As President Bush weighs his options for forging a new Iraq policy, he faces this big conundrum: Many proposals call for greater reliance on and deeper development of the Iraqi state, but the reality is that the Iraqi state, in many respects, does not exist.
The state created by the iron fist of Saddam Hussein has been wiped away, replaced by a resurgent tribal society ruled by mutually distrustful political parties that find unity all the more elusive as sectarian violence rages. The result: More than three years after the invasion, the US is still looking for a reliable and effective partner to work with, experts say. US disappointment in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is evident, and speculation is building over radical alternatives for forging a strong state.
"The problem is that institutions that did exist have been destroyed ... and that leaves a large political vacuum that can't be fixed short-term," says Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert who consulted with the Iraq Study Group. The group's report on "a new way forward" in Iraq was recently delivered to the White House, Congress, and the US public.
Embed more US military advisers with the Iraqi Army for training while the Iraqis carry out combat missions? Good idea, but that presupposes existence of a national army at a time when even Iraqi leaders denigrate their forces as weak, sometimes corrupt, and riven by sectarian divisions.
Renew a push for reconstruction, but use Iraqi money? What little Iraqi money is being spent on improving services is not being apportioned equitably among Iraq's communities, the minority Sunnis say.
Create jobs for thousands of jobless young men? The state factories of the Hussein era closed after the US invasion, and much of the entrepreneurial class that might restart industry has fled.
"We are talking about working with national institutions when we are dealing with a place where national institutions don't exist," says Patrick Lang, a Middle East specialist formerly with the Defense Intelligence Agency. "The fact is that Maliki is just one of a number of Shia contenders for power, the military is mostly a Shia force, and the police even more so. Despite that," he adds, "we continue with the central failure of our policy, which is to see Iraq as a nation-state when in reality it is a group of nations."
The Bush administration is putting a hopeful face on its assessment of the Maliki government, with the president and other officials saying they believe Mr. Maliki understands the hard decisions he must make to save Iraq. They were heartened by Maliki's recent calls for dismantling all militias – private armies loyal to political parties or individual leaders – and his initiation last weekend of a reconciliation drive.
Maliki also proposed that ex-army officers be welcomed back into the military – a potential way to rebuild Sunni national allegiance and drain the insurgency.
But a recent memo detailing Maliki's shortcomings by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley offers a more accurate picture of the US assessment of the Iraqi leader, analysts say. That, they add, explains why Bush last week welcomed other Iraqi figures to the White House.
One problem is that in its push to make Iraq a "beacon of democracy" for the Middle East, the Bush administration pushed for elections that, while providing a government, revealed a divided society with little experience in democratic governance.
"An entity [is] there in the form of an elected government. It's just not terribly functional," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Middle East analyst now at the National Defense University here. "We can hardly just disregard what we helped create, so we are increasing the pressure as a sort of one last chance."
Ms. Marr, a frequent visitor to Iraq who meets with all political groups, sees signs that the factions are "trying to pull back from the brink." Compromise appears within reach on legislation to divide oil revenue among Iraq's regions, which divide mostly along ethnic lines. Settling the oil-revenue issue is considered a key to establishing guideposts for an emerging federalism.
But doubts are multiplying over whether such decisions will still matter amid conditions many analysts describe as civil war. "Compromise is a new concept," Marr says, "and there are no guarantees they are going to learn fast enough."
The "learning curve" question may have also caught up with the military. "A truly national army could be created over 10 to 15 years, but we don't have that kind of time," Mr. Lang says. "Other national institutions just aren't there."
A "reestablishment of reality in Iraq," as Lang calls it, explains some of the provocative ideas under consideration. One idea, the "80 percent solution," calls for relying on the Shiite majority (65 percent of the population) and the geographically separate Kurdish minority (15 percent) to bring order, while abandoning the Sunnis. But Saudi Arabia has warned against that. It sees such an option as delivering Iraq to Iran on a platter, and warns the US it might enter the conflict on the side of their brethren Sunnis if the US abandons them.
A political solution must include secular Sunnis such as former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Ms. Yaphe says, in part because that is where any firm sense of a strong central government resides. Excluding "chief troublemakers" like anti-American Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr and the ex-Baathists in the insurgency, Marr warns, does not mean they will just go away.