Transatlantic Briefing No. 10-06

The Democrats captured the House and it looks like they are on their way to a majority in the Senate. Although the results in the Virginia Senate race are not final, it does look like the writing is on the wall. Donald Rumsfeld, the always controversial Secretary of Defence, has resigned and the US President said that he intended to ‘work with the new Congress in a bipartisan way’. This is certainly a change from just a week ago when Vice-President Dick Cheney told the press that the administration would push forward with its Iraq policy regardless of the outcome. The implications of this political shift in Washington on American Iraq policy will not be immediate, but they do signal imminent change.

Releasing Donald Rumsfeld from his post was an astute political move. It allowed the President to steal some headlines from the Democrats and it diffused Democratic calls to remove Rumsfeld before the pressure could mount. The President sent a clear signal to the American people that he got the message and was willing to open up room to work with the new Congressional majority. It remains to be seen what direction policy will take under Bob Gates. Gates, currently President of Texas A & M University, a life-long intelligence officer and former Head of the CIA is an interesting appointment. Gates was Director of Central Intelligence under George H. W. Bush and may draw on the experiences of that administration in foreign affairs to set a new course. One might expect Gates to be more open to the views of others, to try and encourage more multilateralism and to generally be a more approachable figure. Certainly the US military leadership is at least happy that Rumsfeld is out. The increasingly vocal dissent from retired military leadership and outright criticism in the military newspapers signalled that military morale was hitting all time lows – never good when a country is at war. Gates was also a member of the independent commission investigating the current Iraq problem led by former US Secretary of State James Baker. There is little doubt that he will take the recommendations of this commission in earnest. Both parties may enter a holding pattern to see what Baker’s group says before advocating a totally new policy in Iraq. It would, at the very least, be a wise move.

For the Democrats the challenge is going to be in moving from opposition to Government. The Democrats did not win this election based on their brilliant strategies for Iraq. They won them because the country was so overwhelmingly opposed to the obviously faulty and failing Reublican policy in Iraq . There is no doubt that conservative independents and libertarians  - not to mention a few outright Republicans and even evangelicals (23% according to CNN) – who voted for the Democrats did so in opposition to the current Government and are hoping for the best, not sure of what to expect. Early signs seem to be that future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and a good portion of the Party, realise that hanging up Government with too many investigations and an impeachment of the President would not be a wise move. Ms. Pelosi needs to remember that she is the head of a party that has shifted to the centre-left. The election of many mid-western Democrats with more conservative backgrounds means that she will need to pay attention to the desires of that constituency if she wants to build on the mid-terms for the 2008 election.

It will be interesting to watch the White House in the coming weeks. In Texas, then Govenor Bush had a record of bipartisan leadership. The President, if he is to succeed, will need to return to such tactics. Can George still do the Texas two-step with the opposition? One hopes for the sake of Iraq and America's role in the world he can.

Dr. Michael J Williams is Head of the Transatlantic Programme.

The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.

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