the downward trend in Iraq.
Shifting gears. The choice of Gates eases the way for Bush to latch on to at least some of Baker's proposals, due out soon. Baker's group could point to a strategy that "is a little different or totally different," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who next month will become the No. 2 commander in Iraq, tells U.S. News. In any event, he adds, "it's going to be very much a factor."
The Baker report is expected to cement a shift in emphasis from creating a model democracy in the Middle East to simply achieving stability in Iraq-still no small feat. "Both the American people and the Congress don't want this to last a lot longer," says a senior U.S. military official. "You'll always get the party line of 'stay the course,' but everybody realizes that it's to a point." The question of an American troop surge, advocated by Republican Sen. John McCain, will come to the fore as well. "Do we need more people, or do they become a greater irritant?" asks Odierno. "There comes a time when you wear out your welcome."
Challenges. There are no magic bullets in Iraq. The underlying problem is that America's ability to change the dynamic there appears to be continually diminishing. The Sunni insurgents remain disturbingly strongOctober was the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in nearly two years. And troops have been unable to quell the sectarian violence. A vaunted security plan for Baghdad has failed to stem the bloodshed, Iraqi security forces remain unreliable, and U.S. officials have been unable to persuade Iraq's government to confront the Shiite militias or their leaders. The White House was particularly discouraged by what National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley found on his recent trip to Iraq. "The situation there is as complex as it's ever been and is getting more complicated every couple of weeks," says a senior administration official.