What's behind Bush's staff moves

A look at the political maneuverings that this holiday season brought.

Well the world certainly turns.

Take a couple of weeks off from column-writing in what you assume will be the usually quiet holiday season, and boom! – you're overtaken by a veritable tsunami of change in the world of politics, the military, and diplomacy.

Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are entrenched in command of the House and Senate respectively, vowing welcome cooperation with the Republicans. President Bush is singing the same sweet song of political bipartisanship with the Democrats, but the first thing they disagree about is how the US should proceed in Iraq – a not inconsiderable problem. Let's hope there is more meeting of the minds on such major outstanding domestic issues as Social Security, illegal immigration, and alternative energy development.

Given the US habit of beginning presidential campaigns about 18 months before necessary, a slew of hopefuls have signaled their intentions. The customary protocol is to announce coyly that they are setting up "exploratory committees" to see whether or not they actually should announce. In most instances this means: "I'm in with both feet. Send the big money here boys, so we can get going."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is carving out a position to the right of current front-running GOP Sen. John McCain. Former Democratic senator and vice-presidential aspirant John Edwards is carving out a position to the left of the Democrats' current front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

This presumably makes it more difficult for the man who nearly won in 2000, Al Gore, whose confidantes say he has been seriously pondering giving it another shot, to do just that. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is riding a wave of media adulation that makes every other Democratic contender nervous, even though the first-term senator has yet to outline the positions everybody else suspects make him threatening.

On the military front, two respected senior generals, John Abizaid, who headed Central Command, and George Casey, the top military commander in Iraq, are being moved out of these key Iraq war roles. While the rotation of these officers is not considered unusual, it is being interpreted as deck-clearing on the eve of Mr. Bush's announcement of a new US policy direction in Iraq.

General Casey will be succeeded by Gen. David Petraeus, a highly regarded former West Point instructor, and commander of the 101st Airborne Division, who has successfully served previous missions in Iraq. General Abizaid will be succeeded by Adm. William Fallon, head of Pacific Command, an appointment not meeting with universal military enthusiasm.

Perhaps the most intriguing and unpredictable changes in recent days have been in Bush's diplomatic team. John Negroponte, Bush's first director of national intelligence, is to fill the slot of deputy secretary of State. A longtime diplomat, Mr. Negroponte can certainly fulfill his new duties ably. He has apparently gone to his new role willingly, but it is a step down from his cabinet-level post.

Moreover, the deputy often fulfills a caretaker role at home while the secretary of State garners headlines on key missions abroad. This is especially so with charismatic Secretary Condoleezza Rice, who travels the globe with the authority and the confidence of Bush. Although the promotion of a No. 2 to No. 1 at State has happened before, notably in the promotion of Lawrence Eagleburger, a particularly skilled diplomat, it would be unusual for a career foreign service officer like Negroponte to rise to secretary of State.

One cunning backroom thesis behind the Negroponte move involves the upcoming presidential election. Should Senator Clinton be locked in combat with Senator Obama for the Democratic nomination and wrest it from him, she could probably, with gritted teeth, make Obama her vice-presidential running mate to field a formidable ticket.

Despite Ms. Rice's repeated claims that she's not interested in higher elected office, she might, in the Republicans' hour of need, be prevailed upon to run as vice-presidential candidate, to say, John McCain. She would have strong appeal to women and black voters. But she would have to spend long months away from the State Department on the campaign trail. Presto, Negroponte would be a competent and trusted caretaker in the waning months of the Bush presidency.

The world does indeed turn. And with it, men's machinations and maneuverings.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of communications at Brigham Young University. He served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration.

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