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Bush sees light - years too late

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA -- The Bush White House seems driven by a secret doctrine that has gotten little public attention: the Doctrine of Two Years Too Late.

Over and over, in recent months, the Bush team has adopted policies it rejected two, three or four years ago, when those policies might have made a difference.

You might say that two years too late is better than never. But it's tragic to see the administration adopt sensible policies now that might have saved the day in Iraq and elsewhere had they been ushered in earlier.

To see how this doctrine has played out, you need only look at our shifting Iraq policies. Back in 2003, experts warned that the disbanding of the Iraqi army by U.S. officials would create a massive pool of angry, armed Sunnis. Ditto for the administration's broad de-Baathification campaign, which ousted tens of thousands of Iraqis who had belonged to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Now U.S. officials are pressing the Iraqi government to recruit back those very same army officers. U.S. officials also are pushing the Iraqis to invite many former Baathists back to work in hopes of undercutting the Sunni insurgency.

In other words, the administration is reversing the core of its early Iraq policy. But the damage has been done. It's much harder to undo than it would have been years ago.

Another glaring example: the shifting Pentagon policy toward our armed forces. The new troop surge in Iraq is meant to implement classic counterinsurgency doctrine. The goal is to win the hearts and minds of the population while taking out insurgents.

We all know that the White House was unwilling to provide the additional troops needed to stabilize Iraq after the invasion. What you may not know is that U.S. military commanders, notably Gen. David Petraeus, urged in 2003 that Washington apply counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq. Back then, no one at the White House was listening.

With Iraq imploding, light has finally dawned on Pennsylvania Avenue. President Bush has sent General Petraeus to command all U.S. troops in Iraq and implement the tactics he recommended in 2003. But General Petraeus faces a far worse situation. Again, the shift is years late.

The doctrine also applies to the recent White House decision to expand our armed forces. This is a 180-degree turn from the policies of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. But the policy reversal comes too late to prevent the severe degradation of our Army and Marine Corps.

These shifts in policy and top personnel were forced on the White House by policy failures and by the 2006 elections. It would be nice to think, however, that the White House recognizes the damage wreaked by the doctrine. It would be a relief to see the White House reversing bad policy while the shift could still do some good.

But all signs are that the doctrine is still alive and well in the White House. The continuing dissension between Vice President Dick Cheney and other major Bush foreign-policy players undercuts recent policy reversals. It cements in place policies that need to be revised. The prime case in point is Iraq, where military action alone can't stabilize the country. The administration has failed to push the intense regional diplomacy essential to contain Iraq's sectarian war. Nor has it recognized that Iraq can't be stabilized without U.S.-Iranian cooperation.

Unless President Bush junks this debilitating doctrine, his successor will inherit a virulent Mideast mess in 2009. By then the prospects for a stable Mideast will have shrunk, as will American influence.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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