One of America's biggest problems in Iraq is its enormous credibility gap with Iraqis. Unfortunately, President Bush widened that disconnect this week by promising "full sovereignty" to an interim government on June 30. On that date, he declared, "the occupation will end."
Put yourself in the sandals of an Iraqi. Will it look as if the occupation is over and the nation has full control of its affairs when the US plans to keep more than 130,000 troops there? When Washington's ambassador to Baghdad will command the largest US embassy in the world? When US advisers will populate government ministries, and an international body will check on Iraq's use of its oil revenues?
The difficulty here is not necessarily the continuation of a strong American presence. Until Iraqi security forces are ready, an outside army is needed to handle insurgents and prevent a possible civil war.
At the same time, democracies don't spring up overnight or always in linear sequence. As EU Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten recently stated: "Developing democracy is not like making instant coffee" - though in this case, it certainly looks as murky.
But the rhetorical insistence that Iraqis will enjoy "full sovereignty" when a mere look down the street would indicate otherwise is foolish, and, if it disappoints and fires up Iraqis further, perhaps even dangerous.
In truth, what's taking place at the end of next month is the transfer to Iraq of administrative control. With the ill-advised promise already made, however, it seems no alternative remains but to try to come as close to fulfilling it as possible.
The international community is scrambling to do just that as members of the UN Security Council react to a draft resolution put forth by Washington and London this week. The resolution, which seeks the UN's blessing on the June 30 transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government, has been criticized for not living up to the sovereignty promise, especially relating to Iraqi control of coalition forces.
The US should not cede control of its troops to the Iraqis, as France and other countries have demanded. But perhaps common ground can be found in the comment by John Negroponte, the incoming US ambassador to Iraq, that the multinational forces will operate with Iraq's "consent and approval."
The resolution could be improved by following a suggestion from China and giving this interim government the power to review the mandate to keep foreign troops in Iraq - a review which the resolution gives only to the government that will be elected by the end of January 2005.
Given the security situation on the ground, and the need to provide order for the elections, it's highly unlikely that the interim government will send the Americans, British, and others packing. But there is much to be said for being an invited guest in a country, as opposed to an imposing force.
Another area of criticism is that while the handover will pass control of oil to the Iraqis, they will still be under the watchful eye of an international panel, which reportedly includes only one Iraqi. The reason for the supervision is to ensure against any illegalities, but surely there are enough ethical Iraqis who could serve on this board so that it's not dominated by foreigners.
Without doubt, the most important step toward full sovereignty will be the interim government, expected to be announced shortly by UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. The president, two vice presidents, prime minister, and 26 cabinet officers - although lacking an electoral mandate - will need to be perceived by a majority of Iraqis as ethnically and religiously representative, honest, and capable. That's a tall order, even for someone as skilled as Mr. Brahimi, who has been down this road before in Afghanistan.
With the Coalition Provisional Authority closing its doors on June 30, the new interim government will have center stage. It should use the spotlight for a key purpose: to publicly and vigorously prepare for elections - which not only puts Iraq on the path to true sovereignty, but true legitimacy, as well.