Traditional wisdom insists that Iraq must remain in one piece. Washington subscribes to that belief. The Bush administration insists it will not permit the breakup of Iraq.

But what if some Iraqis prefer to live apart from others who slaughtered their families?

Certainly, our efforts to rehabilitate the region would go more smoothly were Iraq to remain happily whole within its present borders. Our initial efforts should aim at facilitating cooperation between and the protection of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups. But we also need to think ahead and to think creatively if we are to avoid being blindsided by forces we cannot control.

What if, despite our earnest advice, the people of Iraq resist the argument that they would be better off economically and more secure were they to remain in a single unified state? What if the model for Iraq's future were Yugoslavia after the Cold War, not Japan or Germany after World War II?

The key lesson of Yugoslavia was that no amount of diplomatic pressure, bribes in aid or peacekeeping forces can vanquish the desire of the oppressed to reclaim their independence and identity. Attempts to force such groups to continue to play together like nice children simply prolong the conflict and intensify the bloodshed.

We are far too quick to follow Europe's example and resist the popular will we should be supporting. If the United States does not stand for self-determination, who shall?

This is not an argument for provoking secession by Iraq's Kurds or Shiites. Objectively viewed, Iraq's advantages as an integral state are indeed enormous, while the practical obstacles faced by any emerging mini-states would range from the problems of a landlocked Kurdistan in the north to the threat of religious tyranny in the Shiite south.

But reason does not often prevail in the affairs of states and nations. Passion rules. Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia remain dependent on foreign donations, black-marketeering and debt for their survival. Two of the three were born anew in blood, and all are troubled. But none of this matters to those who could not bear the arbitrary borders imposed on them by diplomats whose concerns did not include the popular will.

We live in an age of breakdown, of the dissolution of artificial states whose borders were imposed arbitrarily in the wake of the Versailles conference that concluded the Great War with peerless ineptitude. The world has suffered for nearly a century for the follies and greed of the European diplomats who redrew the world to suit their foreign ministries.

Unthinkingly accepting this legacy, we Americans assume we might convince one people after another that they cannot constitute a viable state on their own, that they must see reason. We might as well try to talk a friend out of a foolish love affair. Entire peoples, like individuals, must learn the hard way.

After the collapse of these rotting states, many a newly liberated population will indeed find that it cannot thrive on its own. Then these populations will begin building new, larger entities. But we cannot short-circuit the system of change and force them to see reason before they have tried the course of passion. Human beings are not made that way.

As we try to help the Iraqis rebuild their state, we should spare no reasonable effort to demonstrate to all parties concerned the advantages of remaining together. But we must stop short of bullying them -- and well short of folly.

Even as we aim for a democratic, rule-of-law Iraq, we must consider alternatives if we are to avoid being bushwhacked by the guerrilla forces of history.

Iraq's Kurds, Shiites and numerous minorities long have suffered under the rule of Sunni Arabs from the country's middle. We have witnessed widely varied reactions to the arrival of U.S. troops in Iraq. Kurds welcomed us with flowers. Some Shiites cheered and applauded, but others -- influenced by Iran -- have been far more reticent, even hostile. The Sunni Arabs in the nation's heartland were Saddam Hussein's most enthusiastic supporters, although many also suffered under the old regime.

All the peoples of Iraq need to adjust to a new reality. But Washington may need to adjust to new realities of its own. Having caused so much change, we dare not insist categorically that nothing else may change.

Above all, we should champion the Kurds, who have earned the world's respect. A long-suffering people divided by cruel borders, they seemed to pose an insoluble dilemma, given the strategic dictates of realpolitik. The United States needed bases in Turkey, and Ankara would not countenance a Kurdish state. Turks, Arabs and Iranians all insisted the Kurds must remain divided, poor and powerless.

Now Turkey has betrayed us, while the Kurds fought beside us. In a decade of de facto autonomy in Iraq's north, the Kurds proved they can run a civil, rule-of-law state. Cynics point out that a "free Kurdistan," surrounded by enemies, would lack access to the sea. But the Kurds would have oil, and oil can buy access. Furthermore, regime change in Iran is only a matter of time.

The situation in Iraq is far more complex than any commentary can describe. But a few things are clear. The United States throughout its history has been the world's most positive force for change. Now we must prepare ourselves to help shape further changes we cannot prevent. We must concentrate on building a better future, not on defending Europe's indecent legacies.

At the end of the Iraqi experiment, our most important goal should not be preserving the relics of Versailles but promoting human freedom and security -- whether that means one Iraq, or several.

The writer is a retired military officer and the author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World."