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November 09, 2006

Tuesday's vote was as close to a national referendum as it's possible to get, and the result was so clear that President Bush had no choice but to recognize the verdict. Anger over Iraq put the Democrats into power on Capitol Hill, and put Donald H. Rumsfeld out of his job at the Pentagon.

Congress can't on its own dictate a new policy in Iraq, but the political dynamic let loose on Election Day makes it next to impossible for the president to stick with his current program, even if he no longer calls it staying the course. His nominee to replace Mr. Rumsfeld as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, comes from deep within the "realist" wing of the Republican Party (to which the president's father also belongs). This is a faction that was skeptical at best of the war before it began and now may offer the most plausible hope of finding a way out of it, given the current occupant of the White House. Mr. Gates served on the Iraq Study Group led by Lee H. Hamilton and James A. Baker III - the ultimate realist - and the upcoming report by that panel now takes on added importance. Mr. Baker has said that they'll not be talking about pressing on with the same discredited approach that has marked the past three years.

Mr. Rumsfeld is a man so sure of himself that he appeared to be incapable of grasping how much damage he was causing his country. The war in Iraq has left the U.S. perilously ill-equipped to advance its interests throughout the world, which causes the realists no end of dismay. But, tellingly, the neoconservatives who so enthusiastically promoted the war in 2003 came to despise the defense secretary, because they felt he had ruined what should have been a beautiful project. They're wrong in thinking that the remaking of Iraq could have been a success, but they're right in accusing Mr. Rumsfeld of doing a particularly bad job at it anyway.

The Bush administration is not keen to admit mistakes; the Democrats taking leadership positions in Congress will most likely have to bring constant pressure to bear to ensure a change of direction on Iraq. But it's hardly thinkable that they'll be reluctant to do so. Democratic control of even one house of Congress means that, after all these years, there will be a check on the wanton abuse - and misuse - of power by the Bush administration. Perhaps nowhere is this more crucial than in Iraq. And it's the people's choice.

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