The most astonishing moment of the president's press conference on Tuesday came when a reporter asked, "Who will you be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th?"
"We will find that out soon," said President Bush. "That's what Mr. Brahimi is doing; he's figuring out the nature of the entity we'll be handing sovereignty over (to)."
Brahimi, in case you don't know, is the U.N. special representative in Iraq. What the president inadvertently admitted is that the United States still doesn't know to whom it is handing over Iraqi sovereignty -- less than 80 days before the deadline. He also informed us that Lakhdar Brahimi, not U.S. occupation czar Paul Bremer, is the man who must make the turnover work.
Think about the magnitude of this admission. On Wednesday, the president spoke of Iraq's future in messianic terms. "A secure and free Iraq," he said, "is an historic opportunity to change the world..." A free Iraq would lead to "incredible change" in the Middle East.
Yet prospects for June 30 are so uncertain that U.S. officials turned in desperation to the United Nations, an organization many on the Bush team scorn. How can we reconcile the vision with these facts?
I've written about senior Bush officials' misplaced certainty that the establishment of democracy in Iraq would be easy. When that myth exploded, Bremer was dispatched to Baghdad to buy time to build institutions. He appointed an interim Iraqi Governing Council, but put off elections from fear they would return a government dominated by religious parties.
Instead, occupation authorities planned to set up a body, prior to June 30, whose members would be indirectly vetted by U.S. officials. Such a government would have little control over the huge U.S. troop presence, or a U.S. embassy that will be the biggest in the world.
Despite American odes to democracy, Iraqis lost faith in this transition process and in the occupation. They also lost respect for the governing council when many members proved to be corrupt.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, religious leader of the majority Shiite community (supposed backbone of U.S. supporters), objected to a process that turned over sovereignty to an unelected body. Bremer was faced with the prospect that Sistani and most Iraqis would reject such a new government as illegitimate. This would have led to more violence after June 30.
So Bremer turned to Brahimi, who had godfathered Afghanistan's political transition, known as the Brahimi process. But Sistani won't see the U.N. official because he fears that Brahimi is doing America's bidding. Brahimi has tried to ease such fears.
The U.N. official has tentatively proposed to disband the governing council. He wants to appoint (with U.S. and Iraqi input) a caretaker government of respected Iraqis, whose main role would be to prepare for elections, no later than January 2005. Maybe sooner. He rightly says legitimacy can come only from elections.
Yet it still isn't clear that the administration will give Brahimi its backing. Pentagon officials may try to undercut any move that lessens U.S. control.
Here's the bottom line:
In some other era, the United States might have had years to mold Iraqi democracy. But today's Iraq is not postwar Japan. Nor can America afford to imitate the British empire.
If Bush means what he says about a "free Iraq," he must support a process in which Iraqis can believe, a process that may produce results which don't fit his vision. A Brahimi process.
Elections, organized by the United Nations, would siphon off much of the frustration that has fueled violence in Fallujah and Kufa. The results might not change the world. But they could stabilize Iraq.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.