Neocons take complete control

George W. Bush continues to purge his administration of those who advised caution in Iraq, while Dick Cheney wrests power from a wobbly Condoleezza Rice.

Published December 30, 2004 11:09PM (EST)

The transition to President Bush's second term, filled with backstage betrayals, plots and pathologies, would make for an excellent chapter of "I, Claudius." To begin with, I have learned from numerous sources, including several people close to Brent Scowcroft, that Bush has unceremoniously and without public acknowledgment dumped Scowcroft, his father's closest associate and friend, as chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. The elder Bush's national security advisor was the last remnant of traditional Republican realism permitted to exist within the administration. But no longer. At the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney has imposed his authority over Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice, in order to blackball Arnold Kanter, former undersecretary of state to James Baker, and partner in the Scowcroft Group, as a candidate for deputy secretary of state.

"Words like 'incoherent' come to mind," one top State Department official told me about Rice's effort to organize her office. She is unable to assert herself against Cheney, her wobbliness a sign that the State Department will mostly be sidelined as a power center for the next four years. The neoconservatives' attempt to force their favorites on Rice and her failure to accede to their every demand is one motive ascribed to Cheney's veto of Kanter.

Rice may have wanted to appoint as deputy her old friend Robert Blackwill, whom she had put in charge of Iraq at the NSC. But Blackwill, a mercurial personality with a volcanic temper, allegedly physically assaulted a female U.S. Foreign Service officer in Kuwait and was forced to resign in November. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage assembled the evidence against Blackwill and presented it to Rice. "Condi only dismissed him after Powell and Armitage threatened to go public," a State Department source close to Powell told me.

Meanwhile, key senior State Department professionals, with long, promising careers presumably ahead of them, such as Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, have abruptly resigned. According to their colleagues, who have chosen to remain (at least for now), they foresee the damage that will be done as Rice is charged with whipping the State Department into line with the White House and Pentagon neocons. Floundering, Rice has pleaded with Armitage to stay on for a while. But "he colorfully said he would not," a State Department official told me. Rice's radio silence when her former mentor, Scowcroft, was defenestrated, was taken by the State Department professionals as a sign of things to come.

Bush has borne resentment against his father's alter ego since before Scowcroft privately rebuked him for his Iraq follies more than a year ago -- an incident that has not previously been reported. Bush "did not receive it well," said a friend of Scowcroft's. In "A World Transformed," the elder Bush's 1998 memoir, coauthored with Scowcroft, they explained why the then-president decided not to seize Baghdad in the Gulf War: "Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." In the run-up to the Iraq war, Scowcroft wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal warning of the danger. Bush derided him, according to conservative biographers Peter and Rachel Schweizer in "The Bushes": "Scowcroft has become a pain in the ass in his old age," they quoted Bush. The Schweizers write, "Although he never went public with them, the president's own father shared many of Scowcroft's concerns." Despite his belief that the younger Bush's policies were disastrous, Scowcroft publicly supported him for reelection mainly out of loyalty to the father.

The rejection of Kanter is a compound rejection of Scowcroft and James Baker -- the tough, cunning, results-oriented operator who as White House chief of staff saved the Reagan presidency from its ideologues, managed the elder Bush's successful campaign in 1988, and was summoned by the family in 2000 to rescue George W. in Florida. When all else failed (the voters, for example), Baker arranged the outcome that put Bush in the Oval Office. In the 1995 memoir of his years as secretary of treasury and state, Baker observed that in the Gulf War the administration's "one overriding strategic concern was to avoid what we often referred to as the Lebanonization of Iraq, which we believed would create a geopolitical nightmare." In private, Baker is scathing about the current occupant of the White House, people who have spoken with him have recently related to me. Now the one indispensable creator of the Bush family political fortunes is repudiated.

Those Republican elders who warned of endless war are purged. And those who advised Bush that Saddam was building nuclear weapons, that with a light military force the operation would be a "cakewalk," that capturing Baghdad was a "mission accomplished," and that the Iraqi army should be disbanded, are rewarded.

Powell, the outgoing secretary of state fighting his last battle, a rearguard action against his own administration on behalf of his tattered reputation, is leaking stories to the Washington Post about how his advice went unheeded. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose heart beats with the compassion of a crocodile, clings to his job by staging Florence Nightingale-like tableaux of hand-holding the wounded, while declaiming into the desert wind about "victory." Since the election, 203 U.S. soldiers have been killed and 1,674 wounded.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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