A long-overdue change in US policy in Iraq was in the making well before Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fell on his sword after the Republican debacle in this week's midterm elections. The signs were obscured by the need for the Bush administration to hang tough during the campaign. The voters were left with a spurious choice between President George W. Bush's 'staying the course' until the war is won, or the 'cut and run' of his opponents. Meanwhile, the country the United States invaded more than 31/2 years ago continues to implode in de facto civil war. Voters clearly did not buy the Bush line. By installing the Democrats in power in Congress, they have signalled that they expect the president to work with his critics to deal with the mess in Iraq and find a way the US can extricate itself with honour. Mr Bush responded swiftly and sensibly by replacing Mr Rumsfeld with former CIA director Robert Gates, a veteran of the administration of Mr Bush's father 14 years ago. Mr Gates is identified with the cautious pragmatism of an earlier era of Republican foreign policy. He has been privately critical of the failure of political and military plans for Iraq. Thus he can be expected to be a catalyst for the change the people have demanded. But he will not be the only important catalyst. The Bush administration had already conceded the need for a change of tactics. Months ago, Mr Bush endorsed the formation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and prominent Democrat Lee Hamilton, which is investigating a new policy for Iraq. Mr Baker is a foreign policy realist who helped shape president George Bush Snr's 1991 Iraq policy and played a big part in the last big round of Middle East peacemaking the same year. A trusted friend and adviser to the Bush family, Mr Baker privately opposed the Iraq invasion and is critical of the neo-conservatives. Mr Bush can be expected to listen to Mr Baker because he has run out of options. 'Cut and run' is a recipe for a full-blown civil war that could develop into a regional conflict. But Mr Bush's policy is failing. The new defence secretary is a member of Mr Baker's panel debating new approaches to the war. He will therefore be in a position to influence its recommendations and see that they are followed through. So it is not surprising that Mr Bush has made it clear that he sees Mr Gates as someone who can bring a badly needed new perspective to the final two years of his presidential term. The recommendations of Mr Baker's group will shape the coming policy debate. The direction is clear, if not the detail. In a preliminary report, he has talked of a regional approach involving an internal political negotiation in Iraq and dialogue with its troublesome neighbours, Syria and Iran. Mr Baker has already met privately with Iranian and Syrian diplomats to explore the possibility of a regional dialogue. This is a radical alternative to Mr Rumsfeld's policies. One is needed, given the daily civilian carnage in Iraq and the growing toll of American lives. The collapse of Iraqi civil society after the removal of Saddam Hussein may not have been anticipated, but the under-manning of US occupation forces and the lack of planning for a postwar Iraq are now widely blamed by civilian and military critics alike for the seemingly inevitable disaster. Mr Rumsfeld failed and Mr Bush had no choice but to let him go. It is easy to say now, in hindsight, that he was wrong to have stood by him in previous crises of confidence, notably the scandal over the abuse of prisoners by American military guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. His successor is well-connected and well-suited with his long experience in intelligence to lead the military campaign against insurgency and terrorism. One of Mr Gates' first tasks will be to restore the confidence of military leaders that their political masters are willing to listen to honest and frank advice on what has gone horribly wrong in Iraq.