It’s a thumping defeat, says Bush

President pledges ‘fresh perspective’ on Iraq; replaces Rumsfeld with ex-CIA chief.

CONCEDING that his Republican Party got a “thumping” in the mid-term elections, a humbled President George W. Bush pledged a “fresh perspective” on Iraq.

But he stopped short of calling for an immediate withdrawal of United States troops from the country.

Mr Bush was speaking at a White House press conference where he announced that he would replace a key architect of the Iraq war, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The dramatic turn of events came a day after Tuesday’s mid-term election, and a week after the beleaguered leader publicly declared his support for Mr Rumsfeld.

Huge Republican losses made it obvious that the American people were voting mainly for change in direction in Iraq.

Vote counting wound down in the last close race in the state of Virginia yesterday. It showed that the electorate had handed control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats.

The final figures would give them 49 seats in the powerful 100-seat Senate to 49 seats for the Republicans.

But the two remaining seats were captured by independent candidates who are both aligned with the Democrats. That will mark the first time in 12 years that they control both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Confronted with that double whammy, Mr Bush moved quickly. After announcing Mr Rumsfeld’s departure, he named Mr Robert Gates, a former Central Intelligence Agency chief, as the new Defence Secretary.

Mr Gates sits on a 10-man bipartisan commission that is reviewing options for a withdrawal of US troops as Sunni resistance hardens and American influence wanes in Iraq.

While appearing conciliatory, the President also put up a front of bravado that sent mixed signals to his critics on Iraq.

He sought to brush aside suggestions that there would be a sudden US withdrawal even though the current policy was “not working well enough, fast enough”.

“I recognise that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made there,” he told reporters.

“I can understand Americans saying, ‘Come home’. But I don’t know if they said, ‘Come home and leave behind an Iraq that could end up being a safe haven for Al-Qaeda.’ I don’t believe they said that. And so, I am committed to victory.” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice maintained that “Iraq has to be successful for America to be secure”.

In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times just hours after Mr Rumsfeld’s resignation, she made clear that while “American commitment to the goals that took us to Iraq remains”, there would clearly be “adjustments to our policy”.

She said: “The American people clearly were voting for change as the President said. But the American people were not voting for anything less than a success in Iraq.

“And the President has made it very clear that we will certainly make adjustments to our policy, we will certainly look to new ideas, for instance, from the Baker-Hamilton Commission. He believes, along with Secretary Rumsfeld, that it is time for a new leadership…Mr Gates will come with fresh eyes.”

The Democrats, despite controlling two chambers in Congress, face the hard reality that the President remains the arbiter-in-chief of US foreign policy. They are also torn apart by differences over how to deal with the problem. As such, both parties have an incentive now to reach some form of accommodation.

Ms Nancy Pelosi – poised to be the highest-ranking woman in American politics and third in line for the presidency as the new House Speaker – noted that the election demonstrated the public’s desire for change.

“This vote was the voice of the American people, who rejected the President’s policy of staying the course on Iraq,” she said. “President Bush got the message and his move signals change.”

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