While the Democratic candidates battle for the presidential nomination in the first half of next year, Republicans will face a difficult choice of their own.
No, it will not be for the presidential nomination, which George W. Bush adding daily to his unprecedented campaign war chest by hopscotching to various gold-plated fund-raisers has already sewn up.
Rather, the main battle is likely to be over the Number Two spot, specifically over whether Vice President Dick Cheney will be on the ticket.
Officially, all systems are "go" for a Bush-Cheney rerun. Indeed, you can already see "Bush-Cheney" bumper stickers on the enormous vehicles that rumble through the capital's streets.
And in a nationally broadcast television interview last week, Bush himself insisted that, while all cabinet positions are wide open if he wins a second term, Cheney will be the man whose arm he will grasp high over his head at the conclusion of this summer's Republican National Convention in New York, where the ticket is to be formally decided.
But even that has not quashed continuing speculation that Cheney has a large bull's-eye on his back, painted there by Republican "realists," who largely controlled the party through most of the Cold War.
For them, Cheney has become a major liability, not only to Bush's reelection chances, but as the leader of the administration's imperialist faction with the greatest direct influence on Bush himself to U.S. economic and strategic interests abroad as well.
Within the administration, the realists are led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who remains by far the most popular cabinet official. More important players, however, are outside the administration, albeit well within the Bush family circle.
They include top officials of the first Bush administration, including former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who chairs Bush Jr.'s president's foreign intelligence advisory board, and former secretary of state James Baker, who just moved back into the White House as Jr.'s personal envoy charged with persuading Iraq's creditors to forgive tens of billions of dollars of that country's foreign debt.
They also include the former president himself, according to knowledgeable sources who say he has encouraged both Scowcroft and Baker as well as other prominent foreign-policy Republicans like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel to try to get Cheney dumped from the ticket next year.
Cheney, of course, served as Bush Sr.'s defense secretary. In that capacity he clashed frequently with Scowcroft and Baker on key issues, particularly how to deal with then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev he remained distrustful to the end and on US reliance on multilateral institutions like the United Nations.
While the others favored continuity with what is sometimes called a US "hegemony" strategy, where Washington pursues its foreign policy in close consultation with its traditional allies and through multilateral mechanisms, even while acting as the ultimate guarantor of global peace and stability, Cheney leaned more to a unilateralist and frankly imperialist course.
He was urged by then-undersecretary of defense, now deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, and then-Wolfowitz's chief deputy, now the vice president's powerful chief of staff and national security adviser, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
A growing number of analysts have come to see Cheney as the key administration figure in moving the United States to war with Iraq, even sanctioning what Newsweek recently referred to as a "parallel government" that circumvented normal policy-making and intelligence channels to persuade Bush to take unilateral action.
Without Cheney running interference for them, according to this view, the neo-cons and other hawks, will quickly be marginalized in a second Bush term.
While the invasion's quick success boosted Cheney's influence, as well as that of the neo-conservatives in his office and around Rumsfeld, the botch-up of the postwar occupation brought home to the public in the steadily rising number of US casualties created a major opening for the "realists" this autumn, particularly as Bush's poll numbers began falling precipitously, and his top political aide, Karl Rove, sensed disaster.
It was at this time that the administration began wooing Baker to become Bush's personal envoy and that the national security council, under Bush Sr.'s former Soviet specialist Robert Blackwill, began taking more authority for both making and coordinating foreign policy particularly in Iraq largely at the Pentagon's expense.
Shortly after, a series of articles began appearing in the mainstream press questioning Cheney's role in preparing the way to Iraq.
In addition to a Newsweek cover story that noted Cheney's views on the war on terrorism "seem to be shaped by flaky ideologues," a lengthy story in The New Republic, another influential Washington publication, detailed many of his more "far-out" views.
Those included his refusal to accept the painstaking findings of US intelligence agencies that Saddam Hussein did not have a role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center or that an Iraqi intelligence agent had not met with one of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Prague five months before the attacks.
On Capitol Hill, Cheney, as Bush's chief legislative strategist, was having an increasingly difficult time shepherding key legislation, including his pet energy bill, through Congress, while reports of overcharging in Iraq by Halliburton, the construction company that he headed in the 1990s and in which he retains a financial interest, prompted even loyal Republicans to speak out for an investigation.
"Cheney's own actions have made him an unusually inviting target," noted a November Los Angeles Times article, which argued that Cheney's failures and his ties to Halliburton were fueling doubts among Republican lawmakers.
"Cheney may prove to be a bigger domestic liability to Bush than he is a foreign-policy burden," the authors wrote.
To the little extent he appears in public, Cheney displays no doubts about his past role or his future. And this month's capture of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Libya's agreement to dismantle certain weapons programs both followed by significant jumps in Bush's poll standings are being depicted as vindication for the hawks.
Moreover, unlike Rumsfeld, whose wartime cockiness has given way to a more subdued manner in recent months, Cheney remains a picture of confidence and has even hired new staff whose policy views, particularly vis-à-vis "reshaping the Middle East," are clearly on the far-right fringe.
Indeed, violating an informal administration ban on using the word "empire" to describe US policy, Cheney sent out thousands of Christmas cards this year that included a quotation from Benjamin Franklin suggesting that God supports the administration's imperial aims.
"And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" asked the Cheney family's season's greetings.
(Inter Press Service)
Recent columns by Jim Lobe
Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
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