Don't look now, but is the Bush administration creeping toward John Kerry's position on Iraq?
I am writing this column hours before the president's Tuesday news conference, so I have to allow for the possibility that he will stun us with some radical new departure -- perhaps even articulating a coherent policy. But whatever the president says, the administration has been moving closer to acknowledging the desirability -- and at times, the necessity -- of letting the United Nations do the work of nation-building that George Bush once assumed the United States should undertake.
In fairness, when the president plunged us into this war, he had a plan for converting Iraq into a stable democracy -- a plan so simple that it bore no relation to reality. Dick Cheney argued that we'd be greeted as liberators. The Pentagon war planners said that we could just hand the nation over to Ahmed Chalabi, a businessman with ties to various Beltway neoconservatives, who'd left Iraq as a child in the same year that the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Rumsfeld's minions spirited Chalabi into Iraq right after our troops rolled into Baghdad. The Iraqi people, however, were less than overwhelmed.
In the course of the year-long occupation, we've had several subsequent plans for creating some entity to which we could hand off power. None has come to fruition. Our ability to create a popular, legitimate interim authority to oversee the drafting of a constitution that would win broad support and to negotiate with major population groups that shared a common antipathy to Saddam Hussein was never remotely sufficient. We were an occupying authority that had brought war but had failed to create peace -- not exactly the ideal credentials for nation-building.
And so, our man in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has stood aside and invited U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to put together an Iraqi interim authority with sufficient support to manage the transition until Iraq's first elections. The administration that had proclaimed the United Nations all but irrelevant in its strategy statement of September 2002 now clamors for more U.N. involvement and more NATO troops to do what we cannot do alone: stabilize Iraq.
Bush has, with the greatest reluctance, moved closer to the policy that Kerry has been advocating all along: internationalizing the occupation. In his speech preceding his vote to authorize the war in the fall of 2002, Kerry stipulated that the success of any endeavor to remake Iraq depended on broad international involvement in that effort. Last September Kerry called for Bush to transfer authority in post-Hussein Iraq to the United Nations, as that would "enhance the credibility and legitimacy" of the campaign to create a new Iraqi order in the eyes of Iraq's citizens and the world. And campaigning in New Hampshire on Monday, Kerry suggested that Brahimi should supplant Bremer altogether, because the U.N. envoy would strike Iraqis as a more credible administrator of the occupation than Bremer could be.
Republican strategists have argued that the president would run circles around Kerry on issues of foreign policy -- a challenge to which Kerry's ad nauseam response during the primaries was, "Bring it on!" Now events have indeed brought it on, and it's clear that Kerry's apprehensions about a unilateral war and occupation were well-grounded, even as Bush's cavalier hopes for an all-American nation-building project were the most dangerous of fantasies. It's also clear that Bush has been forced by events to move, kicking and screaming, toward Kerry's vision of the requirements for a successful occupation. On the centerpiece of that vision -- handing over control of the occupation to the United Nations -- Bush has remained unmoved, seeking instead to get maximum U.N. involvement without surrendering U.S. control. He hasn't acknowledged that it's precisely the U.S. control that makes the occupation so objectionable to millions of Iraqis. Still, Bush has been compelled to internationalize certain functions that he had assumed the United States would perform, and for the reasons that Kerry predicted.
By the standard of previous presidential candidates running amid wartime quagmires, Kerry has been unusually forthcoming in his critique and prescriptions for Iraq. All Eisenhower pledged while seeking the office during the Korean conflict was, "I will go to Korea." In 1968 Nixon said that he had "a secret plan" to end the Vietnam War. Kerry, by contrast, foresaw the perils of unilateralism and has consistently proposed a more workable occupation policy than Bush's. By its growing dependence on Brahimi and its increasingly plaintive calls for more nations to send troops, even the administration tacitly acknowledges that Kerry was right.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. A version of this column originally appeared in The Washington Post.