So now the president's war of choice has led to an occupation with no good options.
The Bush administration's plan is to hand over control of Iraq to the Iraqi Governing Council on June 30. Just how that council will sustain itself in power, however, is increasingly unclear after the upheaval of the past few days. Its own police force, which the United States has spent time and treasure recruiting and training, all but collapsed during the uprising of Moqtada Sadr's Shiite militia.
In Kufa, Najaf and Baghdad's own Sadr City, the government's new cops handed over police cars and police stations to the militia without any reported resistance. In some instances, the cops actually joined forces with Sadr's militants.
So much for our thin blue line.
Within Iraq, there are thousands of current and potential gunmen willing to fight for their people and their creeds -- Kurdish automony, Sunni hegemony, Shiite control, an Islamic republic. But the force charged with defending a pluralistic, united Iraq just went AWOL under fire.
It's not that there aren't lots of Iraqis committed to a democratic, relatively nonsectarian nation. But that is just one faith among many in post-Hussein Iraq. And by keeping sole control of the occupation, the White House has ensured that the cause of pluralistic nationhood has become disastrously intermingled with support for the U.S. occupation.
That intermingling will only get worse after June 30. The provisional government will assume power knowing that its security will depend entirely on U.S. forces. That's not likely to work wonders for its popularity, its legitimacy or, well, its security.
In the events of the past week, Sadr has emerged as Iraq's version of Lenin at the Finland Station. In the months after the overthrow of the czar, the Russian left largely agreed to cooperate with the provisional government within an emerging parliamentary democracy. Until, that is, Lenin's sealed train pulled into Petrograd, and the once-exiled leader told his astounded followers that they would not work with the provisional government and that they would, in fact, work to overthrow it.
I'm not predicting that Sadr will succeed in evading U.S. forces and in time set up an Islamic republic as extreme as Lenin and Stalin's Soviet republic -- much as he may wish to. But, like Lenin, he has tapped into a popular sentiment that is far broader than the size of his own narrow legion might suggest. It's also clear that the civil authority that is supposed to take power June 30 will have few reliable domestic forces to defend it -- a situation remniscent of the one confronting Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Russian provisional government who had no loyal forces at his disposal when the
Bolsheviks seized power.
What the Iraqi provisional government will have is the Americans. It would be far better off if it had a force under the U.N. banner, with troops from nations that had opposed as well as supported the war, troops from Arab nations in particular.
But the time to have built such a force, I fear, has come and gone. The administration's utter failure to envision the problems that a U.S.-controlled occupation would encounter kept it from going to the United Nations until the situation on the ground was barely tenable. It's still worth trying to get a U.N. high commissioner to supplant Paul Bremer, but it grows harder to imagine why the U.N. would sign on at this late date.
In any event, the administration still shows scant desire to surrender its control of the growing chaos. Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's commissioner in Iraq, has just given up his post in reported frustration over his inability to affect any of Bremer's decisions. And rather than internationalize control, it's increasingly apparent that we've opted to privatize our force -- relying on private security guards to supplement our official force on the ground. The decision epitomizes much that's wrong with the Bush presidency -- in particular, its desire to evade responsibility and accountability for its actions. If the bodies of the security guards killed in Fallujah had not been mutilated, how many American voters would have noticed? One recent poll shows that near-plurality of Americans now favors our leaving Iraq. But precisely because this was not a war we had to fight, just up and leaving would be politically and morally duplicitous. We wrested control of Iraq when we did not have to, and leaving it to its own devices as sectarian violence grows worse would be a dismal end. The only unequivocally good policy option before the American people is to dump the president who got us into this mess, who had no trouble sending our young people to Iraq but who cannot steel himself to face the Sept. 11 commission alone.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.