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George Bush smooths path for Hillary
by Sarah Baxter    Times Online
Entered into the database on Sunday, October 07th, 2007 @ 21:49:42 MST


Untitled Document BUSH administration officials are paving the way for a smooth transition to a possible Democratic presidency as Hillary Clinton consolidates her position as the overwhelming favourite to win her party’s nomination for the 2008 election.

Clinton has powered her way to the top of the Democratic pack, establishing a 33-point lead in one poll last week over Barack Obama, her nearest rival.

She raised $7m more than Obama in the last quarter and attracted more individual contri-butors than the Illinois senator, proving her popularity with grassroots Democrats.

With Clinton looking the near-inevitable nominee, Bush officials intend to hold her to her promise to be tough on defence and national security. Robert Gates, the defence secretary, is hoping to establish a bipartisan consensus on defence that will last beyond next year’s election.

In the clearest sign of a shift in gear, Gates is to appoint John Hamre, a former official in President Bill Clinton’s administration, to chair the Defense Policy Board once led by Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative advocate of the invasion of Iraq. The board’s job will be to prepare for the transition to a new administration in 2008, according to a Pentagon spokesman.

Hamre, who was Bill Clinton’s deputy defence secretary in the 1990s, has been highly critical of the conduct of the war on terror. In The Washington Post last year he wrote: “The policies that led to Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, secret renditions and warrantless wiretaps have undermined America’s towering moral authority.”

In common with Gates, Hamre is sceptical about the value of the Iraq troop surge. He recently served on a bipartisan commission on Iraq chaired by James Jones, the former Nato commander. In evidence to Congress last month, Hamre said: “Absent political reconciliation, it’s hard to see how this [the war] ends well.”

However, Hamre, who heads the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, also argued that America “will be hurt if we crawl out or run out of Iraq”. He believes the next president should maintain a vital but scaled-down presence in the country in order to oversee the training of Iraqi security forces and to “direct operations against known bad guys”.

Lawrence Korb, a defence expert at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, described Hamre’s imminent appointment as a “brilliant move” which would mark a dramatic break with Perle’s era. “Most people think the next president will be a Democrat and Gates, who has been around for a long time, believes it is his job to ensure that national security is not affected,” Korb said.

Clinton has been sidestepping calls to pull US troops out of Iraq if she wins, sticking to a broader promise to begin a phased withdrawal. In a recent television interview, the New York senator refused to state that all US combat troops would leave Iraq by the end of her first term in office. She voted in the Senate last month to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation.

Perle believes that Clinton might be prepared to order military strikes against Iran if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad takes Tehran’s nuclear programme to the brink. “If President Clinton is informed in March 2009 that we’ve got ironclad intelligence that if we don’t act within the next 30 days it’s going to be too late, I wouldn’t begin to predict what she would do,” Perle said. “Nobody wants to act before it is absolutely essential . . . but things can change very quickly.”

Perle is generous about the appointment of Hamre, arguing that the Defense Policy Board has a tradition of bipartisanship. “He’s an experienced professional and a very good choice,” Perle said, noting that George W Bush had kept on George Tenet, a Clinton appointee, as CIA chief after winning the 2000 election.

Bush believes Clinton will win the Democratic nomination and has privately advised her not to voice antiwar rhetoric on Iraq that she may come to regret, according to a new book, The Evangelical President, by Bill Sammon. “It’s different being a candidate and being the president,” Bush said. “No matter who the president is, no matter what party, when they sit here in the Oval Office and seriously consider the effect of a vacuum being created in the Middle East . . . they will then begin to understand the need to continue to support the young democracy.”

The Treasury, under Henry “Hank” Paulson, has also been appointing Democrat supporters to senior positions. Robert Novak, the conservative columnist, reported that Paulson last week named Eric Mindich, a leading Democratic fundraiser, for a key role as an adviser on financial markets. One Republican in the Bush administration wrote disapprovingly in an e-mail: “This leads some to wonder whether this Treasury has become the preplaced Hillary Clinton team.”

Clinton’s domination of the Democratic field may prompt her leading opponents to sharpen their rhetoric against her. So far the contest with Obama and John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, has been remarkably civil.

Edwards upped the ante against Clinton last week by attacking links between Mark Penn, her senior adviser and poll-ster, and Blackwater, the private security firm that was accused of recklessly killing 11 Iraqi civilians last month. “We don’t want to replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats,” he said.

Edwards and Obama have rarely criticised Clinton directly by name, but David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager, said his candidate would rather show a “common purpose to our politics rather than divisiveness and political point-scoring”.

It was too soon for Clinton’s coronation, Axelrod said: “How-ard Dean had plenty of momentum in the fall of 2003, when everyone was anointing him the Democratic nominee. I’m happy if the Clintons want to do victory laps in October; I’ll take ours in January and February” when the primary votes are counted.

Obama is still hoping to win the Iowa caucus, where Edwards is also performing well. Michelle Obama, his wife, who will be visiting Britain on a fundraising mission next week, let slip recently: “If Barack doesn’t win Iowa, it’s just a dream.”

Obama upset traditional voters last week by saying that he was against shows of patriotism, such as wearing a pin lapel of the American flag. “I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest,” he said. “Instead I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great.”

Peggy Noonan, President Rea-gan’s former speechwriter, said the Clintons had the Democratic party in a trance. She wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “The Bushes are wired into the Republican money-line system; the Clintons are wired into the Democratic money-line system. For two generations now they have had the same dynamics in play . . . Is this good for our democracy, this air of inevitability?”