Sotto Voce

If defeat is an orphan, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, for which the Senate appropriated $87 billion by a voice vote on Monday, should already go down in the loss column.

By rejecting the normal option of a recorded vote, America's senators decided that they did not want to be held individually accountable for our continuing presence in Iraq. That decision speaks far louder than their decision to actually fund our forces there and the Iraqi reconstruction.

What a difference a year makes! In the fall of 2002, the administration was positively gleeful about forcing Congress to go on record to authorize the coming war, and Democrats from swing states or districts knew they voted no at their own peril.

This week no such pressure was forthcoming. Those Republicans who live by the wedge issue understand when they could die by it, too. There was simply no percentage in compelling members to vote yes on a floundering occupation that could easily grow far worse.

It's instructive, though, that opponents of the occupation weren't exactly clamoring to be recorded against it either. Only old Robert Byrd stood on the Senate floor and shouted no when the vote was taken, but Byrd has been casting recorded votes since the waning days of the Roman Republic, and it's a hard habit to break.

What was striking Monday was that Byrd's colleagues were scuttling away from all sides of this debate, and it's not hard to understand why. The administration's handling of both the war and occupation has been so deeply flawed that it has created a situation to which not only its own policy but all the existing alternatives are clearly inadequate. Bush and his neos have given us a kind of Gothic horror version of Goldilocks, in which the policy alternatives are either too big or too small, while their own is just wrong.

Plainly, the U.S. force in Iraq is spread too thin to protect our own troops, the employees of international aid agencies and those Iraqis who have cast their lot with the new order. But there's no political support, either in the United States or Iraq, for increasing the number of U.S. troops there, and rightly so. It's not just that more troops means more targets. It's also that any such act would be viewed as a step back from Iraqi sovereignty, which would only further inflame the situation there.

Those who argued that the administration needed international approval for a war against Saddam Hussein -- the better, in part, to de-Americanize the occupation -- have been all too grimly vindicated. The problem is the occupation has proved so rocky that it's hard to envision the United Nations rushing into Iraq if we now admit we fear to tread there.

Bush's decisions -- to wage a unilateral war and exercise unilateral political power during the post-Hussein reconstruction -- have not merely failed in themselves but have dimmed the prospects for more sustainable multinational alternatives.

Historians will have to determine the precise mix of White House hubris, xenophobia and mistrust of allies that contributed to our determination to hold sole control in post-Hussein Iraq. (Of course, the anti-Americanism rampant among many of our longtime allies played a role, too, but anyone with a long memory -- one that goes back at least three years -- can recall a time when the United States actually had the respect of the global community.) Now a new factor has popped up for historians' future consideration when they ponder why we wanted the occupation to ourselves. It turns out that Paul Bremer, our man in Baghdad, has decreed that come next year Iraq shall have a flat tax on individuals and businesses of 15 percent.

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Is Iraq to become a laboratory for all those right-wing brainstorms that have gone nowhere in this country but that we are free to impose there during our short-order mandate? While we're at it, we could also outlaw stem cell research and elevate Charles Pickering to the Baghdad bench.

Already, the administration is beginning to blame its critics at home for its problems in Iraq. The criticisms voiced by the Democratic presidential candidates, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Georgetown students last week, send "a very unsettling message to Iraqis that our elections might decide their future." But it was Wolfowitz, along with a handful of others, who so inextricably linked America's future -- on which, the last time I looked, Americans had a right to vote -- to a disastrous policy in Iraq.

And it wasn't Democratic critics who forced a Republican-run Senate to cast an unrecorded vote on the occupation. It was Republicans, who voted for the funding but who lack all confidence in the president's chosen course.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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