“Two words,” said a Virginia man asked by the Washington Post to explain his vote for the Democrat in the 2006 Senate race. “‘Neuter Bush.’” On the morrow of the November 7 Congressional elections, there was a palpable sense of a mission accomplished in the blue-tinted precincts of the United States and the opinion pages of world newspapers. Indeed, President George W. Bush could scarcely muster his trademark swagger as he lunched with the new Democratic leaders of Congress and sent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (known to the press corps, four years ago, as “Rumstud”) into long overdue retirement. The latter step, reportedly taken against the formidable will of Vice President Dick Cheney, signaled to many that the muscular imperial moment has ended, at long last.
Perhaps this is true. Perhaps the Democrats will ignore the pundits and insist, via subpoena, on full airings of the musty back rooms of Cheney’s 2001 energy task force and the sooty stovepipes of the Pentagon’s erstwhile Office of Special Plans. Perhaps Bush will heed the rumored advice of his presumptive defense secretary, Robert Gates, and order a gradual “redeployment” from the center of war-torn Iraq.
Yet Gates’ nomination suggests other lessons about the ways of Washington. Congressional oversight is often a tad indulgent. Gates, like Bush pére, was excused as “out of the loop” about the arms-for-hostages deal concluded with Iran in the Reagan era, though at the time he was the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence. Meanwhile, Elliott Abrams, who was convicted of lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-contra scandal, is handling the Israeli-Palestinian file at the current Bush White House. And why is the return of a Cold Warrior who helped arm radical Islamists in Afghanistan — later a source of some trouble for the United States — greeted with sighs of relief on both sides of the aisle?
The answer is that Cheney, Rumsfeld and their underlings, blessed with an ignorant boss, enacted a vision of US dominion that the bipartisan foreign policy establishment finds excessive. “Realists,” as Gates is said to be, know how to project US power abroad without rendering the natives unduly restless. The answer is not that US power itself should be curbed, or that the definition of US interests needs to be rethought — least of all in the Middle East, chosen by the Cheney-Rumsfeld crew as the primary proving ground for their notions of global preeminence.
Indeed, while there is cause for cheer in the election of a few anti-war progressives like Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH), the 2006 midterms were less an indictment of the worldview underlying Bush’s war of choice than the deceptions employed to sell it and the failures in its execution. The issue was less what to do in Iraq than what not to do, as even the White House realized with its clumsy disavowal of the phrase “stay the course.” Iraq’s probably irreversible course toward even bloodier civil war most poignantly underscores the long-term damage done by Bush administration policies while Democrats calibrated their speeches before focus groups. But of course there is much more wreckage to survey: in Lebanon, in Gaza, in Afghanistan, in an archipelago of US prisons where alleged “enemy combatants” are held without charge or prospect of due process. There was precious little criticism of Bush administration behavior in these places on the campaign trail, much less advocacy for a halt to the boycott of the Palestinian Authority or direct negotiations with Iran, to name two initiatives progressives should promote. Instead, there was debate-ducking acquiescence, such as the vote of liberal hero Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) for Bush’s military tribunals bill, and right-flanking hawkishness, such as Sen. Hillary Clinton’s warning not to “downplay the threat” of Iran’s nuclear program.
Is a political class that shows so little genuine courage equipped to “neuter Bush”? Perhaps. But, when it comes to US Middle East policy, the silver lining in the Republicans’ defeat is that more Americans will see that this president, in and of himself, is not the problem.