After each visit to Iraq over the past year, I've tried to weigh how things are going. At the end of a trip last week, one answer was that it depends on where you live. Even in the wilds of Mesopotamia, all politics is local.
Overall, Iraq is a mess. As the planned June 30 handover of sovereignty approaches, every element of the Bush administration's strategy appears to be in trouble. The security plan depends on Iraqi forces that aren't ready yet; the transitional political structure doesn't exist, except perhaps in the mind of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi; a new U.N. resolution that would provide a solid international mandate is being blocked by French and Russian obstructionism. The ideals that launched the war are shattered on the cold stone floor of Abu Ghraib prison.
Yet this disarray on the macro level masks local pockets of stability. Southern Iraq, where I traveled for a week with British troops, is surprisingly calm -- thanks to a quiet alliance of tribal sheiks and Shiite religious leaders with the British occupiers. The British have been wise enough to let the Iraqis find their own solutions to problems. Their motto, says the British chief of staff in the south, Col. Jim Tanner, is that "one size doesn't fit all."
The Kurdish north is also relatively calm and stable. Kurdish political leaders know they've got a good thing going in their quasi-autonomy from the Arabs to the south. Their troops and clan leaders are maintaining order, and while they may pay lip service to the notion of the Iraqi state, they're quite happy to be running their own show.
The nightmare area is the U.S.-controlled zone in the center of the country. This was always going to be the toughest piece of the puzzle. Where the Shiite south and Kurdish north are each relatively homogenous, central Iraq is an ethnic, religious and political jumble. The institutions of the old Iraqi state, if rehabilitated, might have maintained political order here, and the U.S. decision a year ago to disband the army and purge the civil service was an especially costly mistake. It created a vacuum that was filled by insurgents, former regime loyalists, terrorists and thugs -- and put American soldiers in the impossible role of local cops.
But even in the center, temporary pockets of stability have emerged over the past month, as the United States steps back from the brink of all-out urban warfare. Much like the British in the south, the U.S. occupiers now seem ready to accept some Iraqi solutions that are backed by the nation's traditional power bases, such as the tribes, religious leaders and semi-respectable remnants of the old army.
Sometimes we'll have to hold our noses at these local solutions, as when a former Republican Guard general restores order in Fallujah. But that kind of pragmatic approach seems preferable to waging a bitter war of occupation.
Unfortunately, the checkerboard Iraq that I'm describing isn't any longer a single nation. It's a country in the process of de facto partition -- with the north and the south going their own ways and the center in a bloody state of ferment.
Iraq sadly may be slipping toward a bigger, scarier version of Lebanon during the years it was fractured into zones ruled by local warlords. But even during its long civil war, Lebanon maintained a national government, foreign diplomatic missions, a thriving business community and national legal institutions. Eventually, the Lebanese tired of war, and today the country is reemerging as a showplace.
Frankly, we're well past the point of ideal solutions in Iraq. "We need to work with the material on the ground," one British official explained. Strong provincial governors, backed by tribal leaders, will probably be able to maintain the necessary monopoly of force that can bring order in some regions -- cooperating with coalition forces that are based "over the horizon," away from population centers.
The Bush administration must make an honest assessment of the ragged, checkerboard reality of postwar Iraq. The transition isn't going to be smooth or uniform -- and it certainly won't be pretty. But we should all be happier to see the country move back into Iraqi hands.
The truth is, Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" doesn't apply: We did break it, but we don't own it. We have a moral obligation to help Iraqis repair the damage, but we can do so only with their consent -- "slowly, slowly," as the Arabs like to say.