CHICAGO — CHICAGO - Back when the occupation of Iraq was expected to consist of a victory parade and a glorious flowering of democracy, the Bush administration was content to handle the job alone. But this week, it finally acknowledged that the only thing worse than being mired in a catastrophe is being mired there all by yourself. So it is planning to solicit the United Nations for volunteers to share its misery.
This is quite a reversal for a president who previously thought the reason you need allies is so you have someone to alienate. Whether he will find many countries eager to furnish large numbers of human targets for Iraq's shooting gallery is another question. As the Aug. 19 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad proved, the people intent on driving out American forces are equally prepared to slaughter anyone else who looks like an occupier.
To go begging to the United Nations to help clean up a mess that the United Nations warned against in the first place is not a minor embarrassment. It's the equivalent of CNN host Tucker Carlson having to eat a shoe after rashly predicting that Hillary Rodham Clinton's book would never sell a million copies.
But the flood of misfortunes left the administration no choice but to cry for help. Though it says success in Iraq will take a long time, failure apparently operates at Internet speed. The postwar U.S. mission started out badly, soon turned into a vexing predicament, and is headed for catastrophe.
We learned this week that nearly 10 American troops a day are now being wounded in action, on top of roughly one fatality every day. What was supposed to be an easy transition has turned into a debilitating and open-ended guerrilla war on the enemy's turf.
Far from gaining control of a fractious nation, the United States is losing the shaky grip it had four months ago, when the president cheerily declared an end to major combat operations. Every time conditions look as though they can't deteriorate any further, they do exactly that. The blast at the U.N. office looked like the worst thing that could happen, until an even bigger bomb went off at a Shiite shrine in Najaf, killing Iraq's most prominent moderate Shiite clerical leader along with at least 95 other people.
Shiites suspected the attack was carried out by Saddam Hussein's loyalists or rival Sunni militants. You might think the shock of internal warfare would push the Shiites into an alliance with the Americans, but no. At the ayatollah's funeral Tuesday, his brother put the blame squarely on the United States.
"The occupation force is primarily responsible for the pure blood that was spilled in holy Najaf," thundered Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who demanded that we leave. And this guy is a member of our own carefully selected Governing Council. Even the Iraqis who are working with us are working against us.
We are discovering that occupying the place means wielding an authority that, like the electricity supply, is fragmented, sporadic and frequently absent altogether. But we still incur all the responsibility for everything bad that happens in Iraq. Lately, just about everything that happens in Iraq has been bad. So the resentment of our presence keeps growing.
The president, however, insists there will be no second thoughts.
"Retreat in the face of terror would only invite further and bolder attacks," he informed the American Legion convention last week. "This nation will press on to victory."
But where is the plan that promises victory in Iraq? U.N. forces, if they come at all, may not be coming in numbers sufficient to matter. Even if they do, they will merely ease the strain on the American military - not make the country any safer or more governable.
We're going to persist with our current approach in Iraq mainly because we don't know what else to do. When the administration resorts to stressing the need to show our "resolve," as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is now doing, you know it's running out of ways to defend its policy.
That strategy brings to mind how President Lyndon Johnson approached Vietnam. After a certain point, escalation was out of the question because it might bring in China. Withdrawal was off the table because it would lead to defeat and humiliation. Staying in, but without the means to win once and for all, was the only choice left.
In the end, making that choice didn't prevent us from giving up. It just put off the inevitable until 58,000 Americans had died.
The Iraq mission looks doomed to failure. How many Americans have to die before we admit that?
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.