Washington President Bush has relied on his intuitive feelings about other leaders to shape American foreign policy through five years in office. That habit is now leading him down a dangerous path in Iraq, where Bush and his aides are falling back on personalities and an empty slogan calling for a national unity government as answers to a metastasizing political crisis.
From looking into Vladimir Putin's eyes to get a sense of the Russian president's soul in 2001 to bending his own schedule and protocol rules to host Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the White House on Feb. 28, during Italy's fierce election campaign, Bush has personalized policy decisions beyond the limits observed by most of his predecessors.
Bush can cite dividends from this approach, such as the help that Berlusconi, Britain's Tony Blair and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi have coaxed from their reluctant nations for the United States in Iraq. Although the president has grown skeptical of Putin, he still sensibly strives to use their relationship to keep U.S.-Russian relations stable.
But trading favors and confidence with established elected leaders is much easier than trying from afar to pick winners and losers in the unpredictable maelstrom that 30 years of war, tyranny, invasion and social collapse have created in Iraq. A great deal of modesty, and a sober recognition that an orderly decentralization of power is the key to Iraq's future, is in order throughout Washington.
That is, the administration should pay more attention to shoring up the cumbersome political process it has imposed on Iraq and be less involved in boosting the chances of individual Iraqi politicians with whom Bush feels personally comfortable while undercutting those he disdains.
To say that Bush is in over his head in charting Iraq's politics would not be an insult to the president; no one "knows" enough at this point to set down inflexible prescriptions or deadlines, or to mandate national leaders on the basis of instinct. Iraq is a work in progress that demands planning while staying infinitely flexible: Concentrate on institutions rather than individuals.
This does not mean the United States is powerless in Iraq. The "internal exit strategy" of pulling U.S. troops off Iraq's streets and then out of its cities by year's end that I described in a recent column can contribute to stability. It needs to be matched with clarity of purpose - and with a political strategy that is not hostage to the president's likes and dislikes.
The perils of the personalization of Iraqi policy were underlined by the open intervention of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week into the battle over a new term for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Iraqis (accurately) saw her visit to Baghdad with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in tow as an effort to derail al-Jaafari and clear the way for a rival, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is currently in favor at the White House.
Even a previous Bush favorite, Ayad Allawi, distanced himself from the Rice-Straw mission by staying out of the country while it was under way and boasting of his absence in an interview in the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
If successful, the Rice gambit guarantees that Abdul Mahdi will now be seen as America's man - not necessarily an overwhelming asset in Iraq at the moment. And the administration will have lent its weight and prestige to breaking apart the Shiite coalition that won the most seats in January's democratic elections and then nominated al-Jaafari for a second term.
Splitting the Shiites, who form the majority in Iraq, moves the country closer to atomization, not to the "national unity government" that the administration says must be formed quickly to keep U.S. support for Iraq. At this point, the unity government remains a slogan. Previous American actions have helped put a strongman approach to governance out of reach.
The political system left behind by Bush's first proconsul, Paul Bremer, mandates a system of checks and balances that makes it nearly impossible to form a central government, much less let it function as a strong recentralizing force. The Bremer arrangements recognized a need for federal protections for the country's three distinct regions - protections that are not championed as strongly by Bush's current ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Iraq was grimly predictable under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, which did reflect one man's easily decipherable murderous personality. For all of its grave problems, Iraq is not like that today and should not be treated as if it were.