News & Politics

Bush Replaces Rumsfeld with ... Another Rumsfeld

Because who but another "Rummy" would stay the course in Iraq with the Bush administration?
Seven days after George W. Bush told reporters that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were "doing fantastic jobs" and would stay on until the end of his presidency, and one day after Americans gave an overwhelming vote of no confidence to the administration’s policies, Donald Rumsfeld answered calls from both Democrats and Republicans and resigned. (On Wednesday, Bush admitted he had lied to reporters because of political considerations.)

The move also came two days after an editorial ran in the Army-, Navy-, Air Force- and Marine Corps-Times newspapers calling for the secretary's head. "When the nation's current military leaders start to break publicly with their defense secretary," the unusually blunt editorial argued, "then it is clear that he is losing control of the institution he ostensibly leads."

The administration hopes that the move will deflect criticism from its policies in Iraq, move the national discussion away from the Democrats' blowout in the midterms, blunt any investigative zeal that Democrats might feel in their new majority position and, possibly, lay a trap for Democrats going into the next election cycle.

It's unlikely to work. Without a fundamental change in policy, the departure of "Rummy" is a piece of political theater, a transparently meaningless gesture made in an attempt to mollify a restless public.

It's meaningless because while the administration may have abandoned the phrase "stay the course" during the lead-up to the midterms -- it polled badly -- Bush has made it clear that he will continue the bloody occupation of Iraq and leave the mess for the next president to try to clean up (what's less clear is whether either the Iraqis or his own party will allow him to do so).

The Wall Street Journal's John Harwood said yesterday that Rumsfeld's departure won't be enough to change Americans' increasingly negative view of Bush’s Iraq policy. "We have asked this question several times in our Journal/ NBC poll," he said on MSNBC, "and found it would be a symbolic gesture. Really, American people want to see results. They want to see casualties down ..."

According to former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, coauthor of the soon to be published book, "The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens," Rumsfeld was jettisoned primarily in an attempt to defuse increasing calls for investigation into the administration’s conduct of the Iraq war and occupation. "The president thinks that Rumsfeld is the bad public face of the Iraq war," she told me by phone on Wednesday. "In the wake of elections that were a huge repudiation of the administration's policies, I think it's clear that Americans are angry with the corruption, with the direction the administration has taken, with the arrogance, and they threw Rumsfeld to the wolves."

Holtzman cited a recent Newsweek Poll that found a majority of Americans want investigations into Iraq contracting and the way the country was led into the war to be a ”top priority” of the new Congress, and that a majority now favor calls for impeachment. She added: “I can’t say for sure what the president was thinking, but it’s possible that impeachment was explicitly on his mind.”

It's also possible that the administration cut Rumsfeld loose in favor of former CIA Director Robert Gates, Bush's nominee to replace him, with the specific intention of provoking a bruising confirmation hearing. That would allow the Republicans to reinforce two of their favorite narratives about Democrats: that they’re insufficiently belligerent to govern -- "soft on defense" -- and that Senate Democrats are "obstructionists," a key charge in the defeat of former Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004.

Because while it's possible that Bush thought the nomination of Bob Gates -- a longtime government official who's been through the confirmation process before -- would get a smooth sail through the Senate, the truth is that Gates will have a very hard time getting confirmed, and he should. The reason is simple and important to understand: Robert Gates is Donald Rumsfeld -- or at least a body double in experience, ideology and temperament.

Rumsfeld is a hawkish ideologue whose long career in government has been broken by dips into the private sector. He's known for his secrecy, his loyalty, his ability to win internal political fights and his eagerness to manipulate intelligence to support a desired policy objective. He has shown that he is not above breaking -- or at least stretching -- the law when he feels it's necessary to do so.

Gates has a remarkably similar profile. Like Rumsfeld, Gates served stints in the Nixon and Ford administrations -- he also advised Carter's hawkish National Security Advisor Zbigniew Bzrezinski and served on Bush 41's National Security Council. After his nomination by Ronald Reagan to head the CIA was blocked by the Senate in 1987, Gates eventually got the job in 1991 under the first Bush. According to Thomas Powers, writing in 1996 in the New York Review of Books, Gates is an "unusual figure" -- the first director "to come out of the analytical side of the organization, which had been dominated for its first thirty years by the ethos of the covert operators of World War II."

Gates, like Rumsfeld, was a dedicated Cold Warrior. Powers recalls that during his 1987 confirmation hearing, Gates was accused by former CIA colleague Mel Goodman (who Gates called "one of my oldest friends in the agency") and Harold Ford ("another old friend and colleague") of pressuring "CIA analysts to exaggerate Soviet involvement in the plot to kill Pope John Paul II and in international terrorism and … suppress[ing] and ignor[ing] 'signs of the Soviet strategic retreat, including the collapse of the Soviet empire.'"

And like Rumsfeld -- whose picture warmly greeting Saddam Hussein in 1983 has become legendary -- Gates, who served on the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, has a sordid past with Iraq and the deposed strongman.

In announcing his decision to vote against Gates' confirmation in 1991, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said that "the record also shows" Gates "was integrally involved with the secret sharing of intelligence to Iraq and our sharp tilt toward Iraq in its war with Iran. But Mr. Gates hid that action from Congress ... It is important to keep in mind that this shift toward Iraq in its war with Iran began our ill-fated cozy relationship with Saddam Hussein."

But it was Gates' propensity to manipulate intelligence that really bothered the Massachusetts senator:
[Gates] quashed dissenting views and helped craft an inaccurate 1985 intelligence estimate that Soviet influence in Iran could soon grow ... He personally insisted that State Department officials drop footnotes from the report which did not support his viewpoint. These actions had consequences far beyond mere intellectual debates. In recommending that United States allies be permitted to sell arms to Iran, the report helped lay the foundation for the ill-fated arms for hostages deal in Iran.
Iran-Contra, which followed the arms for hostages deal with Iran, is the source of Gates' worst baggage. In the 1980s, as the illegal arrangement was being put together, Gates was then-CIA Director William Casey's chief of staff. The independent counsel investigation of Iran-Contra found insufficient evidence to charge him with a crime, but that was in large part due to the refusal by Clair George, the CIA's former deputy director for operations, to cooperate with the investigation (George was indicted for his role in 1991).

Gates has denied knowledge of the Iran-Contra affair. But as Thomas Powers noted, "The problem, of course, is that Gates, working for Casey, North's enthusiastic backer, was in a very good position to know about [Iran-Contra] and a great deal else besides."

Gates' former colleague at the CIA, Tom Polgar, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1991. Powers recalls that "Polgar's testimony ... [was] a careful detailing of Gates' passage through many meetings and encounters when even the furniture, Polgar argues, must have grasped what was going on."

And Gates is an ideologue. According to Ted Kennedy, "His public speeches actively promoted the Reagan doctrine and exaggerated Soviet advances." He added, in a comment that would describe Rummy and his Office of Special Plans to a tee: "Rather than an objective professional dedicated to ensuring that the president receives the best intelligence possible," Gates "became an enthusiastic promoter of President Reagan's policies."

As the CIA's Tom Polgar testified in 1991:
His proposed appointment as director also raises moral issues. What kind of signal does his renomination send to the troops? Live long enough -- your sins will be forgotten? Serve faithfully the boss of the moment -- never mind integrity? Feel free to mislead the Senate -- senators forget easily? Keep your mouth shut -- if the special counsel does not get you, promotion will come your way?
Those questions are as appropriate today as they were 15 years ago.

And while the administration will portray the replacement of Rumsfeld with Bob Gates as a sign that it's responsive to criticism coming from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle -- as evidence of Bush's new-found desire to work with Congress as a partner -- it's hard to see the nomination of someone with such a checkered history as anything but a challenge to congressional authority and a preemptive strike against the body's expected oversight of the Bush White House.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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