Americans who resist basing judgments about world events on partisan or personal preferences confront a dilemma in assessing the current course of the war in Iraq. And the coming week will only sharpen that dilemma.

For reasons of electoral self-interest, the Bush administration will portray Iraq as being carried by tides of progress inexorably toward shores of stability. The White House is calling in Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to help in a public relations blitz at the United Nations and in Washington.

Allawi is sufficiently shrewd and sufficiently grateful to President Bush for liberating Iraq to play the role with ease. And only the most embittered Bush critic can wish Iraq not to make progress under Allawi -- or fail to recognize and honor the continuing sacrifices that American troops and Iraqi citizens make daily to promote tolerance and freedom in the Middle East.

But putting Allawi on a pedestal -- especially if it is to burnish a political campaign -- underlines the dangers of basing policy on image and a war strategy on any one individual. The administration rushes past the dubious history of U.S. involvement with Third World "strongmen" eager to praise benefactors and crush opponents. Graveyards in African or Asian jungles, as well as on the French Riviera, are filled with allies deemed indispensable by past U.S. presidents.

More significantly, the administration papers over widening inconsistencies in Allawi's approach to his country's main population groups and to the rule of law in Iraq. With U.S. acquiescence, he ignores the Transitional Administrative Law when that interim constitution is inconvenient for his purposes. His vaguely defined role in ordering U.S. troops into battle in the new "pol-mil" plan that is being pursued in Baghdad also causes confusion.

"Pol-mil" is shorthand for "political-military," the name of an influential bureau in the State Department and of a doctrine for using carefully calculated military force to produce favorable political change. "Winning hearts and minds" is a well-known feature of this counterinsurgency.

U.S. officials point to the sieges of Fallujah and Najaf as examples of Allawi's successful pursuit of a sophisticated pol-mil approach that has been developed in recent weeks under U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. In reality, these flawed exercises in applying coercive power in variegated fashion may contribute over time to nation-splitting rather than to nation-building.

In Fallujah, Allawi periodically calls in airstrikes by U.S. warplanes to pound concentrations of "foreign jihadists," but he withholds force against the Baathist diehards who control much of that city and other municipalities in the Sunni heartland.

His "hearts and minds" approach toward Sunni Baathists stands in unexplained contrast to his determination to destroy at any cost the Shiite rebel forces of Moqtada Sadr in Najaf last month. Far from using force to help bring about the compromise arranged at the last moment by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Allawi actively intervened to try to prevent that outcome.

He asked U.S. authorities to discourage or even block Sistani from rushing back from a London sickbed to Najaf via Kuwait and Basra, according to a U.S. official involved in fielding Allawi's secret request. When his plea failed, Allawi dispatched two aides to try to talk Sistani out of returning to reclaim peacefully a holy shrine that Sadr had occupied. Sistani persisted, and both Sadr and the shrine survived.

Allawi's determination to risk making Sadr a martyr split his government and led his national security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie, to quit and leave the country. The prime minister, who was groomed for his role by the CIA, is also encountering growing suspicion from Iraq's Kurdish minority, which sees its political rights and share in national revenue being progressively watered down.

An official rosy glow will surround Allawi on his rounds this week. But even the CIA does not see things that way -- privately. A national intelligence estimate disclosed by the New York Times the other day paints a gloomy picture of the separatist trends in Iraq. Could the agency be running a supply-side intelligence operation, in which covert operators bring their client to power to provide shambles for analysts to decry? Those in Congress studying intelligence reform may want to inquire.

Allawi's U.S. trip should not be treated as a victory lap. He needs to hear probing questions -- from both presidential candidates. And they need to hear a greater commitment to democracy and the rule of law than he has demonstrated thus far. Only that kind of trip can illuminate the path ahead in Iraq.