Americans disapprove of the way President Bush is handling the situation in Iraq by nearly two to one, according to a new Gallop poll. A majority want US troops withdrawn from Iraq within twelve months–a higher proportion than wanted to withdraw from Vietnam in the summer of 1970. Catering to public sentiment, on November 15 the Senate voted 79 to 19 for a Republican resolution saying 2006 should be a year of “significant transition” for US withdrawal from Iraq.
But no transition, phased redeployment or any other change in Iraq policy is likely until the cabal that got us into this war is excised.
The word “cabal” was recently introduced to the ongoing debate on the war when Col. Lawrence Wilkinson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s top assistant, disclosed what many had suspected: In the early days of the Bush Administration the US government was essentially hijacked by “a cabal between the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld,” supported by a handful of top staffers like I. Lewis Libby, John Bolton and David Addington. These men not only lied us into war in Iraq; they set the stage for torture at Abu Ghraib and encouraged the outing of Valerie Plame. Frighteningly, they still control US policy.
We don’t yet know President Bush’s relation to this shadowy group of decision-makers, who bypassed normal routes and made their own policy decisions in secret. Did he lead the cabal? Willingly participate? Encourage it with a wink and a nod? Regard it with indifference? Whatever Bush’s involvement, one thing is clear: These men must now be repudiated by President Bush, Congress and the American people if we are to find our way out of the mess they’ve made in Iraq.
Cosmetic changes to the White House staff will achieve little for the Bush Administration and less for the country. As long as the perpetrators of the yellowcake uranium fraud and the abuse of terror suspects are in positions of power and honor, nothing will change.
Breaking the power of this cabal is the prerequisite to moving toward a solution in Iraq.
The first reason is obvious: Cheney and Rumsfeld still control the levers of power within the Administration. They are dedicated to imposing “regime change” throughout the Middle East to install governments subservient to the United States. They remain in a position to manipulate evidence and provoke incidents–even to entangle us in a new war with Syria or Iran.
The second reason is less obvious but perhaps even more important: The US government is unlikely to find partners for making peace as long as it is dominated by a clique that is perceived as having manufactured the case for war, encouraged torture and alienating the American people.
Indeed, the level of foreign distrust has risen so high that a senior Administration official recently told the Washington Post, “The debate in the world has become about whether the US complies with its legal obligations.” The world won’t cooperate with the United States to develop new solutions for Iraq until the cabal is removed and repudiated.
Any other President faced with policy failure and plummeting support would have brought in a new team long ago. As the stalemated war in Vietnam became increasingly unpopular, Lyndon Johnson replaced the war’s architect, Robert McNamara, with Wall Street lawyer and Washington power broker Clark Clifford. When Ronald Reagan’s popularity plummeted after the Iran/contra scandals, he brought in a new, more moderate team that pursued a whole new set of broadly popular policy initiatives.
Some Republican Congressional and party leaders urged George Bush to emulate Reagan’s strategy in the aftermath of the Libby indictment. They were summarily rebuffed.
George Bush’s bunker mentality is creating a nightmare for Republicans. They clearly perceive their defeats in the recent election as flowing from their identification in the public mind with the President and therefore with the Iraq debacle. And many believe they are already headed for personal and party defeat in 2006.
Republicans are now scrambling to put distance between themselves and the war and other presidential policies. But that is unlikely to cure their malady. After all, if people want to repudiate the President, voting against Republicans is the obvious way to do it.
Of course, Republicans could put plenty of distance between themselves and the President by initiating impeachment proceedings for using false intelligence to lead the country to war. But this is unlikely unless and until he is personally pinned with crimes so heinous that Republicans have no choice.
One possible way out for Republicans is to pressure Bush to purge those who have led him and the country into disaster–a k a the cabal. A new team of moderates would be charged with changing the course rather than staying it.
If the past is any guide, President Bush is likely to hold out against such an action for as long as possible. But Republican critics of the Administration might find some interesting bedfellows.
Blame for a failed and unpopular war is not good for the military. Top military officials today are facing the same doom to their institution and careers that their predecessors faced as the prospects for military victory and popular support drained away during the Vietnam War. Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha’s startling call for withdrawal from Iraq bears special significance, as he is an acknowledged ally and spokesman for military leaders on Capitol Hill. The cabal’s efforts to promote war with Syria and Iran threaten the military with an even greater fiasco. They have a strong interest in putting the blame for America’s catastrophe on the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney.
Rumsfeld and Cheney have tried to blame the intelligence “failures” that they used to get us into Iraq on the CIA and other intelligence agencies. That gives these agencies a motive for putting the blame back where it primarily belongs–on the cabal. This week, sixteen former intelligence officials asked Bush for a pledge not to pardon anyone involved in the Plame leak. And former CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner accused Cheney of overseeing policies that allowed torture of terror suspects and damaged the nation’s credibility. Just as a top FBI official was the Deep Throat who secretly blew the whistle on Nixon in the Watergate scandals, so might intelligence officials have evidence that would be damning to Cheney, Rumsfeld and their advisers.
It is impossible to predict just what string of circumstances would lead these forces to act. It might be resistance to the Administration’s next attempt to draw the United States into war in Syria or Iran. (Congress put its first serious constraints on President Nixon when he expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos.) It might be the release of still more evidence of criminality–more indictments from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, for example. It might be a dramatic surge in US deaths in Iraq–remember the Tet Offensive, Lebanon and Mogadishu. Or it might simply be the accumulation of failures–something reminiscent of the Politburo’s removal of Khrushchev for “commandism and hare-brained schemes.”
Though it may seem a liberal fantasy, a breakup of the cabal is already on the political radar screen. Libby, one of its top operatives, is under indictment. Cheney has isolated himself even from Republican senators by his outrageous defense of the right to torture, and conservative pundits are demanding that he reveal the truth about his involvement in the Plame outing. Rumors of Rumsfeld’s future resignation have appeared in the press.
Most of these officials serve at the pleasure of the President. Republican Congressional and party leaders add their voices to those already calling for a Bush Administration house-cleaning. If the President continues to refuse, they have a wide range of hardball threats, ranging from investigations to defeats for his legislative programs. Such actions were almost unthinkable as long as they desired the President’s support, but Republicans who fear being tarred along with the President have strong motivation to jump ship if he doesn’t shape up.
Bush can’t fire Cheney, but increasing attention to the evidence of Cheney’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” is likely to grow if he won’t leave voluntarily. And unlike a President, a Vice President can be prosecuted while in office.
A focus on the cabal can also help Democrats and progressives address the strategic dilemma they face. Obviously, Bush is ultimately responsible for the policies that have made him so unpopular with the American people. But it is hard to parlay his unpopularity into a force for change–at least until election time.
The President can be removed by impeachment, but that is unlikely unless Democrats control both houses of Congress. But by putting a big part of the blame for Bush’s disastrous policies on Cheney and his henchmen, Democrats and progressives can help make the cabal such a liability to Bush and the Republican Party that they may have to excise it.
We’re probably stuck with President Bush for the next three years. But leveraging Cheney, Rumsfeld and their advisers out of power could turn a new page in America’s relations with the rest of the world. It would be possible to develop new roles in Iraq for US allies, Middle Eastern countries and the United Nations. And the embattled parties in Iraq could begin negotiating their own future, free from manipulation by a US leadership determined to impose its own vision on their country.