US PRESIDENT George W. Bush exemplified the best of American democracy on Wednesday when he announced the resignation of controversial Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and admitted that American voters had expressed their dissatisfaction with the US-led war in Iraq at the polls on Tuesday.
“I recognize that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made here,” he said at an unusually frank press conference.
The loss of control of the House of Representatives, and now apparently of the Senate, has forced the president and the rest of his Republican Party to recognize that the elections were a referendum on Bush’s policies in Iraq.
Both Americans and foreign observers were pleased to see the immediate change in Bush’s rhetoric at the press conference. He was gracious in losing the election and said he was ready to work with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is to become the nation’s first female Speaker of the House in January.
What was still worrying was his continuing rhetoric of “we won’t leave Iraq until victory.” His new appointee for the post of secretary of defense, Robert Gates, said in his acceptance speech that America still faces the danger of terrorism from Iraq. This is a viewpoint that many Democrats strongly disagree with, especially Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who last year called for the US troops to be brought home from Iraq. He told Chris Matthews on MSNBC on Wednesday night that Gates’ statement was worrying and a signal that the Bush administration still mistakenly thinks it can win a civil war between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq.
Gates is a throwback to the administration of George W’s father, where he was a national security adviser and then the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Gates had left government a few years ago and was the president of Texas A&M University until he decided this week to accept Bush’s offer to head the Department of Defense. According to press reports, he is the opposite of Rumsfeld in being quiet and reserved, and as part of the Iraq Study Group run by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, has advocated the US speaking to Iran to ease Middle East tensions.
It seems likely that Gates will be a welcome replacement to the often complained about rudeness and condescension of Rumsfeld, who routinely refused to accept criticism from his generals or politicians, and who is blamed for creating a climate of fear for those Americans wishing to speak out against the US occupation of Iraq.
But Rumsfeld is far from having escaped the hot seat he currently occupies at the Pentagon. He has to continue running the US military campaign in Iraq until Gates takes over in January, and will be called to depose before Congress about the many mistakes he has made in Iraq.
Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware told Matthews that if he is named chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he will immediately call for hearings on the war in Iraq in January. I’m sure that neither Bush, Rumsfeld nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice relishes the thought of Bush administration officials being grilled by Democratic politicians armed with the wrath and anger of a majority of US voters who are fed up with the spiraling number of American soldiers being killed in Iraq on a daily basis.
But pulling US troops out of Iraq too quickly could well be a recipe for disaster in that country, with the risk of the ongoing civil war splitting the country into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish ruled parts. Some observers say “Let the Iraqis kill themselves if they want to.” But that is not a responsible solution to the current bloodbath in Iraq. The dismembering of Iraq would destabilize the entire Middle East, threatening the Gulf countries and give Iran the chance to expand its influence even more in the region. Oil prices could rocket, and the Western economies of the US and Europe would suffer the most.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California worryingly said on Wednesday that she didn’t particularly care what happened to Iraq if US troops were pulled out. She said that with 60 percent of Iraqis saying they didn’t want US troops in their country, the US has no choice but to withdraw.
But I think that pulling US troops out too quickly would send the wrong signal to the Iraqis, to other authoritarian regimes in the area and to Al-Qaeda extremists. Whether own believes that the US went into Iraq to topple the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, or just used him as a pretext to control a major portion of the world’s oil supplies, one cannot deny that Iraqis now enjoy (at least in theory) unprecedented freedoms that other countries in the Middle East are afraid of giving their own people.
I supported the US invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam, but the continued occupation of a proud nation is not something the US should get into the habit of doing.
But what should the US do then to avoid a repeat of the Vietnam debacle in which thousands of young Americans lost their lives? President Bush is already promising to work closely with the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq. This will be the only sane way for the Bush administration to take on Iraq. A bipartisan solution to how the US will extricate itself from the bloody war in Iraq is going to be the best path for Bush to follow.
Americans went to the polling stations on Tuesday and delivered a message to Bush and all Republicans that was loud and clear: “Change our course in Iraq and focus more on the many needs of Americans at home.”
Bush would do well to listen closely to the electorate and their representatives in Congress. If he doesn’t, we just might see a Democrat in the White House in 2009 and American prestige abroad damaged beyond repair for years to come.