CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — The US intervention in Iraq, which was earlier sold to the US public as a potential "cakewalk," has instead turned into a damaging quagmire. The least- bad choice now for President Bush is to hand the administration of Iraq over to the United Nations.
As I had earlier predicted, the US engagement in Iraq has turned into a Vietnam-style imbroglio. The question now is: What can the Bush administration do so that it won't dig itself even deeper into desert quicksands?
Continuing the present policy of trying to administer Iraq nearly unilaterally offers zero foreseeable chance of success for two reasons:
First, the casualty toll continues to mount. Twenty-nine US troops have been killed in combat since Mr. Bush declared hostilities over on May 1 - and an additional 42 have been killed in "noncombat incidents" in Iraq. (Many of these incidents were related to the climate of insecurity.)
Second, there is the cost of the massive and ever-lengthening US troop presence in Iraq. The Brookings Institution's military specialist Michael O'Hanlon has written that even if Washington can secure 20,000 to 30,000 troops from other allies (in addition to those already sent by Britain), "125,000 to 150,000 US troops could still be needed for a year or more - with 50,000 to 75,000 Americans remaining in and around Iraq come 2005 and 2006."
That seems a fairly conservative estimate. But sustaining a deployment of such a size in faraway Iraq will be a huge cost for US taxpayers.
Some might say that Iraqis should pay for the occupation force themselves, from future oil revenues. But that's an unrealistic dream. Iraq's oil industry needs big investment to return to profitability. And it has never been agreed by anyone else - including, crucially, the Iraqis - that the US should be allowed to disburse oil revenues, once they start to flow.
For me, though, the truly crucial evidence showing that Washington's present policy can't work comes from a modest house in the southern Iraq city of Najaf. There, on June 30, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa (religious decree) stating that Iraqis need to hold a nationwide vote to choose any provisional governing council for the country, and then to vote a second time on any constitutional arrangement that the council may propose.
That fatwa was momentous. As the only grand ayatollah in Iraq, Mr. Sistani is the leading source of spiritual advice for the 60-plus percent of Iraqis who are Shiites. Until June 30, he was best known for the strong reluctance he showed to getting involved in politics. But now he will be listened to, carefully. In a time of uncertainty, many Iraqis - even previously secular ones - have turned to their religious leaders for guidance.
Mr. Sistani has thrown down a gauntlet to US administrator Paul Bremer.
Mr. Bremer, first of all, delayed formation of any nationwide advisory council made up of Iraqis. Then, he spelled out clearly that this council, when formed, will be appointed by him.
Sistani and other Iraqi Shiite leaders can be expected to play a smart, well-informed political game. It's hard to turn aside their call for elections (though the organization of a vote could take some weeks, and would require the country to be much calmer than it is now.) The Shiite leaders would probably also work hard to build strong alliances with non-Shiite Iraqis, as their coreligionists in Lebanon have done.
Meanwhile, most Iraqi Shiites are not actively confronting the US or British forces. They're having too good a time watching US troops and Iraqi Sunnis bloody each other in the "combat zone" north of Baghdad.
How could turning over Iraq's administration to the UN improve the situation? A UN administration would have a degree of global legitimacy that the US presence in Iraq totally lacks. The UN could mobilize peacekeepers and other peacebuilding resources from around the world, and would enjoy much more legitimacy than the US with Iraqis themselves. (NATO, whose involvement has been urged by Sen. Joe Lieberman, shares the US's legitimacy problem in a non-European place like Iraq. And anyway, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did much damage to relations with NATO allies with his ill-considered jibes against "Old Europe" earlier this year.)
Before the quagmire in Iraq gets stickier and more costly for the US, Bush should look back and reflect on just how his administration got into this mess. The eagerness with which Mr. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney advocated invading Iraq rather than pursuing other available options should come under particular scrutiny. So, too, should the so-called "Rumsfeld Doctrine" of focusing on the use of "light, rapid forces" in combat. These forces may bring a rapid and decisive victory on the battlefield, but they have little capacity to secure the peace.
There are many lessons to learn from the US's imbroglio in Iraq. But Washington's policy focus should be on ending the loss of US blood and treasure while making things better for (and with) the Iraqis.
For that, only the UN can do the job.
• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.