by John Peeler, Presidential Professor of Political Science

It is increasingly clear that the ongoing unpleasantness in Iraq reflects not just bumps in the road to a stable democracy in a transformed Middle East, as the Bush administration would have us believe. Rather, we may be witnessing the beginning of a downward spiral from which there is no good exit. Moreover, we are not just suffering from a string of bad luck: the invasion of Iraq was a stunning strategic blunder undertaken against the clear warnings of many people who understand the Middle East.

While most Iraqis are glad Saddam is gone, whatever credit the United States might have earned from overthrowing him has long dissipated in a miasma of frustration at the slow pace of change and anger at the American authorities who are responsible. The current scandal over the abuse of prisoners of war digs our hole all the deeper as it undermines our claim to have replaced an abusive tyrant by the rule of law. The administration will not be able to escape from the perception that prisoner abuse is more pervasive, and more a matter of policy, than it is willing to acknowledge. Credible allegations have been made by military personnel that the prison in question was under the direct control of military intelligence, the CIA, and civilian contractors. Furthermore, we have now been told by the administration that there have been a number of investigations of prisoner abuse prior to the current scandal, and that this episode was known for months, but was kept from both the public and the Congress until the photos broke the story. The perception of lawlessness and of disrespect toward Iraqis, Arabs, and Muslims will be hard to shake.

The current obsession with prisoner abuse distracts us from even more fundamental problems. The deteriorating political and security environment in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle suggest that we are losing ground in our attempt to consolidate a stable, post-Saddam regime. With less than 60 days to go until the much-celebrated transfer of "sovereignty" to an Iraqi government, we have no idea who is likely to make up that government, how they will be chosen, or how the country is then to move toward a constitutional and democratic regime. Having scorned and defied the United Nations at the outset, our administration is now reduced to hoping that Lakhdar Brahimi can somehow pull a rabbit out of a hat.

In Fallujah, epicenter of Sunni unrest, we have been faced with the choice of a destructive frontal assault that would entail major civilian casualties, or allowing a hostile militia to continue defying Coalition authority. The nonsensical solution is to delegate command to former Baathist generals who are to raise a local brigade to bring peace to the city. Who are their recruits likely to be, if not the same militants who have been picking off marines from the shelter of mosques? Having peremptorily dissolved the Iraqi armed forces when he took command, Paul Bremer now must turn to those very people to save the plan.

By turning to the Baathists to stabilize the Sunni region, however, the occupying authorities are further alienating the Shiite majority. While many Shiites welcomed our liberating forces, increasing numbers are now responding to the radical anti-Americanism of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia in entrenched in the holy city of Najaf. We dare not attack it for fear of further inflaming Shiite opinion, but every day that al-Sadr defies us strengthens him and weakens us.

Indeed, this is the dilemma that faces the whole occupation: if we are strong, we will be seen as oppressors who may be legitimately resisted; if we are weak, we will invite attack. Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. Bush! It's too bad you didn't listen to the many well-informed observers who tried to warn you not to do this.

Among those who warned (however ambivalently) was John Kerry. Kerry is right that Bush erred grievously in how he went in, thereby splintering the global coalition against terrorism and vesting the United States with total ownership of Iraq. But Kerry has no better idea than Bush how to get out of this mess. There is no good way out, and no good way to stay.

John Peeler may be reached at jpeeler@bucknell.edu

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