The Commander In Chief’s Tough Choices

Pres. George W. Bush is standing by his man, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the war in Iraq.

A president should be able to name his cabinet, but Bush will find it difficult, perhaps impossible to retain his Pentagon chief. Rumsfeld could still be forced out by the prison abuse scandal.

The stakes are high—keeping Rumsfeld on the job could split the Republican Party and create a furor in the presidential campaign. In the last week of July, John Kerry will officially become the Democratic nominee at his party’s convention in Boston. The senator doesn’t know if he will be running against Bush with Rumsfeld or against a president chastened by the nation’s combat losses with a new defense secretary and a new war strategy. There is still time for Bush to reinvent himself, including firing Rumsfeld, or dropping Cheney from the ticket. In so doing, Bush might very well reinvigorate the war fervor that pounded the invasion drums last year and reunite a faltering Republican Party around a new and improved commander in chief.

On the other hand, if the Republican Party fractures, Kerry can win the presidency with Republican support. Key Republicans might very well break with the party if “Bush the Stubborn” prevails and he keeps Rumsfeld, without taking decisive steps to resolve the Iraq crisis. The most dramatic scenario anoints John McCain as Kerry’s vice presidential nominee, uniting Democrats and Republicans in a unity coalition against terrorism.

Admittedly, a Democratic-Republican unity ticket is only a faint possibility, far from a certainty. A key date to watch for this potential decision is June 9 when McCain must file papers to run again for his Senate seat.

Bush will have a hard time keeping Rumsfeld. The New Yorker magazine and the Washington Post have published stories suggesting that Rumsfeld and a deputy defense secretary, Stephen Cambone, were involved in the policy decisions that led to the prisoner abuse. Essentially the same story appeared in both publications. What has been missing in press reports is an explanation of the powerful argument made by high-ranking Pentagon leaders who ordered military intelligence officials to gather information from Iraqis about what was developing as an increasingly violent insurgency.

In August 2003, after terrorist attacks in Baghdad forced the United Nations out of Iraq, U.S. officials concluded that they needed more intelligence about guerrilla operations. One source for this information became the prisoners already in U.S. custody. In Cuba, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the detention and interrogation center at Guantánamo Bay, had devised a system for “softening up” prisoners for effective interrogation. These prisoners were not and are not protected by international law. Gen. Miller went to Baghdad and concluded that the prison staff should become “enablers” for interrogation, even though, unlike in Cuba, these prisoners were protected by international covenants.

The crucial political point: Miller’s recommendations went up the chain of command and were reviewed and approved in Rumsfeld’s office.

The pressure to oust Rumsfeld will grow if Congress finds more evidence corroborating his approval of these interrogation techniques in Iraq. Opposition to Rumsfeld existed before the prisoner abuse scandal erupted. George Will, a Sunday TV talk show commentator and nationally syndicated columnist, asked Bush to rid his administration of neo-conservative hawks like Rumsfeld’s second-in-command, Paul Wolfowitz. Will is alarmed at the mission creep. A war that started against Al Queda now has the wider and more difficult goal of invading Iraq to establish “democracy.”

Adding to the uncertainty about Rumsfeld’s immediate future is the return of anti-war sentiment from Democratic voters, and Kerry must consider their views. This shift is relatively new, and it could fade, or by July it could be a fixed part of public opinion.

In a May 7- 9 Gallup poll, 29 percent, almost all of them registered Democrats and/or women, said all the troops should be withdrawn from Iraq. The Gallup pollsters concluded that Americans would divide 49 percent to 45 percent in favor of sending more troops to Iraq. Anti-war sentiment is up dramatically since an April poll. By waiting, Kerry can see if a large consensus against the war develops or if he must unite a divided nation.

The war isn’t the biggest concern of voters, whose number one priority is the economy, with Iraq a growing, but much smaller, concern. With oil prices setting record highs, the economy may slow down, creating new problems for the president and opportunities for Kerry.

John Kerry is campaigning heavily in swing states on domestic issues like health care. Kerry supporters turn away suggestions that the Democrat attack Bush more vigorously on the war. Their reasoning?

The Bush’s administration is a train wreck waiting to happen. The smartest tactic is to get out of the way.

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