In his prime-time speech last week, George W. Bush hit all his familiar themes -- we must show resolve, stay the course, finish the job, etc. But it masked a very different reality. Over the past three weeks the Bush administration has reversed itself on nearly every major aspect of its Iraq policy. Thank goodness. It's about time. These shifts may be too late to have a major effect, but they will help. The administration has finally begun to adhere to Rule No. 1 when you're in a hole: Stop digging. But it needs to go further and move decisively in a new direction. Consider the magnitude of recent policy reversals:
* The administration had stubbornly insisted that no more troops were needed in Iraq. But today, there are 20,000 additional soldiers in the country.
* From the start it refused to give the United Nations any political role in Iraq. Now the United Nations is a partner, both in the June 30 transition and in preparing for elections. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was the "quarterback," Bush said yesterday.
* Radical "de-Baathification," the pet project of the Pentagon and Ahmed Chalabi, has been overturned. The army that was disbanded is being slowly recreated.
* Heavy-handed military tactics have given way to a more careful political-military strategy in Fallujah, Karbala and Najaf that emphasizes a role for local leaders.
Imagine what Iraq might have looked like if these policies had been put in place 14 months ago. Iraq policy has been wrested from the Pentagon and is now being directed by Robert Blackwill, a diplomat on the National Security Council. Blackwill is a smart, aggressive, effective problem-solver who has little time for ideology or ideologues. Because he had no previous history or baggage on Iraq, he has been trying to focus on getting it right rather than proving that his original theories about it were right.
The legacy of old mistakes still infects Iraq policy. Because the United States first cut the United Nations out and then turned to it in desperation, Brahimi has ended up with much less power than even Washington would have liked. Having empowered and then disempowered Iraq's Governing Council, Washington found itself utterly outmaneuvered by the group. Having created an artificial deadline for the hasty transfer of power, Washington -- and Bremer -- found that they had become lame ducks. The Governing Council, one might recall, has been unpopular, hence the need for a new Iraqi body. The United Nations was invited to pick this new "interim government" to ensure that it was not seen as a U.S. puppet. So who ended up announcing the new interim prime minister? The Governing Council. And who's in the interim government? Mostly Governing Council members, many of them exiles whom the United States has supported. Are Iraqis going to look at this repackaged council and believe it is a new, independent, sovereign entity?
What's done is done. The two keys going forward are (1) to give this government internal credibility and (2) to internationalize the external assistance to Iraq. The new government must win the endorsement of various leaders in Iraq, most importantly the senior clerics in Najaf. Brahimi has been in constant touch with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The latter should be given whatever concessions are necessary so that he will recognize this government. Sistani's original proposal, that the government have limited powers so that its members could not use their power to ensure their electoral success, should be reinforced by the United States and the United Nations.
The new government will need to establish its credibility, which means its power vis-a-vis the United States. Washington is engaged in a foolish debate over whether the new government should control American troops in Iraq. Without giving it formal military authority, there has to be some way to make clear that it will have the ability to approve or reject offensive military operations. It will have that veto anyway. American soldiers will not be able to launch a Fallujah-like attack in the future if the sovereign government of Iraq condemns it. That's political reality. Why not give the new government in theory what it will have in fact?
The other source of legitimacy the government will need is international. There will almost certainly be a U.N. resolution on Iraq in the next few weeks. But what is needed is a strong resolution, endorsing the new government and inviting countries to help it in all possible ways. So far Washington has been unable to get much by way of troop commitments. It has asked 12 countries for help, and only two have responded positively. Countries will be more likely to help if the United Nations is given greater control and authority going forward. The symbolism should be that on July 1 a new Iraq rejoins the international community.
Over the past few weeks we have seen a number of despondent editorial commentaries by the most fervent supporters of the war. Having cheered this error-ridden occupation for 13 months they have now turned on it. They despair that Ahmed Chalabi will not be handed the keys to the country, that we are not crushing the insurgency with massive force, that we are sharing power with the United Nations, that Brahimi has been given so much power. This is a good omen. It means the grownups have taken control. It might not solve the many problems in Iraq. But it does mark the return of sanity to America's Iraq policy.