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 two or more years earlier.
And the White House is still pushing policies on the Middle East that the next president will have to reverse when he takes office - when it probably will be too late.
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 (membership was a prerequisite for holding almost any skilled job).
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 four, three, or even two 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 Petraeus to command all U.S. troops in Iraq and implement the tactics he recommended in 2003. But Petraeus faces a far worse, civil war situation. Again, the shift is four, three, two years late.
The doctrine also applies to the recent White House decision - finally - to expand our armed forces. This is a 180-degree turn from the policies of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He has been replaced by the pragmatic Robert M. Gates, who realizes you can't fight a large-scale war while reducing the size of the army. But the policy reversal comes too late to prevent the severe degradation of our Army and Marine Corps.
Another blatant example of the doctrine: the reversal of U.S. policy on North Korea. President Bush junked the Clinton Korea policy, which had frozen the North's plutonium production. For more than three years, U.S. officials engaged in multilateral talks with North Korea, but were not allowed to have bilateral talks. When the White House reversed course and permitted bilateral talks, an agreement was quickly reached - in February 2007.
By then, North Korea had amassed enough plutonium to make about eight nuclear weapons and had tested a bomb. The course reversal came too late.
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 Cheney and other major Bush foreign-policy players undercuts recent policy reversals. It cements in place policies that need to be revised.
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.
It will be two years too late to recoup from mistakes being made now.