PRIME MINISTER Iyad Allawi and his companions in Iraq's transitional government must be wondering what kind of used car they have bought from the Bush administration. They have a sovereignty that is so limited that they do not control their country's air space or its ports. The security forces they do control are so limited, undertrained, and untested that Iraq's new leaders are completely dependent on foreign soldiers even for their very lives.
They are being asked to rule a country that has been so reduced by the incompetence of the Americans that very few lights turn on at night in the capital, and security is so bad that US proconsul Paul Bremer had to creep away in a stealth handover, thus denying the Iraqis the ceremonial dignity of the raising of the flag in the full view of the Iraqi nation.
Iraq's new leaders have legal control of Saddam Hussein, but not physical custody, which pretty much describes their situation in the country at large. And all of this comes from the Bush team that sold you weapons of mass destruction, a Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda alliance, and dreams of Iraq as a light unto nations, a US style democracy, and a friend to Israel that the mother of all crooked used car salesmen, Ahmed Chalabi, promised.
The Bush administration promised change in the Middle East, but change came in the form of a deeper hatred for the United States, and an Iraq in which only 2 percent of the people view the United States as liberators.
The stealth handover seemed to symbolize the entire back-and-forth manner with which the United States has governed Iraq. At first it was going to be retired General Jay Garner as proconsul. But then, after only a month on the job, in came Paul Bremer. At first there was going to be a permanent constitution and general elections before the handover of sovereignty. But then the administration said sovereignty first followed by a constitution and elections.
One of Bremer's first acts was to disband the Iraqi army, putting 200,000 men out of work without pensions and unable to support their families. But then, after the damage was done, the United States changed its mind and began paying pensions and trying to reconstitute the army.
At first the Marines were going to root out those who had killed and mutilated four American contractors in Fallujah. Then that manhunt was abandoned and Fallujah turned over to a former general in Saddam Hussein's army.
At first Moqtada al-Sadr was going to be killed or captured. Then that was dropped and al-Sadr was left at large. At first it was going to be de-Ba'athification. Then it was re-Ba'athification, and on and on. And the Bush administration accuses John Kerry of flip-flops.
Indeed the entire history of Bush's intervention in Iraq became a series of fallback positions. When weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's connections with Al Qaeda turned out to be bogus, it was human rights that the administration turned to for justification; an irony for right-wingers who despise using military force for social engineering as something Democrats do. Then, of course, there is the legacy of Abu Ghraib.
The problem now will be for Iraq's interim government and its successors to get out from under the image of being American puppets -- something a succession of Saigon governments never managed to do. And they must be wondering if one day they too will be abandoned just as South Vietnam's leaders were.
As for the Americans, the State Department now takes over from the Pentagon with the arrival of Ambassador John Negroponte, but the endless problems between civilian and military authority that also hindered America's intervention in Vietnam will now begin.
Iraq's new leaders are aware that the American presence itself has become the problem, not the solution. But the profound hope of the Bush administration that Iraq's new government will now take the heat when things go wrong, at least until Nov. 2, may prove just another grand illusion.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.