The New York Times carried a wonderful report of how Hashim al-Menti brought the news of Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation as US defence secretary to the group of US Marines occupying his house in Iraq’s Anbar province. “Rumsfeld is gone,” he said. One of the Marines replied, “Who’s Rumsfeld?”
Mr Menti, better informed politically than the US soldiers supposedly bringing him democracy, explained the significance of last week’s mid-term Congressional elections to them: “I think in one year you return to America… People in America are very happy. I saw this on TV. And I am very happy. Thank you, American people.”
To quote George Bush himself, the Republicans got an electoral “thumping”. The war in Iraq played a decisive role in this defeat. Some 56 percent of voters supported a total or partial withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Some 41 percent of those who backed the Democrats cited disquiet over Iraq as the main reason for their vote.
But how much will change as a result of the elections? The Democratic leadership in the Senate and the House of Representatives have repeatedly said they will not cut off funding for the war.
Many of their successful candidates are people who share the Republicans’ “social conservatism” on issues such as abortion and gay rights. Jim Webb, whose victory in Virginia gave the Democrats a majority in the Senate, served as secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan.
And this majority includes Joseph Lieberman, whose support for the war lost him the Democratic primary in Connecticut but who won the general election with the tacit support of the Republicans.
The Democrats remain the second party of US imperialism. Nevertheless there may be a small shift on economic issues.
The Democrats made much of the plight of what Lawrence Summers, Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, calls the “anxious middle”. These are what in most countries would be called working class people with relatively well paid and secure jobs. Under Bush they have been squeezed economically.
In his victory speech Webb said, “At a time when profits are at a record high and wages are at a low, we will focus on bridging the class divide.” The Democrats support an increase in the minimum wage and are likely to deny Bush the authority to sign any more free trade deals, which they blame for threatening US wages and jobs.
This leaves the question of Iraq. Bush nominated Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld as defence secretary. Gates served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior in the 1980s and early 1990s.
He is a career CIA man who ended up as Director of Central Intelligence under Bush senior. He was accused of massaging intelligence about the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev to suit the ideological predelictions of the Republican right.
Gates was also a member of the Iraq Study Group. This elite, bipartisan commission, headed up by Jim Baker, secretary of state under Bush senior, is due to report after Christmas.
The Washington Post described Gates’s nomination as marking the victory of the “old hands from the family firm” over the neoconservatives. Baker and other veterans of the elder Bush’s administration publicly warned against invading Iraq in 2002-3.
Gates, described by one expert as a “conservative realist”, has, like Baker, advocated talking to Iran, a policy shift that is anathema to the neocons. Apparently Bush had decided to sack Rumsfeld a month or two ago but to wait till after the mid-term elections - a decision that has been criticised by Republicans for losing them seats.
This suggests that the cabinet reshuffle, like the Iraq Study Group, is part of an elaborate dance through which the US ruling class recalibrates its options in Iraq. The Pentagon is conducting a review of its entire strategy.
But it is still unlikely that this will lead to a rapid large scale withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The Middle East is too important for the US just to run to the exit, unless there really is no alternative. Alas, Mr Menti is going to be disappointed.