The departure by mid-2005 of the number-three man at the Defense Department, announced by the Pentagon last week, marks the latest hint that President George W. Bush is moving foreign policy in a more centrist direction.
Combined with several other personnel shifts, as well as a concerted effort to reassure the public and U.S. allies abroad that the recent messianic inaugural address did not portend any dramatic new foreign-policy departures, the resignation of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith suggests that the administration is deliberately shedding its sharper and more-radical edges.
The fact that the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton – who had hoped to be promoted to Deputy Secretary of State under Condoleezza Rice – has still not been assigned a new job has contributed to that impression.
Like Feith, Bolton – the administration's most outspoken exponent of unilateralism – has generally been regarded as an extremist on key issues that have wreaked havoc on U.S. ties with its European allies. Among these are Iraq, the International Criminal Court (ICC), Iran and other nuclear proliferation issues.
With a number of senior posts, including Feith's, still unfilled, however, it remains too soon to conclude that a Bush's second term will tack to the center.
Rice's decision to appoint Trade Representative Robert Zoellick as her deputy and to rely on career diplomats – rather than political appointees as urged by Cheney and the neoconservatives – for other top spots suggests strongly that the State Department will remain a realist redoubt in Bush's second term. But other key vacancies remain up in the air.
Speculation about who may replace Feith ranges from Bolton and neoconservative hard-liner and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby; to the more pragmatic, if hawkish, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia, Richard Lawless; while Elliott Abrams, Rice's former Middle East advisor, is considered the inside pick. Although neoconservative, Abrams is considered more flexible – and far more diplomatic – than either Feith or Bolton.
While Feith's hard-line neoconservative backers, including his mentor, former Defense Policy Board (DPB) chairman Richard Perle, insisted that his decision to leave the administration was taken solely for ''personal and family reasons'' as stated in the Pentagon the announcement – Feith, 51, has four children at home – many analysts dismissed that explanation, citing his well-known ideological zeal.
''I think they decided to get rid him of long ago but were afraid that doing so would have been seen as a tacit admission that Bush screwed up in Iraq,'' said one administration official, who asked not to be identified.
He added that Feith's authority over policy had been gradually reduced over the past 18 months due to complaints about his performance from Congress, the uniformed military, and Washington's coalition partners in Iraq – particularly British Prime Minister Tony Blair who, according to one source, had asked Bush to remove Feith well over a year ago.
As undersecretary, Feith played a critical role in the run-up to the Iraq war, for which he was a major prewar booster. Two offices established under his authority, the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans, became particularly controversial.
The former reportedly reviewed ''raw intelligence'' gathered by the official intelligence agencies and Iraqi exiles in order to try to establish the existence of links between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda that could be cited by the administration in its case for going to war. The resulting product – which was subsequently leaked to the neoconservative Weekly Standard – was then ''stovepiped'' to Cheney's office and from there into the White House, thus circumventing review by professional analysts.
The OSP, which became the administration's lead agency for preparing both the Iraq invasion and its subsequent occupation, was widely criticised for excluding regional specialists from its work, often employing instead outside ''consultants'' considered ideologically compatible with Feith's own extreme right-wing Likudist and anti-Arab views.
Many blame Washington's total failure to anticipate the Iraq's insurgency on Feith's work, although his superiors, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, as well as Cheney's office and the White House, clearly shared the same assumptions that U.S. troops would be greeted as "liberators" rather than occupiers.
Feith's competence – both with regard to his assumptions about the region and his strategic knowledge – was also repeatedly questioned by the uniformed military. In Washington Post reporter Bill Woodward's book about the Iraqi war, Plan of Attack, Lt. Gen. Tommy Franks, who was in charge of the operation, famously called Feith the "dumbest f****** guy on the planet."
As the Iraq occupation began going bad in the summer of 2003, Feith began losing influence. By that fall, Rice created an Iraq Strategy Group based in the White House and led by Robert Blackwill to essentially wrest control of occupation policy from Feith and the Pentagon – a process that took many months.
Feith's position was also undermined last summer when it was disclosed that the FBI was investigating whether one of his analysts had given classified material – specifically, a sensitive document on U.S. Iran policy – to an Israeli diplomat via the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobby group. A grand jury in the case has since been empanelled and AIPAC's offices subjected to two searches.
While Feith himself has not been implicated in the case, his close ties to Israel have long raised eyebrows, even, at times, within the Bush administration.
In 2003, when Feith, who was standing in for Rumsfeld at an inter-agency 'Principals' Meeting' on the Middle East, concluded his remarks on behalf of the Pentagon, according to the Washington insider newsletter, "The Nelson Report," Rice said, "Thanks Doug, but when we want the Israeli position we'll invite the ambassador."
According to investigative journalist Stephen Green, Feith was summarily removed from his post as a Middle East analyst in the National Security Council under former President Ronald Reagan in 1983 because he had been the object of a FBI inquiry into whether he had provided classified material to an official of the Israeli embassy.
Feith, who was immediately hired by Perle when the latter was assistant secretary of defence, has long been associated with extreme views on the Arab-Israeli conflict. His former law partner, Marc Zell, has served as a spokesman for the Israeli settler movement, and he publicly and prolifically opposed the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
In 1996, he joined with Perle and four other prominent hard-line neoconservatives – including David Wurmser, Cheney's Middle East advisor since October 2003 – as part of a study group sponsored by the Jerusalem-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies.
The result was a paper drafted by Wurmser and submitted to incoming Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, titled 'A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.' It called on Israel to work "closely with Turkey and Jordan to contain, destabilize, and roll back" regional threats, strike Syrian targets in Lebanon and possibly Syria itself, and work to overthrow Saddam Hussein as the key to permanently transforming the regional balance of power and dictating peace terms to the Palestinians.
At the same time, Feith was active in several U.S. groups considered close to the Israeli far right, including the Center for Security Policy, the Middle East Forum, OneJerusalem.org, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Zionist Organization of America.
Significantly, CSP and ZOA have expressed strong reservations about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans – which are strongly backed by Abrams and the White House – to remove all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from the West Bank as part of a "disengagement" process that could renew an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.