Washington Events, interlopers and policy mishaps and mistakes have taken substantial power from the hands of L. Paul Bremer III in his final two months as President Bush's proconsul in Baghdad. More timid souls would serve out their time in quiet, bitter frustration.
But the creeping marginalization he faces actually gives the strong-willed Bremer a large measure of freedom to act. With so little left to lose in terms of operational power, he is more free to speak out and to salvage something from his original high hopes of pointing post-Baathist Iraq toward constitutional democracy and stability.
Those goals, which seemed to grow more distant through the cruel and bloody month of April, are still attainable. But they are endangered by a recent wavering in U.S. commitment and strategy, which surfaced most openly last weekend in the decision to enlist a notorious Baathist ex-general to restore order in Fallujah.
Jassim Mohammed Saleh, who commanded units that mounted pogroms against Kurds and Iraqi Shiites in the 1990s, was brought to U.S. commanders in Fallujah by CIA operatives who are forming Iraq's new intelligence service. Saleh's appointment, which has since been withdrawn, was reportedly made without Bremer's knowledge or without being cleared at the Pentagon.
It is hard to think of a gesture that could more effectively undermine the moral claims the Bush administration made in justifying regime change in Iraq -- especially coming on the heels of legitimate global outrage over evidence of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib prison.
The campaign to rehabilitate lower-level Baathist military commanders and political figures -- to buy calm in the rebellious Sunni heartland -- is a long-time favorite of the CIA and its Iraqi clients. But it is also a direct attack on the strong de-Baathification decree issued by Bremer in what is probably his most significant political accomplishment.
Bremer has also visibly withdrawn to the sidelines as U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been given free rein by the White House to choose and install an interim Cabinet of Iraqi technocrats on June 30, when the occupation symbolically ends and Bremer leaves for home and retirement from government service.
But the American administrator has time before then to shape events and certainly to share some hard truths about Iraq with those who will follow him and with an American nation that has begun to wonder if the Bush administration knows what it is doing in Iraq.
Bremer's fate since being rushed to Baghdad last summer to run the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) reflects in many ways the troubled arc of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The former diplomat and counterterrorism expert personifies all of America's good intentions, brash attitudes and manifest shortcomings in Iraq.
Bremer, like this administration, began with unshakable self-confidence. That quality initially helped halt a slide to disorder in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. But it also allowed no space for advice or criticism from others. Reluctant to turn over real authority even to his own American or British aides, Bremer distrusted and publicly disparaged the Iraqi politicians he appointed to the Governing Council. They were quick to return the favor.
He wound up being unable to work with or without the council, or to develop a political alternative to it for the future. He abandoned a complex caucus election plan when the Shiites rebelled. His bid for a legacy of relative stability went up in flames in Fallujah and Najaf, where revolts consumed the Iraqi security units created on Bremer's watch.
And in Washington, control of the occupation gradually shifted from Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, with whom Bremer worked smoothly, to the White House. Brahimi and U.N. involvement were then used to pre-empt criticism from Democrats on the campaign trail and to maneuver around Bremer on de-Baathification and the political future of Iraq.
Bremer "is a control freak," says a former U.S. official who is one of his greatest admirers. "Put him in a hierarchy and he will bend it to your needs and purposes. But the formlessness of that society and the necessary ambiguities people practice to survive there must be driving him crazy."
Like many proconsuls dispatched to the Third World before him, Bremer has pursued the illusion of absolute control in circumstances that permit no such thing. He has done so relentlessly, but fruitlessly and at a high cost to all involved.
Bremer cannot burnish a stellar reputation by leaving Iraq saying that it all worked out fine. History and the immediate future demand his candor and his renewed commitment to keeping the murderers and torturers from regaining power.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.