Americans are too individualistic to have great natural talent for warfare. But they learn from their mistakes quickly and adjust decisively. That point is said to have been made by Nazi Germany's greatest general, Erwin Rommel, after he watched U.S. troops turn the fortunes of World War II in North Africa.

The Bush administration stretches the thesis attributed to the Desert Fox to the breaking point with its failure to adjust to mistakes and miscalculations in Iraq. It has been unable to stabilize the position of strategic strength it established a year ago by removing Saddam Hussein's hated regime.

Instead the administration stumbles toward a June 30 transfer of "sovereignty" that is cloaked in confusion and manifest insincerity. The moral clarity that President Bush promised as the centerpiece of his foreign policy is being jettisoned in Iraq, where the obligation and opportunity to demonstrate such clarity were greatest.

This pushing of sovereignty on the cheap now endangers Bush's chances of salvaging even minimal U.S. goals in Iraq, and perhaps his own reelection.

The latest Washington plan is to have the United Nations choose and bless a panel of pliable Iraqis to administer local affairs for six months while some 400 U.N. civilians come in to organize elections for January. But this idea has suffered serious setbacks in recent days.

Nearly two dozen nations have declined to contribute to a new security force of about 5,000 troops that was to provide protection specifically for the U.N. election team, foreign and U.S. officials report. Only Georgia agreed, meaning the U.N. team will probably have to depend on existing and overstretched coalition forces for protection and transport.

A sham transfer of power that allows Washington to continue to make the important political, economic and security decisions is an awful outcome for Iraq, and for Bush. A fig-leaf cabinet in Baghdad would be vulnerable to disruption or even being forced from office by violence and popular demonstrations at any point during the U.S. presidential campaign. It could become an albatross around Bush's reelection neck.

The president must now devise a worst-case scenario in Iraq, rather than focusing on what-might-have-beens. Among the minimal strategic goals the administration must extract from a deteriorating situation are two that would be easy to forget:

The United States must ensure that its involvement in Iraq does not lead to the ending of the democratic freedoms and stability that the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq have enjoyed for more than a decade. And Washington must neither encourage nor tolerate a return of Sunni minority control over the brutalized Shiite majority in southern Iraq.

Either of those outcomes would be dishonorable for America. Either would mean that Americans had lost their lives and invested their national treasure in Iraq in vain. Circumstances force Bush to scale back his ambitious design of implanting democracy in Iraq as a model for the greater Middle East. But he cannot be complicit in returning the Kurds and Shiites to servitude.

If the only way to achieve this is to accept a temporary, de facto partition of Iraq into three zones of autonomy with differing security responsibilities, so be it.

The United States should not set the partition of Iraq as a formal policy goal. But neither should it go back, even covertly, to supporting territorial integrity enforced by state terrorism wielded by a Sunni strongman.

Formal partition, which would permit an independent Kurdistan, brings too many diplomatic costs and problems with Iran, Turkey and the Arab countries. Moreover, Iraq is a viable unitary state that will achieve its own internal balances of survival over the long haul. The ideal of unitary Iraq must be kept alive.

But the deployment of U.S. resources and power in Iraq should increasingly reflect the possibilities of an alliance with the Kurds in the regional war against terrorism, the need for a low-visibility working relationship with the Shiite religious establishment in the south, and the imperatives of reducing violence in the Sunni Triangle for Americans and Iraqis by all available means.

The administration's original case for invading and occupying Iraq has been dismantled almost piece by piece. The large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that were presumed to be there have not been found.

Iraqis in the free-fire zones that terrorists have established certainly do not feel more secure than they did. And the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal has stained the moral high ground the administration claimed.

This sequence of failure and mishap has robbed the administration of the credibility abroad and national unity at home it needed to carry out its most ambitious regional goals. It must now be realistic and honest about what it can still salvage.

jimhoagland@washpost.com