The departure of the number three man at the Defense Department, announced by the Pentagon last Wednesday, January 26, was the latest hint that President George W. Bush is moving foreign policy in a more centrist direction.
Combined with several other personnel shifts, as well as a concerted effort to reassure the public and U.S. allies abroad that last week's messianic inaugural address did not portend any dramatic new foreign policy departures, the resignation of undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith suggests that the administration is deliberately shedding its sharper and more radical edges.
The fact that undersecretary of state for arms control and international security John Bolton, who had hoped to be promoted to deputy secretary of state under Condoleezza Rice, has still not been assigned a new job has contributed to that impression.
Like Feith, Bolton, the administration's most outspoken exponent of unilateralism, has generally been regarded as an extremist on key issues such as Iraq, the International Criminal Court (ICC), Iran and other nuclear proliferation issues that have wreaked havoc on U.S. ties with its European allies.
Rice's decision to appoint trade representative Robert Zoellick as her deputy and to rely on career diplomats for other top spots - rather than political appointees, as urged by Vice President Dick Cheney and the neo-conservatives - suggests strongly that the State Department will remain a realist redoubt in Bush's second term. But other key vacancies remain up in the air.
While Feith's hardline neo-conservative backers, including his mentor, former Defense Policy Board (DPB) chair Richard Perle, insisted that his decision to leave the administration was made solely for "personal and family reasons," many analysts dismiss that explanation, citing his well-known ideological zeal.
"They decided to get rid him of long ago but were afraid that doing so would have been seen as a tacit admission that Bush screwed up in Iraq," says one administration official.
He adds that Feith's authority over policy had been gradually reduced over the past 18 months due to complaints about his performance from Congress, the military and Washington's coalition partners in Iraq - particularly British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, according to one source, had asked Bush to remove Feith well over a year ago.
As undersecretary, Feith played a critical role in the run-up to the Iraq war. Two offices established under his authority, the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans (OSP), became particularly controversial.
The former reportedly reviewed "raw intelligence" gathered by the official intelligence agencies and Iraqi exiles in order to try to establish the existence of links between Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda that could be cited by the administration in its case for going to war.
The resulting product - which was subsequently leaked to the neo-conservative Weekly Standard - was then "stovepiped" to Cheney's office and from there into the White House, thus circumventing review by professional analysts. The OSP became the administration's lead agency for preparing both the Iraq invasion and the subsequent occupation. Many blame Washington's total failure to anticipate the Iraq insurgency on Feith's work.
Feith's competence - both with regard to his assumptions about the region and his strategic knowledge - was also repeatedly questioned by the uniformed military. In Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's book about the Iraq war, Plan Of Attack, Lt. Gen. Tommy Franks, who was in charge of the operation, famously called Feith the "dumbest fucking guy on the planet."
As the Iraq occupation started going badly in the summer of 2003, Feith began losing influence. By that fall, Rice created an Iraq Strategy Group based in the White House and led by Robert Blackwill to essentially wrest control of occupation policy from Feith and the Pentagon.
Feith's position was also undermined last summer when it was disclosed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating whether one of his analysts had given classified material - specifically, a sensitive document on U.S. Iran policy - to an Israeli diplomat via the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful lobby group. A grand jury in the case has since been impanelled and AIPAC's offices have been subjected to two searches.