Democratic control of Congress, public dislike for the Iraq war and the departure of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld could open the door for a policy shift in the conflict, but early maneuvering for the 2008 presidential election could slam the door shut.
What happens will depend largely on how the White House, leaders of both parties and the candidates to replace President Bush in two years interpret the results of this week’s voting and seek political footing for the 2008 race, analysts said.
Although both parties want to salvage political and military success in Iraq for its own sake, the war’s prominence as a political issue complicates bipartisan cooperation.
That may be especially true for Democrats if they conclude that anything shy of a demand for fast withdrawal of U.S. troops looks wishy-washy, or that the modest course changes possible by cooperating with Republicans would be jumping onto a sinking ship.
‘Remarkable opportunity ’
Cooperation is possible if both parties see it in their interest to lower the political temperature on Iraq, making it less of a rallying cry for the next campaign, said James Carafano, senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He argued that both parties and the country would benefit.
“There is a remarkable opportunity to change the politics, for Democrats and the president to take the Iraq issue off the table as an issue to play political pingpong with,” said Carafano, who studies politics and military issues.
More than half of voters said they disapproved of the war in Iraq, wanted troops to start coming home and didn’t think the war has improved security in the United States, according to exit polls conducted Tuesday for The Associated Press and the television networks. Those most unhappy with the war helped put Democrats in control of Congress.
Democrats say the first step to repairing the situation in Iraq is putting substantial pressure on its government to take more responsibility. The best way to do this, they say, is by pulling out some troops right away to signal the U.S. commitment is finite.
Democrats also have called on Bush to convene an international conference on Iraq and say the military mission should begin to switch from a leading role to a supportive one.
Other proposals the administration may be asked to consider include a regional dialogue with U.S. adversaries Iran and Syria, or remaking the Iraq political federation into three largely autonomous sectarian states.
Big shifts unlikely — for now
Major changes such as a wholesale withdrawal of troops are unlikely in the near term.
Bush’s reversal of fortune this week means he can entertain ideas from his own generals and advisers that would have looked like an admission of failure before the voting, conservative and liberal analysts said.
The changed political circumstances also mean Bush can look statesmanlike by adopting recommendations from Democrats or from an independent bipartisan panel headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, whose report is due soon.
Democrats who take control of Congress in January say they will try using their clout to force a change in Iraq policy and demand that Bush start bringing troops home.
Though Democrats are divided over exactly what to propose, they say their effort will send a loud political signal to disgruntled U.S. voters, and to Iraqis to assume more responsibility.
Rumsfeld’s departure could offer a path to compromise and an opportunity for the White House to pivot from some of his hardline positions.
Less divisive defense chief
Bush chose a far less divisive figure, former CIA director Robert Gates, to succeed Rumsfeld. Bush came close to conceding that Rumsfeld was the roadblock to new policy that his critics claimed.
“Secretary Rumsfeld and I agreed that sometimes it’s necessary to have a fresh perspective,” Bush said in the surprise announcement Wednesday.
“I think history has shown that switching one person can make a difference,” said Lawrence J. Korb, assistant defense secretary under President Reagan and now senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.
Korb pointed to the Vietnam War, when Clark Clifford took over for hawkish Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
“Within a month President Johnson had basically offered to begin negotiating with the North Vietnamese,” Korb said.
Gates has served on the Iraq study commission led by Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, signaling that the group could offer the White House a palatable way to shift gears.
“I think there is a real possibility for a bipartisan approach to our foreign policy,” said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., expected to lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The Baker-Hamilton commission obviously would be one of the most likely places to build that consensus and give the administration the necessary ... political room to be able to make a radical change. At least I hope that’s what will happen,” Biden said.