The abrupt replacement of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld by former Central Intelligence Agency Director Robert Gates, combined with the Democratic sweep in last Tuesday’s midterm elections, appears to signal major changes in U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.

A career CIA analyst until his retirement in the early 1990s, Gates, a favorite of both President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft, has shared their “realist” approach to U.S. foreign policy and shown little patience with neoconservatives and aggressive nationalists such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld himself, who dominated the younger Bush’s first term after 9/11 and led the march to war in Iraq.

As recently as two years ago, for example, Gates co-chaired a task force sponsored by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) with Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski that called for a policy of diplomatic and economic engagement with Iran-a policy that was denounced as “appeasement” by a number of prominent neoconservatives.

Indeed, in light of the U.S. election results (in which the Democrats gained a secure majority in the House of Representatives and a narrow majority in the Senate) and Rumsfeld’s departure, both Cheney and his neoconservative supporters, who were already in decline, now appear more marginalized than ever.

“If the trend in the Bush second term is viewed as what a friend of mine once called ‘an imperceptible 180 degree turn’ from neocon ideology to political realism, then this would be a crowning achievement,” according to Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University who worked with Gates in the National Security Council under President Carter. “Viewed from my own knowledge and perspective, I think this is one of the most significant U.S. policy shifts in the past six years,” he said, adding that, among other things, Rumsfeld’s departure and Gates’ ascension would, at the very least, give Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice-like Gates, a Soviet specialist from the realist school-more diplomatic maneuvering room than in the past when she had to contend with both a hostile vice president and secretary of defense. Although apparently discussed for some time, Rumsfeld’s resignation on the heels of the election was no doubt designed at least in part as a sacrificial offering to victorious Democrats. The quagmire in Iraq-for which Rumsfeld was one of the most visible faces-was, according to both pre-election and exit polls, probably the single-most important factor in what Bush himself called a Republican “thumping.”

“At a minimum, Rumsfeld’s departure buys the president time to adjust Iraq and other policies without the newly empowered Democrats screaming for blood,” according to Chris Nelson, editor of the private insider newsletter “The Nelson Report.” “But they will start to do that pretty soon, if nothing coherent seems to be happening.”

In his first post-election statement, Bush vowed to find “common ground” with the Democrats on Iraq, as well as other issues-a promise that seemed inconceivable just a month ago when he and Cheney were accusing the opposition party of wanting to “cut and run” from Iraq.

For their part, the new Democratic leadership-the House Speaker-to-be Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the likely new Majority Leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)-called for a national summit on Iraq policy.

Many Democrats, if not most, including Pelosi, believe that Washington should begin “redeploying” the 140,000-plus troops from Iraq and setting timetables for an eventual withdrawal over the next one to two years in order to reduce the mounting costs in blood and treasure of the U.S. intervention, extricate Washington from what appears to be a growing sectarian civil war, and put pressure on the Iraqi government and its various factions to prevent one.

In fact, however, both parties are likely now to defer to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), a bipartisan, congressionally appointed task force co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Lee Hamilton, which is supposed to release its report between now and some time in early 2007.

Significantly, Gates is a Republican member of the ISG which, under Baker’s guidance, met in September with senior representatives of Iran and Syria, governments that have been boycotted diplomatically by the Bush administration. Those meetings prompted strong speculation that the ISG is almost certain to include engaging both Tehran and Damascus as one of its recommendations, as well as Iraq’s other neighbors, as part of a regional strategy to facilitate a U.S. withdrawal and prevent the sectarian conflict from spreading beyond Iraq’s borders.

Such an approach has been anathema to Rumsfeld, Cheney, and the neoconservatives who successfully vetoed Rice’s suggestion, during this summer’s Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon, that Washington communicate at least indirectly with Damascus. Her earlier efforts to persuade Bush to be prepared to offer Tehran security guarantees as part of any package that would emerge from successful negotiations between the EU-3 and Iran on freezing its nuclear program were also rejected.

But Gates is likely to advocate both approaches, and therein lies the possibility of a major overhaul of U.S. foreign policy, not only in the Middle East but also in Asia, particularly China, where tensions with Rumsfeld’s Pentagon have been the main irritant in an otherwise relatively constructive relationship under Bush. “Just look at Gates’ resume to see where he’s been for the past 15 years: Poppa Bush’s CIA director, Brent Scowcroft’s consulting business, and currently a leading member of the Baker policy advisory group,” Nelson says.

Indeed, some right-wing commentators see Rumsfeld’s replacement by Gates as a virtual coup d’etat by the old realist crowd of Bush Senior against the remnants of the hawkish coalition of aggressive nationalists, neoconservatives, and the Christian Right that seized control of Mideast policy after 9/11.

“Bottom line, the Gates nomination has Jim Baker’s fingerprints all over it,” said J. William Lauderback, executive vice president of the American Conservative Union (ACU). That analysis will likely be echoed in coming days by a host of neoconservatives howling about a realist takeover.

Though neoconservatives might be upset about the changing of the guard in Washington and in the Pentagon, some of them had actually been calling for Rumsfeld’s ouster as early as the start of the Iraq invasion, when they determined that he was unprepared to devote the kind of resources and manpower-in ground forces and security-to creating the kind of “model” they had envisioned for the rest of the Arab world. In recent months, even neoconservatives who have stood by Rumsfeld have publicly criticized him for botching the occupation.

They had urged Bush to choose Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), a Democrat with strong neoconservative views on the Middle East, to replace Rumsfeld. Lieberman, who was defeated two months ago in the Democratic primary election by a virtually unknown anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont, was re-elected with Republican votes and money as an Independent.

But Lieberman’s reelection could not overcome the tide of bad news for the neoconservatives and their main sponsor and protector within the administration, Cheney, who, deprived of both his former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby (indicted for lying to a federal grand jury in October 2005), and Rumsfeld, now lies isolated and exposed.

“Rumsfeld’s his guy,” Bob Woodward told the television public-affairs program, 60 Minutes last month. “And Cheney confided to an aide that if Rumsfeld goes, next they’ll be after Cheney.”

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributing writer to Right Web (