If America is ever to devise a coherent strategy to withdraw from a reasonably peaceful and stable Iraq, it has first to stop making mistakes there. Yet, in its haste to appear to be making progress, it keeps blundering further into a quagmire of its own creation, making it ever more difficult to discern the path to safety. Washington's latest error is the pressure it has been applying on the negotiators of a new Iraqi constitution to keep to a timetable which has more to do with US opinion polls than their own country's needs.
After more than three decades of tyranny, three devastating wars and years of sanctions and international isolation, the delegates had to address fundamental questions of power-sharing, civil rights, the role of Islam and the division of oil revenues. They were attempting to do this in a country carved out by the great powers after the First World War, with next to no experience of democracy. It was hardly surprising that they failed to meet the succession of artificial deadlines imposed by a White House desperate to improve its poll numbers. The consitution is now likely to fail, with dire consequences for Iraq.
The problem is that the US administration appears to be relying on a constitution and elections to quell a conflict which is taking a steady toll of US military personnel, killing Iraqi civilians by the thousand, preventing reconstruction and robbing the country of any chance of stability. But this is to reverse cause and effect: not only has the violence prevented any emergence of normal politics, it has become increasingly sectarian the longer it has been allowed to continue, turning an insurgency into civil war.
It will be impossible to create political structures capable of sustaining an American withdrawal unless Iraq's endemic bloodshed is dealt with first. But that requires an understanding of its causes, and in this respect it was depressing to hear Mr Bush last week attempting to rally domestic support by insisting: "As long as I'm the President, we will stay, we will fight and we will win the war on terror."
Only a few weeks ago we were told that the administration had decided to drop the "war on terror" slogan, acknowledging that it was counter-productive.
The more significant phrase, however, may be the one at the beginning rather than the end of that sentence. It shows that Mr Bush is already beginning to look to the perceived legacy of his two terms, and realises that he will be judged on Iraq. But if he is to be seen as having achieved anything beyond exchanging a despot, Saddam Hussein, for nameless chaos, his administration will have to stop pretending that things are going to plan.
We can hardly expect an admission of the ignorance and arrogance behind most of America's errors in Iraq, though an honest admission of the mistakes themselves, beginning with the disbandment of the Iraqi army and continuing with the botched proconsulship of Paul Bremer, would be a start. But it may be time to recognise that finding a solution to the Iraq impasse - even a start towards a solution - is a task that is likely to fall to whoever succeeds this President.Reuse content