Friday November 10, 2006
Donald Rumsfeld's replacement by Robert Gates at the Pentagon could
mark the most significant shift in the balance of power inside the Bush
administration since it took office nearly six years ago, with
consequences for both Iraq and Iran.
Political observers in Washington predicted that the appointment could
pave the way for talks with Iran and Syria in a bid to contain the
*** in Iraq, and could also put off a military confrontation with
Iran over its nuclear programme.
Donald Rumsfeld's departure and the Democratic takeover of Congress
leaves*** Cheney isolated in Washington, and almost alone in his
backing for a military solution to the Iranian challenge. The
Cheney-Rumsfeld axis acted as a stone wall around the White House,
keeping out criticisms and doubts. Now, those doubts are beginning to
seep in, opening the way for a fundamental rethink of policy.
However, that does not mean that Mr Cheney's influence is at an end. He
has a formidable staff within the White House and remains an important
influence on the president. "He's isolated but you know when you corner
a dangerous animal, it doesn't make him any less dangerous," said a
senior Democratic foreign policy official. "He's going to continue to
push for what he believes in. It doesn't mean he's going to put his
toys away and go home."
Melvin Goodman, a former CIA official who worked under Mr Gates,
expressed doubts that Mr Gates has the strength of conviction to stand
up to Mr Cheney. "He never has, so it would be the first time," said Mr
Goodman, now a senior fellow at the Centre for International Policy.
Nevertheless, the choice of Mr Gates strengthens the hand of
Condoleezza Rice, who has clashed repeatedly with the Pentagon. The two
know each other from their days as Soviet experts in the first Bush
White House. Both feel more at home with the foreign policy pragmatists
around the elder George Bush than among the neo-conservatives who
rallied to the current president.
In terms of the family conflict that has provided a Shakespearean
backdrop to the administration, it represents near total victory for
the father over the son. The elder Bush distrusted Mr Rumsfeld and
warned against his appointment. Mr Gates, by contrast, is very much his
When Mr Gates, as deputy-director of the CIA, was tainted by the
Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan era, Mr Bush stood by him and gave
him the top job in the agency in 1991. Mr Gates demonstrated his
loyalty by becoming the curator of the Bush presidential library in
As the Iraq war grinds on, and the broader neoconservative project in
the Middle East is sliding towards disaster, former aides to the elder
Bush - once spurned by his son - are reappearing one by one at the
"In the past, when Bush got enmeshed in a big mistake ... daddy came to
the rescue - that's what's happening here," said Vincent Cannistraro, a
former counter-terrorist chief of operations at the CIA. "Daddy was
insistent on getting Gates in."
James Baker, the secretary of state in the first Bush administration,
has already saved the younger Bush from disaster, taking charge of the
legal effort in Florida that clinched victory in the 2000 election. He
now plays a pivotal role as the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group.
Mr Gates is a member of the commission and his appointment guarantees
that its recommendations will be given a favourable hearing. "At least
he'll read the thing," Mr Goodman said. "Rumsfeld would have thrown it
out of the window."
Both Mr Baker and Mr Gates have advocated the multilateralism that was
typical of Bush senior but not Bush junior. In particular they believe
the US should talk to Iraq's neighbours, Iran and Syria.
Mr Gates co-authored a study on Iran policy two years ago which
concluded that Washington should hold comprehensive talks with Tehran
before it achieved nuclear capability. His fellow author was President
Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who
yesterday declared Mr Gates's selection as "the best appointment
President Bush has made in the course of his six years in office."
However, resistance to opening a dialogue with Iran will be fierce,
particularly from Mr Cheney, and Mr Baker has made clear his commission
will have no easy solutions to the mess in Iraq.