The past two weeks' events have eroded public confidence in the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, and rightly so. Still, the deterioration of the situation threatens to lower the bar for success and lead people to underestimate the full scope of the problems facing American policy. Before the war, the president clearly stated that his goal was the creation of a unified, stable, democratic Iraq. Some doubted that such an outcome would be desirable, others that it was possible; still others (I, for one) simply doubted that the Bush team had the wherewithal to pull it off.
Following the emergence of the largely Sunni insurgency against the American occupation soon after the end of "major combat operations," however, the goal seemed to change. Now success would be defined as the ability to minimize U.S. casualties. The administration succeeded -- temporarily -- in achieving this, largely by replacing American forces on Iraq's streets with ill-trained Iraqi police. We are now suffering from this error as rebels have found it frighteningly easy to seize control of government buildings guarded by Iraqi security forces.
So the problem has been redefined once again -- this time, as the need to regain control of Falluja, Najaf, and other cities either by defeating the militias controlling those areas or through negotiations. Even were either of these goals to be achieved, however, serious problems would remain.
As David Brooks conceded in Saturday's otherwise Panglossian take on the current situation, "If people like [Grand Ayatollah Ali] Sistani are forced to declare war on the U.S., the gates of hell will open up." Quite so. While the administration and its defenders have been eager to point out that the current Shiite rebellion is the work of a relatively small number of people led by the rather marginal cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, one could just as easily interpret this as a bad sign. The level of chaos Sadr's Mahdi Army has been able to inflict should stand as a warning that things could become much worse if more mainstream figures like Sistani get off the reservation. Sadr's forces are not the only Shiite militias in the field, and one must consider the possibility that parties like Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) could move into the opposition in the future.
The hakuna matata crowd seems to believe that Sistani's lack of support for Sadr should be interpreted as support for the American position. The reality is far more troubling. Current plans call for sovereignty to be transferred to "the Iraqi people" on June 30. Much controversy has attended the timing of this transfer, but little attention has been paid to its mechanics. In the real world, "the Iraqi people" are not going to gain control over domestic policy; rather, certain specific Iraqi people will. As of now, however, no one knows who those people will be. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, meanwhile, will be replaced by a super-embassy to be headed by a person who, again, has not yet been named.
Whoever is to be put in charge is supposed to govern in accordance with the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), a temporary constitution signed in March by the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). Unfortunately for the United States, Sistani has repeatedly denounced this document as illegitimate. Shiite IGC members were persuaded to sign it only under American pressure. Under the circumstances, proceeding with the current plan is a recipe for disaster down the road, whether or not the Sadrist militia can be defeated or, more likely, simply fades away to wage irregular warfare.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that Shiites consider the TAL far too friendly to Kurdish interests. The plan calls for the integration of the three Kurdish-majority provinces into a superstate that will be empowered to nullify acts of the federal government and will be permitted to maintain armed forces for the purposes of internal security. Worse, from the Shiite point of view, is the procedure laid out in the TAL for the ratification of a permanent constitution. The document will require ratification by two-thirds of the voters in 16 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Thus, an extraordinarily small minority will be able to block the TAL's successor. Functionally, the purpose is to create a Kurdish veto over the future of Iraq -- Kurds are, coincidentally, a majority in exactly three provinces. While laudable in spirit, this concession to minority all but ensures that the permanent constitution will only become more pro-Kurdish. There is, moreover, no guarantee that anything will be able to attract the sort of overwhelming public support the ratification process requires, threatening to throw the situation into limbo.
Either way, if Shiite demands cannot be met through a political process, then an ever-growing segment of the population will be tempted to use force. The United States will then be faced with the unappealing alternatives of surrendering or destroying the village in order to save it.
Forestalling disaster requires the administration to move beyond counterinsurgency warfare toward addressing the underlying Shiite political grievances. Convincing the Kurds to give up what they have already won will not be an easy task. But unless the major Kurdish and Shiite leaders -- not just handpicked IGC members -- can reach an agreement about the future of Iraq, the task of nation-building in Iraq will be hopeless. Whether the June 30 date should be moved, the United Nations brought in, or the level of American forces changed are all secondary issues: Whatever it is that can be agreed to is what should be done. Speculating as to what could secure such agreement is a poor replacement for actual talks around the negotiating table.
Under the circumstances, a simplistic debate between staying the course and bringing the boys home is unenlightening. If a broadly supported interim government can be found, then staying in force to support it against extreme elements is preferable to allowing the situation to devolve into chaos. If not, however, then the aims of the occupation -- however laudable -- are simply infeasible, and we should look for a way to extricate ourselves from a futile enterprise undertaken on dubious pretenses. The approach offered thus far by the Bush administration -- long on bravado, but short on actual plans to improve the situation -- threatens to bring the worst of both worlds.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.