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The Reporters: US mid-terms

All entries by this reporter: Adam Brookes

Rumsfeld: Open case

There's a term used often in the military - "command climate".

rumsfeld_getty203b.jpgIt signifies the atmosphere that a senior leader generates through his language, his behaviour, his attitude. The command climate seeps down from the top and influences the way the entire chain of command makes its decisions.

The command climate that Donald Rumsfeld generated in the Pentagon was unforgiving. He questioned everything and everybody.

His memos - known as "Rummy's snowflakes" because they came in blizzards - would have officers at their wits' end.

Major General John Batiste, after he retired, called him "arrogant" and "abusive".

Bob Woodward, in his book State of Denial, recounts seeing the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Richard Myers, with his head in his hands after another meeting with Sec Def.

An army major I once met said bluntly: "Rumsfeld hates us, he hates the army." I think that few in the uniformed military will be sad to see him gone.

But Rumsfeld saw himself as crusading against military inertia and conservatism. He loathed what he saw as the military's addiction to outmoded, expensive weapons platforms and its desire to fight only the wars it already knew how to fight.

In common with many of President Bush's advisers, he believed that America should not respond to the world, it should transform the world. For Rumsfeld that meant transforming the military, Afghanistan, Iraq, the very environment in which America's adversaries operate worldwide.

It will be a long time before history reaches a stable verdict on Donald Rumsfeld's second tenure as Secretary of Defense.

Many of his decisions will be condemned. His inability to ensure control Baghdad immediately after US troops stormed into the city will, I imagine, be reviled.

But his understanding of the threats that America faces today, and his instincts as to how America should answer them, will be the subject of long debate.

Foreign-affairs crisis

The wisdom – if such a thing exists as the polls open – is that the Democrats will take the House of Representatives, but they probably won’t take the Senate.

If the wisdom proves correct and the House falls to the Democrats, what would it mean for the rest of the world?

theteam_story_ap.jpgWell, possibly not much, it seems to me.

Congress has little weight in the formulation of specific foreign and national security policies. Those get set by the executive branch of government – the administration.

The future of America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the responses to Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes are being decided in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the Department of State and the White House.

(One important caveat: there is said to be an intense and important discussion on Iraq and what on earth to do about it taking place between a bipartisan group of Senators. But that may be the exception that proves the rule.)

If the Democrats win the House, they will have some tools with which to confront the White House.

They could threaten to cut off funding for foreign policies they don’t like by voting down spending bills that are funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.

They can haul political appointees like Donald Rumsfeld over the coals in Congressional hearings.

And they can create a political atmosphere which makes it very difficult for the president to do his job.

But what a huge political risks these options bring. What Democrat would want to be seen cutting off funding for troops in the field? Or bringing down members of the president’s cabinet in the middle of a war? Or creating a ferocious partisan atmosphere which leads to political paralysis?

Two years before a presidential election, the last thing the Democrats want is to open themselves up to accusations of being defeatist or incompetent on national security.

I talked to a senior American diplomat at the weekend – one not involved in Iraq or Middle East policy. He was deeply pessimistic about American foreign policy in the short to medium term. “We’re adrift,” he said.

The elections seemed suddenly to fade in significance. America’s foreign-policy crisis – and it is thought to be a crisis by many in the diplomatic and intelligence communities – won’t be solved by emboldened Congressional Democrats.

Shifting debate

The US ambassador to Iraq, 'Zal' Khalilzad, and General George Casey, the commander of US and multinational forces in Iraq, went on air this morning.

caseykhalil_203bap.jpgTheir take on the situation was strikingly different from much of what one hears in Washington. According to General Casey, Iraqi armed forces should be ready to take over responsibility for security in Iraq in 12 to 18 months. According to the ambassador, a "national compact" for Iraq - in essence a new political framework for the country's future - will be in place in a year.

Their assumptions: that the effort in Iraq will continue; that success is still achievable; that the building blocks are being put in place for a "multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian, democratic Iraq". They appeared purposeful and committed.

Meanwhile, Senator John Warner told us a couple of weeks ago that Iraq is "drifting sideways", and that the US Congress faces some "tough" choices in the next three months. Washington is fizzing with anticipation over the possibility that the Bush administration will announce a significant change in Iraq policy early in the new year.

Were Mr Khalilzad and Gen Casey put up there for political reasons? Certainly their gravitas and apparent resolve might strengthen the sense among voters that all is not lost in Iraq. And they'll shift the headlines - for today, at least - away from the morose debate in Washington.

The Iraq problem

I took my kids to the zoo on a beautiful fall afternoon. It was teeming, Latino families picnicking in warm sunlight, tourists from China waiting for the pandas, a huge church group from the Midwest.

I bought popcorn and we gawped at the elephants.

In the crowd, I caught sight of a young man with a high-and-tight military haircut. He wore the black Iraq veteran's T-shirt. Where his right arm should have been, a stump protruded. He stood stock still for a long time, then wandered away. He seemed utterly alone.

The war spreads across public discussion of these elections like a stain. Yet still, it seems to me, the war has few tangible consequences for most Americans. Gas prices are down, the Dow is up, American society continues on its vibrant, eclectic way. Unless you are serving, or a member of your family is serving, Iraq is an abstract problem.

About Adam Brookes

I report for BBC TV, radio and online on US national security.

Before coming to Washington, I reported from China for six years as the BBC's Beijing correspondent, and from Indonesia as Jakarta correspondent. Reporting assignments have taken me to Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Burma and many other countries.

I've a degree in Chinese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, and have been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University.

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