Appropriately for the voters’ stunning rebuff of the president and his party, the day was damp and gloomy. A small group of protesters outside the White House held signs saying “Bush Be Gone” and called for him to be tried for war crimes.
Inside the East Room, President Bush, in a moment when his presidency might well be over in all but name, was confident and good-humored, even if, as one observer remarked, he seemed a little over-caffeinated.
And he came armed with news, though not until deep in his opening statement. Donald Rumsfeld was out after six years as Defense secretary, to be replaced by former CIA director and national security veteran Robert Gates, who would bring to the Iraq war, the president said, “a fresh perspective.” The war under Rumsfeld, he conceded with a certain understatement, had not gone “well enough, fast enough.”
It will take more than a fresh perspective, more like a complete rethinking and overhaul on U.S. strategy to turn Iraq around, especially if Bush is determined that we will stay in Iraq through the end of his term in January 2009, and is also determined that his successor will see that venture carried through to a successful conclusion.
The returning Senate should confirm Gates as quickly as possible _ he is a known quantity in Washington _ since now is no time to have the leadership of the Pentagon in limbo.
The timing of Rumsfeld’s departure is something of a mystery. Clearly, the president had been thinking about a change for a while but acted only this past weekend. The president said he did not want a “major decision” about the war to become a campaign issue but the war was an issue, even the issue, in the elections. Had Rumsfeld gone earlier, say during the August doldrums, he would not have been an issue and the war might have been less of one. As it is, the timing, after a signal defeat for the Republicans, makes the Democrats look like they got a scalp.
It should be noted that with Rumsfeld’s departure, and with the exception of Vice President Cheney and his office, all the leading architects of the war on Iraq have left the Bush administration.
Based on the war in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan and on the decisions that have seemed to prolong both, Rumsfeld’s tenure as Defense secretary must be judged a failure. The verdict is still out on the Bush presidency but time is running out.