Washington The Bush administration is tossing babies off the Iraq sled as the wolves of disintegration creep closer. Desperation runs through the flurry of initiatives that the White House and State Department have breathlessly wheeled out to deal with Iraq's war in recent weeks.
And so it should. Desperation is the right conclusion to reach, and to communicate, to an Iraq that totters on the edge of extinction as a nation-state. Desperation is Iraq's ground truth, a ground truth the administration has long sought to deny and evade.
The sense that even President Bush will be eyeing the exit if Iraq's chaos worsens has spurred Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take serious steps - at long last - to encourage Iraqis to look for compromise rather than endlessly pursue revenge against each other, and to persuade Washington to give Iraq more room to deal with its neighbors in its own right.
The sobering effect these steps are having may turn out to be more important than the immediate practical outcomes of the overlapping and in places contradictory initiatives the administration has recently unveiled. These include Bush's military "surge," a regional political "realignment" and an international conference in Baghdad. Individually, none of these measures does much beyond buying time while the administration stalls critics and moves to define success in Iraq downward.
"The administration has been so focused on perception that it has frequently missed the point" of Iraq's complex realities, says Qubad Talabani, Washington representative of the Kurdish Regional Government. "If how it looks in Washington becomes more important than how it works out in Baghdad, we all lose."
That is a caution that applies to war critics who insist on unrealistic benchmarks or deadlines, as well as to war supporters who insist on Bush's freedom of action. Both tend to overestimate U.S. ability to manage withdrawal - or escalation - on its own terms, relegating Iraqis and others in the region to the status of bit players in an American political drama.
The addition of 17,500 troops into Baghdad announced by Bush on Jan. 10 smacked initially of being another gimmick, of resembling an exit-covering escalation, as in an old Western where the gunslinger backs out the saloon door with guns blazing.
But the impression of impending crisis has either prompted or helped Maliki to develop a political initiative of his own to accompany the surge - and has encouraged U.S. officials to give him more room to maneuver. Bypassing the dysfunctional "national unity" Cabinet that U.S. officials helped force on him nearly a year ago, the prime minister has created four committees to work directly with Gen. David Petraeus in implementing the new Baghdad security plan.
"Gen. Petraeus seems to agree that the prime minister's Baghdad security plan should not be seen as a crackdown but as a political effort that has important security aspects," Ahmed Chalabi, who heads the committee charged with building public support for the new effort, told me by telephone from Baghdad last week.
Maliki has turned to the energetic but controversial Chalabi - once supported by key figures in parts of the Bush administration and then dumped by the White House, allegedly because of his ties to Iran - to work on the task of reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis at the neighborhood level. "People are fed up with the violence" and may be ready to overcome old differences, says Chalabi, who seems to have noticeably softened his own past harsh judgments of the place ex-Baathists should occupy in Iraqi society.
Another sign of change: Washington settled last week for effective federalism in Iraq rather than clinging to unrealistic hopes for centralization of state power. U.S. officials prodded Maliki's Cabinet into accepting a new petroleum law allowing the Kurdish Regional Government to let contracts for exploration and production in the north while promising Sunnis a fair share of all oil revenue.
Iraq-centered realism also may be at work on the diplomatic track. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's new declared willingness to go to Baghdad to meet with Iranian, Syrian and other regional officials - IF a preparatory ambassadorial meeting there March 10 makes progress - rewards persistent efforts by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to host an international conference in the Iraqi capital. This looks like a more promising option than Rice's previously announced effort to exploit a diplomatic "realignment" that in effect would have pitted Sunnis against Shiites throughout the region.
These shifts amount to straws in a hurricane that still has to run its course. But in the Middle East, as elsewhere, desperation is frequently the mother of progress.