By Jonathan Freedland (THE GUARDIAN, 10/11/06):
And then there was Dick. With the departure of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney now stands as the last of the true believers in George Bush’s inner circle. Paul Wolfowitz went long ago; Richard Perle and several of his fellow neocons now slam the Iraq war they once promoted. From today, when the president gathers his team around him to discuss the future of Iraq, only Cheney will cling to the old faith.
From now on, the neoconservatives will have to give way to the foreign policy «realists» – those who believe America projects itself best in the world partly through force but also through the patient, pragmatic work of alliances and diplomacy. So out goes Rummy and in comes Robert Gates, a former CIA chief and protege of the first George Bush who, along with his former secretary of state, James Baker, is the living embodiment of the realist school.
This makes the latest move psychologically compelling. It’s as if the prodigal boy prince, having learned the error of his ways, has been forced to return to the wisdom of his aged, kingly father. When he was in his pomp, when he still believed the war in Iraq was a mission accomplished, Bush was asked by Bob Woodward if he had consulted Bush Sr on the conflict. «You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength,» the president said. «There is a higher father that I appeal to.»
Now, chastened by three and a half years of mayhem in Iraq and the double repudiation of losing the House and (almost certainly) the Senate, he has had to turn not to God but to the men who served his dad. «An Oedipal U-turn,» Maureen Dowd of the New York Times called it yesterday.
The politics is even more fascinating than the psychology. For Gates has been serving on the Iraq Study Group, the commission co-chaired by Baker. It was Baker who commended Gates to Bush Jr, who pointedly did not interview any other candidates for the Pentagon job. This makes it impossible to imagine the administration doing anything but endorsing the Baker recommendations when they surface next January. How could the new defence secretary reject proposals he helped draft?
A leaked account of those proposals last month suggested both a phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and, even more strikingly, engagement with Syria and Iran aimed at bringing the violence to an end. The first position is wholly at odds with Bush’s insistence until very recently that the US would «stay the course» in Iraq; the second clashes with the entire «axis of evil» approach of the administration, which has cast both Syria and Iran into outer darkness. Gates’s appointment signals a marked change in direction, confirmation that the Baker report will not just be a worthy tome destined to collect dust on a shelf, but a near-official statement of America’s exit strategy.
And, for once, it may well enjoy bipartisan support. The Democrats, who rode a wave of anti-war feeling on Tuesday, are also in search of a plausible way to extricate US troops from Iraq. The House of Representatives could cut off the funds for the war, which it controls, but the incoming Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has said such a move would simply deny US troops the resources they need. New Democratic committee chairmen could hold aggressive hearings into the serial errors of the past five years: worthwhile, but on their own they would risk a backlash from voters hungry for action rather than partisan bickering. So the Democrats need a plan. Trouble is, they are divided among themselves on Iraq, including over when and whether there should be a deadline for pulling out.
Baker via Gates could solve that problem, providing an answer that all of Washington can rally around. And Dick Cheney will just have to lump it.