Things fall apart for Bush

Beleaguered US President George W. Bush dumped his much-criticized Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the architect and main proponent of the war in Iraq, and brought in a far more conciliatory figure, former CIA spy boss Robert Gates.

The arrival of a Democrat legislative majority, with control of the US purse strings, is likely to constrain Bush’s ability to commit American forces to long wars, as he has done in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In both wars he achieved high popularity ratings for winning the actual major battles, but then lost these and more for having his occupation forces bogged down in subsequent battles with insurgents.

US foreign policy now is likely to be less hawkish, crucial in the nuclear disputes with North Korea and Iran.

It is known that the American military brass, like their British counterparts, believe that the civilian leadership is wasting lives and resources in an unwinnable war in Iraq and would like the troops pulled out.

But both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair staked their personal reputations on the Iraqi war, first using dubious and outdated intelligence data to claim Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and then secondly, when no such weapons were found, to claim they were bringing democracy to Iraq.

The American voters’ repudiation of Bush’s party, and the revolt of Labour Party leaders in Britain to force Blair to announce he will retire in less than a year, are a direct result of voter anger over this policy, or lack of it.

While the Democrats won a working majority in the lower House of Representatives, the battle for the Senate, where only a third of the seats were contested, was far closer with two seats, for Montana and Virginia, going to the Democrats by the thinnest of margins for a 51-49 majority. The Republican candidates in these two seats have refused to concede defeat and the final official result is only likely this week after recounts.

US television networks and major newspapers based their reports of the Senate takeover on a survey of Virginia election districts conducted by the news agency Associated Press, which saw Democrat Jim Webb defeating Republican incumbent George Allen by some 7,200 votes out of a total of 2.3 million ballots.

The Virginia victory, the final race out of 33 Senate seats up for grabs, handed Democrats control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years.

The win gave Democrats an effective majority in the upper chamber and came after the party won the House of Representatives by a wide margin Tuesday.

Bush acknowledged Wednesday that voters were frustrated over the Iraq war and announced Rumsfeld’s resignation and replacement.

The decision to dispense with the man who had become the face of a military victory gone sour suggested a major change of strategy in Iraq could be in the works.

“I recognize that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made there,” Bush told a news conference.

The president said he wanted “a fresh perspective” on how to secure victory, and signalled he was ready to work with the Democrats on a new strategy for a country where 2,800 US troops have died along with tens of thousands of civilians.

Already flexing their new power, Democrats welcomed Rumsfeld’s departure.

“For the first time it looks like the president is listening,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, architect of the party’s surge in the Senate.

Democratic Senator Harry Reid, who will become the powerful majority leader in the upper house, said his party was ready to forge a new direction for the country.

“The American people have spoken clearly and decisively in favor of Democrats leading this country in a new direction,” Reid said in a statement.

“In Iraq and here at home, Americans have made clear they are tired of the failures of the last six years.”

The new Congress to be seated in January was “ready to get to work” on a number of issues, from “changing course in Iraq, to raising the minimum wage, to fixing the health-care crisis, to making this country energy independent,” he said.

Earlier, Bush implicitly acknowledged that the election was a referendum on his leadership.

“As the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility … I look at it race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping.”

Rumsfeld’s departure capped a storied career of a political bruiser who served twice as Pentagon chief, and was White House chief of staff to president Gerald Ford, after starting out as a navy pilot.

But he will likely go down in history as the man who led US troops into war in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks in 2001 and a subsequent quagmire in Iraq, from which there seem few acceptable exit strategies.

His successor, former spy chief Gates, 63, has served six US presidents, including the current US leader’s father George H. Bush.

Significantly, he is a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group under former Republican secretary of state James Baker due to soon report to Bush on new US approaches in Iraq.

The Republican defeat means Bush will face new scrutiny over Iraq and a difficult two final years in the White House.

The opposition party beat most predictions by picking up nearly 30 seats to take control of the 435-member House for the first time since 1994.

Voters piled on anger over the course of the war in Iraq and a heap of corruption and scandals which have tainted the Republicans in the past two years, exit polls suggested.

They also expressed concern over skyrocketing health care costs, the economy, illegal immigration and “values” issues such as stem-cell research, gay marriage and abortion.

Republican congressional incumbents crashed to defeat in at least 16 states.

The Democrats also won six governors’ seats to take the majority of the 50 statehouses for the first time in 12 years. Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, bucked the trend and was re-elected in California, crushing Democratic rival Phil Angelides.

Democrat Keith Ellison, from Minnesota, became the first Muslim elected to Congress, and Hillary Clinton easily beat her Republican rival to claim a second Senate term, further spurring expectations of a 2008 presidential run.

Rumsfeld’s departure has been welcomed by US allies, who felt he might be leading them ever deeper into a world at war.

Japan’s defense chief said Thursday he had worried about his ousted US counterpart Donald Rumsfeld’s hawkish views and believed he could have done more to end the raging violence in Iraq.

“I was a bit worried that he was too bullish on the conditions in Iraq,” Defense Agency Director General Fumio Kyuma told reporters.

“Anti-US sentiment has heightened greatly in Iraq,” he said. “Considering that, I wonder if he could have taken some measures to abate it.”

There is general agreement that the US approach to the problems raised by North Korea going nuclear are now more likely to dealt with by diplomats, rather than the military.

November 2006
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