The situation on the ground in Iraq is getting worse. This may or may not be linked to Washington's faulty rationale for occupying Iraq in the first place, but it is certainly a consequence of poor U.S. comprehension of the dynamic of the country. The current prison scandal is but one more example of the United States' bad fit in Iraq. This in turn is a key factor in addressing the next important issue: How does America get out?
The current exit strategy -- democratization beginning June 30 -- looks destined to flounder or fail. Though it may appear at some point to be working, and while involving the United Nations is well advised, the United States should be wary of the implications of Shiite rule in Iraq, even if installed democratically. Remember the liberal, democratic Islamic Iran that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini promised the West before he returned to Tehran in 1979? One way or another, American planners should be ready with alternatives, a few of which may seem cynical but all of which are probably based on a better understanding of realities.
Here are a few preliminary ideas, with their pros and cons. Some are familiar from the debate about Iraq that preceded the U.S. occupation:
* Settle for a less-than-democratic regime with a strong security arm that offers stability and a pro-American policy. This would undoubtedly involve some loss of face, but with clever administration spin the real problem would not be abandoning democratization. After all, it is already clear that what the United States is doing in the greater Middle East is regime change, not democratization: Moammar Gaddafi of Libya can stay even though he's a dictator, because he turned over his weapons of mass destruction, while Yasser Arafat, the most democratically elected leader in the region, has to go because he's a terrorist. Rather, the problem is finding the right strongman and, worse -- because the United States dismantled the Iraqi army and is hard-put to field a replacement -- putting together an adequate local security apparatus.
* Once pure democratization is abandoned, consider reinstalling the Hashemites -- the post-British, pre-Baath rulers of Iraq who still reign in neighboring Jordan. Most of Iraq's neighbors would be relatively comfortable with such a regime, which could serve U.S. regional interests nicely. Because the Hashemites belong to none of Iraq's rival religious and ethnic groups, they could be more successful at ruling.
* Turn everything over to the United Nations -- to a far greater extent than the involvement being contemplated. This would be popular with the rest of the world and would involve minimal American loss of face. But it would not work without an ongoing and large American military presence, subject to U.N. command. Americans might still be killed in Iraq, but without American control. Moreover, if the United States could not retain an independent military force in Iraq it might be less capable of fulfilling some of its worthy regional objectives, such as coercing Iran and Syria into moderating their regimes and protecting U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.
* Recognize that Iraq without a brutal dictatorial regime holding it together by force is really three countries -- Kurdistan, the Sunni Triangle, and the Shiite south and center -- and create them. This is the most revolutionary approach -- but no more so than the idea of occupying Iraq in the first place. The dismantling of Iraq into its components could be lightly camouflaged as an interim federal measure. It might be good for Iraqis but could be dangerous for the region. It might create destabilizing irredentist incentives among the Kurds of Turkey, Iran and Syria as well as the Shiites of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, and invite possible intervention by worried or opportunistic neighbors.
* Declare victory and withdraw. Save American (and coalition) lives and avoid more painful mistakes. Put future Saddam Husseins on notice that the United States has adopted a new "hit and run" strategy to remove them without the complications of extended occupation and nation-building. This may turn out in the long term to be the only realistic option.
* Status quo. Hunker down, try to reduce losses, invent new ways to "democratize" Iraq, outlast the prison scandal and hope things improve. This is probably where the United States will go in the short term, because both bureaucratically and ideologically it's the easy option.
But let's at least get some alternative concepts into the pipeline.
The writer is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and served as a senior adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. He co-edits the Web sites Bitterlemons.org and Bitterlemons-international.org, which deal with Middle East issues.