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Bush taps ex-CIA man to head DoD

'Heckuva job, Rummy'

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Analysis "It was a thumpin'," President George W Bush said of the mid-term elections, as he made Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld his first burnt offering to a Democratic Congress.

Rumsfeld had served as a lightning rod for criticism of the war in Iraq, and Bush no doubt believes that chucking him will be seen on the Hill as a positive development. Of course, it might backfire spectacularly as Bush is necessarily presenting himself as the next major target of anti-war abuse, simply because Rumsfeld's replacement will be able to fall back on having been out of the loop throughout much of the war's planning and execution. ("That was before my time, Senator...")

Bush will have a rough time without Rumsfeld to take the flak. Rumsfeld is notoriously thick-skinned and adept at deflecting criticism, whereas the President is abnormally thin-skinned and prone to flushing, hyperventilating, and issuing out-of-context retorts when put on the spot. Rumsfeld, in contrast, rarely lost his cool and always had a snappy answer.

In fairness to the President, many of the practical difficulties in Iraq are indeed a result of Rumsfeld's strenuous faith in transforming the US military into a lean, quick, mobile, high-tech strike force, for which the Iraq war has proved to be a spectacular, real-time counterargument. The gadget-intensive "smart" engagements that Rumsfeld believed would "shock and awe" the USA to a quick, painless victory have long been discredited, yet he has persisted in dismissing the need for lots of boots and big machines on the ground, against overwhelming empirical evidence.

Perhaps it's not too late for a more pragmatic approach to bear fruit in Iraq, although many believe that the Rumsfeld Doctrine has already done more damage to the war effort than it is possible ever to fix.

In any case, Bush has nominated former Central Intelligence director Robert Gates: a pragmatist, a longtime Bush family ally, and a 20-year veteran of the CIA. Gates served the former President Bush as Deputy National Security Adviser and CIA Director, and has worked closely with Bushie insiders James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Condoleezza Rice, and current CIA chief General Michael Hayden.

If there are objections to this arrangement, they are, first, that Bush's tendency to surround himself with an interdependent clique of familiar loyalists insulates him from fresh ideas and needed criticisms; and second, that there is a suspicious symmetry in tapping a former CIA man to head Defence while there already is an active-duty Defence guy (Hayden) currently in charge of CIA.

Some people - especially Democratic Senators asked to confirm Gates - might reasonably be uncomfortable with the borders between military and civilian intelligence turf growing more obscure than they have already in the so-called "war on terror". And this is no trivial concern: the walls between civilian and military intelligence and security initiatives have all but disappeared in the past five years.

Thus, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner (Republican, Virginia) has said that Gates's confirmation should be taken up during the lame duck session starting next week, while Republicans are still in control of the Senate, and can deliver to Bush what he has asked for, as they almost always do. The President has indicated that he will submit Gates's name for confirmation during that time (along with that of John Bolton, interim US Ambassador to the United Nations).

The Senate, like the House, will have a Democratic majority in January, which in turn means that if the President should wait, he might have to nominate Rumsfeld's successor from outside the Bushie clique. There's nothing tremendously controversial about Gates - he has, in fact, criticised the war effort publicly - but Democrats might still prefer to see someone at Defence who thinks a bit more along their lines. Gates is a more pragmatic, more "adult", Bush insider than the raving right-wing ideologues who forced the war down America's throat and then botched it, but this improvement might not be good enough for the 110th Congress.

For the President, it is personally important to fill top Cabinet posts with friends, admirers, and old family retainers. He finds it difficult to work with people who might act independently. He's also eager to attach himself to a Dutch uncle, and he has picked two spectacularly bad ones with their own agendas, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Thus Gates is an ideal choice from Bush's perspective: the Dutch uncle he should have had from the start. Gates will offer guidance rooted in what is actually possible, and divorced from the grand fantasies of re-making the Middle East that initiated the war in the first place.

Republicans have complained that Bush could have helped preserve their majority in government if he'd disposed of Rumsfeld before the election. It would have demonstrated a refreshing willingness to adapt, and removed much of the public's motivation to vote Democrats into power.

But Bush feared giving the final proof of Republican failure, which he likely saw as further motivation to vote against the GOP. He also has a psychological need to pretend to be infallible. Thus, it was characteristic of him to praise Rumsfeld and vow to keep him at his post, as he did publicly in the week before the election.

But then the public enacted the electoral equivalent of an intervention, and Bush had no choice but to accept it. The President will have new minders from the more mature ranks of his father's long-time associates. Gates, if he is confirmed, will purge the Rumsfeld neocon loonies from the Pentagon's senior posts, and seek a way forward in Iraq that won't end in defeat, knowing that it cannot end in victory.

It's a pity that Bush had literally to be forced to do a sensible thing, but at least some progress is finally being made. ®

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