Nine months after invading Iraq, President Bush told an interviewer he did not turn to his father for strength. "There is a higher father that I appeal to," he said. Nearly three years later, Bush may be appealing to his earthly father as well. Or at least his people.
With the war in Iraq going badly and Congress captured by the opposition, a commander in chief who has labored to demonstrate independence from his presidential father is now seeking help from some key veterans of George H.W. Bush's team to salvage the remainder of his own administration.
A day after suffering a "thumping" in midterm elections, the president ousted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a longtime rival of his father's, and replaced him with Robert M. Gates, his father's CIA director. And the president has invested great hope in James A. Baker III, his father's friend and secretary of state, to come up with a plan to correct the course in Iraq in a blue-ribbon commission report due as soon as next month.
"It certainly looks as if there is the handprint of Bush 41," said retired Army Col. F.W. "Bill" Smullen, a close aide to former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, using the nickname for the former president. The big question, though, is whether the change is real or simply a post-election gesture, added Smullen, now director of national security studies at Syracuse University. "With the changes in the Congress, it is going to have to be more than just window dressing."
The relationship between the 41st and 43rd presidents has been a source of running commentary and speculation for six years. The son has often seemed to go out of his way to identify himself with Ronald Reagan rather than his father, and his personnel and policy choices often seemed at odds with the philosophy of the earlier Bush administration.
If the father was the patriarch of the realist school of foreign policy that aims to manage a combustible international order, the son brought to power neoconservatives who want to remake the world and spread democracy. The president has given speech after speech assailing past administrations for accepting tyranny in the Middle East in the belief that stability equaled security, a thesis that he says exploded tragically on Sept. 11, 2001.
The elder Bush was reported to have been skeptical of the way the younger Bush launched the war in Iraq in 2003 -- reports that were fueled in part by public comments before the invasion by Baker and Brent Scowcroft, the former president's national security adviser and close friend. Scowcroft later broke entirely with the current administration and was eased off the president's foreign intelligence advisory board.
Both Bushes get angry, however, at public suggestions of a rift, and some close to them say the Washington chattering class assumes far more than it knows. In this view, comments such as the "higher father" remark, made to journalist Bob Woodward, have been over-interpreted and exaggerated. Many people who serve in the current administration also served in the father's, including Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, belying the notion of competing camps.
Even if the theory about Bush family tension is overwrought, though, the existence of some type of rival factions has been a constant subtext of the current administration. The turn to representatives of the old Republican establishment such as Baker and Gates, whether it has anything to do with paternal relations or not, has sent a signal that Washington perceives as a bid to bring more pragmatism to policymaking.
"I don't think anybody consciously said, 'Geez, let's bring the old team in,' " said one senior official in the Bush 41 White House. "I frankly think it's a natural default from the failure of this advice of the people they had. It was impossible to argue anymore that some of the people who got us into this mess were giving good advice."
James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the Heritage Foundation, said the emergence of Baker and Gates was a way to reach out to Democrats to forge a bipartisan consensus on what to do now in Iraq. "It's a sincere effort on the president's part to take politics off the table," he said. "These are both trusted guys who were never seen as especially political figures."
Dennis Ross, who was a Middle East envoy for the elder Bush, said Gates represents important change. "Bob Gates comes from the realist school of how to operate internationally," Ross said. "As such . . . it is pretty clear the neoconservative agenda on regime change and democracy promotion will take a back seat to stability and less pressure on regimes to open up their political systems."
Douglas Feith, who was undersecretary of defense under the current president and a chief architect of the Iraq war, said he was not sure how to interpret the Baker-Gates return to the center of national policy. "This president has conducted very much a Reaganite national security policy, and I think his father had a different approach," he said. "But I don't know whether the president is shifting his approach."
Another former senior official on the other side of that divide cautioned against "hyperventilating" about the return of the Bush 41 team.
"Cheney is still there," he said, and while "the president's body language suggests he is contrite for the moment . . . nothing has really happened yet. Two more GIs and 61 Iraqis died [Wednesday]. The answer isn't with Gates, Baker or the White House. The strategy is being written as we speak by the Iraqis, for better or worse."
This former official and others, who agreed to speak candidly only if their names were not used, also recalled predictions of policy changes at the time of Rice's move to the State Department two years ago. Under Rice, the president's international approach has shifted away from the more bellicose style of the first term toward the multilateralism favored by his father, particularly on issues such as the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. But the continuation of a "stay the course" policy in Iraq, this former official said, suggests either that she is not offering alternative advice or that Bush's own views in fact are closer to those of Cheney and Rumsfeld.
Gates’ views on Iraq
Administration officials said Baker did not recommend Rumsfeld's ouster or Gates's appointment. But in meetings with the president, he praised Gates, who serves with Baker on the congressionally created Iraq Study Group. During private discussions, according to one person familiar with them, Gates has expressed strong reservations about the course of events in Iraq and the failure of the administration to adjust.
The bipartisan study group, co-chaired by Baker and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), probably will not replace Gates because it is so late in the process. After intense meetings in recent months, the group still has not reached any conclusions, said one person familiar with its workings.
It is scheduled to meet with Bush on Monday. After that session, it will have its first round of meetings, stretching over three days, to try to reach a consensus on recommendations for a new direction in Iraq. But insiders do not expect it to reach conclusions quickly or easily, so another round of meetings has been scheduled for the end of the month. The group hopes to release its report around Dec. 7, but it may not meet that goal.
Stacked with foreign policy centrists from both parties, the panel may recommend staying in Iraq but changing the nature of the U.S. effort there. The revamped operation would place less emphasis on military operations, cutting the U.S. troop presence, and stress training and advising the Iraqi army. Perhaps most significantly, the Bush administration's ambition of planting a democracy in the heart of the Middle East would be set aside, at least temporarily, in favor of bolstering Iraq's stability.
That suggests Bush 41 policymaking may be back.
"It certainly looks that way," said Tom Donnelly, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Even so, he said, the question remains what the president is really thinking. "Bush's mind works differently from the normal political mind. He seems to be motivated by faith and ideals and willing to take risks politically. Maybe these Baker guys can talk him off the ledge, but nobody's done it yet."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.