It's Ayad Allawi week. President Bush, starting with his address at the U.N. today, will try to present Mr. Allawi - a former Baathist who the BBC reports was chosen as prime minister because he was "equally mistrusted by everyone" - as the leader of a sovereign nation on the path to democracy. If the media play along, Mr. Bush may be able to keep the Iraq disaster under wraps for a few more weeks.
It may well work. In June, when the United States formally transferred sovereignty to Mr. Allawi's government, the media acted as if this empty gesture marked the end of the war. Even though American casualties continued to rise, stories about Iraq dropped off the evening news and the front pages. This gave the public the impression that things were improving and helped Mr. Bush recover in the polls.
Now Mr. Bush hopes that by pretending that Mr. Allawi is a real leader of a real government, he can conceal the fact that he has led America into a major strategic defeat.
That's a stark statement, but it's a view shared by almost all independent military and intelligence experts. Put it this way: it's hard to identify any major urban areas outside Kurdistan where the U.S. and its allies exercise effective control. Insurgents operate freely, even in the heart of Baghdad, while coalition forces, however many battles they win, rule only whatever ground they happen to stand on. And efforts to put an Iraqi face on the occupation are self-defeating: as the example of Mr. Allawi shows, any leader who is too closely associated with America becomes tainted in the eyes of the Iraqi public.
Mr. Bush's insistence that he is nonetheless "pleased with the progress" in Iraq - when his own National Intelligence Estimate echoes the grim views of independent experts - would be funny if the reality weren't so grim. Unfortunately, this is no joke: to the delight of Al Qaeda, America's overstretched armed forces are gradually getting chewed up in a losing struggle.
So what's the answer?
The Bush administration fostered the Iraq insurgency by botching the essential tasks of enlisting allies, rebuilding infrastructure, training and equipping local security forces, and preparing for elections. It's understandable, then, that John Kerry - whose speech yesterday was deadly accurate in its description of Mr. Bush's mistakes - proposes going back and doing the job right.
But I hope that Mr. Kerry won't allow himself to be trapped into trying to fulfill neocon fantasies. If there ever was a chance to turn Iraq into a pro-American beacon of democracy, that chance perished a long time ago.
Can the insurgency be crushed? It's widely believed that in November, a few days after the election, the Bush administration will launch an all-out offensive against insurgent-controlled areas. Such an offensive will, for all practical purposes, be an attempt to conquer Iraq all over again. But unlike Saddam's hapless commanders, the insurgents won't oblige us by taking up positions in the countryside, where they can be blasted by U.S. air power. And grinding urban warfare that leads to heavy American casualties and the death of large numbers of innocent civilians will simply enlarge the ranks of our enemies.
But if the chance to install a pro-American government has been lost, what's the alternative? Scaling back our aims. This means accepting the fact that an Iraqi leader, to have legitimacy, must be able to deliver an end to America's military presence. Unless we want this war to go on forever, we will have to abandon the 14 "enduring bases" the Bush administration has been building.
It also means accepting the likelihood that Iraq will not have a strong central government - and that local leaders will end up with a lot of autonomy. This doesn't have to mean creating havens for hostile forces: remember that for a year after Saddam's fall, moderate Shiite clerics effectively governed large areas of Iraq and kept them relatively peaceful. It was the continuing irritant of the U.S. occupation that empowered radicals like Moktada al-Sadr.
The point is that by winding down America's military presence, while promising aid to those who don't harbor anti-American terrorists and retaliation against those who do, the U.S. can probably leave behind an Iraq that isn't an American ally, but isn't a threat either. And that, at this point, is probably the best we can hope for.
Originally published in The New York Times, 9.21.04