Within hours of the November 7 mid-term US congressional elections, in which voters expressed their disaffection with the US-led war in Iraq by ousting a raft of Republican legislators, US war secretary Donald Rumsfeld fell on his sword, handing President George Bush his resignation.
Assessing the congressional election results, Associated Press reported on November 8 that exit polls showed that "voters said the economy, terrorism, corruption and Iraq were most important in their choices. Almost six in 10 disapproved of the war in Iraq, and they overwhelmingly voted for Democrats. A solid majority of voters said the US should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq."
For the first time since 1994, the Democrats — who presented themselves as opponents of Bush's "stay-the-course" policy on the Iraq war — will have a majority in the houses of Congress.
AP observed: "Even though he will be a lame duck, Bush still maintains significant power — he can veto Democratic bills he doesn't like and he continues as commander in chief during a time of war. But Democrats said they considered the election an overwhelming rejection of the war in Iraq and — by extension — the president who started it."
However, in reporting Rumsfeld's resignation, the November 9 Chicago Tribune observed that "Democrats in particular made Rumsfeld — and not particularly the war in Iraq — a main campaign issue" as the election neared.
Calls for Rumsfeld's resignation were also made on the eve of the congressional elections in an editorial jointly published by the privately owned military dailies Army Times, Navy Times, Marine Corps Times and Air Force Times, which are sold on every US military base.
Addressing a media briefing on November 8, Bush said: "I know there's a lot of speculation on what the election means for the battle we're waging in Iraq. I recognise that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made there …"
Bush said he had asked former CIA director Bob Gates to fill the vacancy left by Rumsfeld's resignation. Rumsfeld will continue to serve as defence secretary until the Senate confirms Gates' appointment. Bush refused to answer reporters' questions about whether the election result or Gates' replacement of Rumsfeld meant the administration would take a "new direction" in the Iraq war, as called for by the Democrats. Instead, he repeated his initial statement that Gates would bring a "fresh perspective" on achieving "victory" in the war.
Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group, set up by Congress with Bush's approval. The ISG is headed by James Baker III, George Bush senior's secretary of state and a senior partner at Baker Botts, the law firm for ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Occidental Oil, all of which have major business interests in the Persian Gulf.
The ISG is due to report soon on options for how Washington can make "progress" in defeating the anti-occupation guerrilla war being waged by Iraqis.
"There are a number of options between keeping 160,000 troops on the ground and just pulling out", James Dobbins, a Rand Corporation adviser to the ISG, told the November 8 Christian Science Monitor. "Given the unpopularity on either side of having our troops in Iraq, we're going to have to constitute a presence that can be sustained for some years to come", Dobbin added.
Michael Gerson, a former Bush aide now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, told the paper the administration is "genuinely open to the Baker commission recommendations", so as "to refine their approach in ways that will build bipartisan support" in Congress.
The CSM reported that among the options being considered by the ISG is "a new diplomatic push" to get Syria and Iran (accused by Washington of aiding the Iraqi anti-occupation fighters) to help "stabilise the country", greater concentration on "stabilising" Baghdad first, and "reduction of US troop numbers over the next year to a level sustainable among both the American and Iraqi publics".
These last two options however are contradictory, as was indicated last month by General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq. The October 24 Washington Post reported that Casey said "that he may call for more troops to be sent to Baghdad, possibly by increasing the overall US presence in Iraq … It is not clear whether Iraqi or US forces in Iraq, which already are stretched thin, could provide substantially more troops for duty in the capital, however."
The same day's New York Times reported that if "more American troops are assigned to the Baghdad operation, on top of the 15,600 already involved, it would mark a further step back, at least in the short term, from plans for a drawdown in overall American troop levels General Casey set at the beginning of this year. The plan then was to get down to 100,000 troops by the end of the year, if conditions in the war allowed."
Instead, the number of US troops in Iraq has increased over the last few months — from 127,000 in mid-July to 150,000 at the end of October — as the Pentagon has implemented its "stabilise Baghdad first" strategy, now openly acknowledged to have failed.