Old Hands From the Family Business
Friday, November 10, 2006
Nine months after invading Iraq, President Bush told an interviewer that he did not turn to his father for strength. "There is a higher father that I appeal to," he said. Nearly three years later, Bush may be appealing to his earthly father as well. Or at least to his people.
With the war in Iraq going badly and Congress captured by the opposition, a commander in chief who has labored to demonstrate independence from his presidential father is now seeking help from some key veterans of George H.W. Bush's team to salvage the remainder of his own administration.
A day after suffering a "thumping" in midterm elections, the president ousted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a longtime rival of his father's, and replaced him with Robert M. Gates, his father's CIA director. And the president has invested great hope in James A. Baker III, his father's friend and secretary of state, to come up with a plan to correct the course in Iraq in a blue-ribbon commission report due as soon as next month.
"It certainly looks as if there is the handprint of Bush 41," said retired Army Col. F.W. "Bill" Smullen, a close aide to former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, using the nickname for the former president. The big question, though, is whether the change is real or simply a post-election gesture, added Smullen, now director of national security studies at Syracuse University. "With the changes in the Congress, it is going to have to be more than just window dressing."
The relationship between the 41st and 43rd presidents has been a source of running commentary and speculation for six years. The son has often seemed to go out of his way to identify himself with Ronald Reagan rather than his father, and his personnel and policy choices have often seemed at odds with the philosophy of the earlier Bush administration.
If the father was the patriarch of the realist school of foreign policy that aims to manage a combustible international order, the son brought to power neoconservatives who want to remake the world and spread democracy. The president has given speech after speech assailing past administrations for accepting tyranny in the Middle East in the belief that stability equaled security, a thesis that he says exploded tragically on Sept. 11, 2001.
The elder Bush was reported to have been skeptical of the way the younger Bush launched the war in Iraq in 2003 -- reports that were fueled in part by public comments before the invasion by Baker and Brent Scowcroft, the former president's national security adviser and close friend. Scowcroft later broke entirely with the current administration and was eased off the president's foreign intelligence advisory board.
Both Bushes get angry, however, at public suggestions of a rift, and some close to them say the Washington chattering class assumes far more than it knows. In this view, comments such as the "higher father" remark, made to journalist Bob Woodward, have been over-interpreted and exaggerated. Many people who serve in the current administration also served in the father's, including Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, belying the notion of competing camps.
Even if the theory about Bush family tension is overwrought, though, the existence of some type of rival factions has been a constant subtext of the current administration. The turn to representatives of the old GOP establishment, such as Baker and Gates, whether it has anything to do with paternal relations or not, has sent a signal that Washington perceives as a bid to bring more pragmatism to policymaking.
"I don't think anybody consciously said, 'Geez, let's bring the old team in,' " said one senior official in the Bush 41 White House. "I frankly think it's a natural default from the failure of the advice of the people they had. It was impossible to argue anymore that some of the people who got us into this mess were giving good advice."
James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the Heritage Foundation, said the emergence of Baker and Gates was a way to reach out to Democrats to forge a bipartisan consensus on what to do now in Iraq. "It's a sincere effort on the president's part to take politics off the table," he said. "These are both trusted guys who were never seen as especially political figures."
Even Scowcroft, once frozen out, has had some entree to the administration again in recent months. After writing an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in July advocating a comprehensive resolution of Middle East conflict, Scowcroft had dinner with Rice. She said the president would be interested in his ideas and suggested that he send Bush the column, according to people familiar with the situation.