Now that we on the verge of the election year, rumors have already begun to swirl around Washington as to possible shake-ups in the Bush team for its second term (barring, of course, the possibility that President Bush may not be successful in his bid for re-election.)
In the interests of full disclosure, I have not been approached by any senior member of the administration nor by members of their staffs. Nor can I vouch for the veracity of any of the information provided below, and as the reader will soon discover, some of it is quite contradictory. What I am interested in doing in the space of this week's column, however, is to bring to light a number of the things being said around the proverbial water cooler.
Take Jim Lobe's November 1st essay in The Asia Times (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/EK01Aa01.html). In discussing the resignation of J. D. Crouch II as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy and the decision to assign more responsibility for Iraq to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Lobe quoted a "knowledgeable source" who said: " … they're starting to move people around," said one knowledgeable source. "It's all about [Bush's] re-election and how to get rid of the loonies without looking like they screwed up."
Lobe went on to write: "Some sources say that Robert Blackwill, the administration's former ambassador to India who was taken on as a senior aide by Rice last month, could be most responsible for the shifts. Blackwill, who was Rice's boss in the National Security Council during the first Bush administration, is a savvy Republican operator with friends and protégés in key posts in the national security bureaucracy and on Capitol Hill. While considered on the right, he reportedly shares the first Bush's distrust of neo-conservatives in particular."
Most of the rumors now floating around town can be grouped into two categories: the fate of Secretary of State Colin Powell and the fate of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Usually connected to each individual rumor is the inference that electoral politics, for 2004 and for 2008, is driving the realignment--in other words, presidential advisor Karl Rove is playing a hand in this since the president's poll numbers are dropping over Iraq.
In no particular order, here are the various scenarios:
The initial movements:
1) Donald Rumsfeld will be eased out of the Pentagon (not directly "fired" but will announce his "desire" to return to "civilian life", but that he will "take the blame" for the mistakes of the Iraq war;
2) Colin Powell will retire from the State Department;
3) Since Dick Cheney is not envisioned as a standard-bearer for the Republicans in 2008, he will either not be re-nominated to the vice-presidency or he will resign the office in early 2005. Even if, as some expect, Governor "Jeb" Bush of Florida would be the 2008 standard-bearer, a "backup" candidate is still needed should Governor Bush implode between now and 2008.
1) Paul Wolfowitz will be appointed National Security Advisor (a position which incidentally will not require Senate confirmation)
2) Condoleezza Rice will move to the State Department (unless "plan B" is initiated; see below)
3) Colin Powell, while bound by a family promise not to campaign for office, could be appointed to the vice-presidency in the event of a Cheney resignation.
Plan "B" scenarios:
1) Condoleezza Rice is elevated to the vice-presidency to remain in close contact with the president (and to trump the Democrats);
2) Dick Cheney moves to take his old job as Secretary of Defense;
3) Tom Ridge is elevated to the vice-presidency as a standby for 2008 (to round out his experience as a governor and head of Homeland Security).
The first rule of any rumor campaign, of course, is: cui bono? Who benefits? Whether any of these rumors are realistic or not, it is clear that, within the Republican Party, there is unease over the perceived predominance of the neo-conservatives.
What these various scenarios also suggest is that if the Iraq operation continues to be perceived by growing numbers of Americans as a quagmire or as a failure, and if the president's popularity declines as a result, that plans are in place to begin to assign blame quickly. There is, of course, a second strategy that is also in play. While rumors float around about a possible "realignment" of the Bush Administration toward a more centrist-realist orientation, the administration is also testing the resonance of other messages (such as the vice-president's address at The Heritage Foundation), to see whether those themes energize the Republican base. (So far, that message--of action versus inaction--has won out over the various more critical assessments that have begun to circulate, but that may change.)
What is also of especial interest is the degree to which foreign governments have taken an interest in these rumors. Many long-standing partners of the United States have indicated quiet support for such realignment away from the neo-conservatives, arguing that more productive and beneficial relations with the United States can only occur when pragmatic realists dominate the administration's foreign policy.
Stay tuned for further developments.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.