CHICAGO -- For Americans weary of the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq, June 30 shimmers like an oasis in the desert. That's the day the Coalition Provisional Authority plans to transfer power to an interim Iraqi government, relieving us of the burden of ruling people who have mixed feelings about our presence. The tough part of the U.S. mission will be over, and we can get ready to bring our soldiers home.
Don't we wish.
Lately, the news has been dominated by the dispute over whether to choose the new regime through regional caucuses, as the Bush administration proposes, or direct elections, as the most prominent Shiite cleric demands. Even our favorite ally, Ahmad Chalabi, a prominent member of the Iraqi Governing Council, has endorsed early elections. What Americans may have overlooked is that regardless of how the government is chosen, our troops are likely to be in Iraq for a long time. After June 30, in fact, things may get worse instead of better.
In the next few months, the 130,000 personnel now in Iraq will be leaving, but they'll be replaced by 105,000 fresh troops. Even if the United Nations agrees to take a big role, Vice President Dick Cheney said recently, "the U.S. is going to be there for some considerable period of time dealing with the security issues."
Ah, the security issues. The hope is that once Iraqis are nominally in charge, the insurgency will fizzle. But the diehards don't want to build a stable democracy. They want to force us out. As long as American GIs are there, they'll be targets.
The changeover may fuel unrest. The reason security is worst in Sunni areas is that the minority Sunnis are afraid the Americans are plotting to give power to the majority Shiites. The reason 100,000 Shiites marched in the streets of Baghdad last week is that they're afraid the Americans are plotting to give power to the Sunnis.
No matter which group gains the upper hand in the new government, the other may see violent resistance as the best option. Americans will be caught in the middle.
The problem with U.S. policy is that the administration hasn't decided if it would rather extricate itself in the near future or turn Iraq into a model for the region. The strategy it has ended up with, reflecting a combination of ambivalence and wishful thinking, features the worst of both options: an indefinite commitment putting U.S. troops at risk, but with little hope of achieving a permanent transformation.
Conservatives insist we can do for Iraq what we did for Germany and Japan after World War II. But President Bush has declined that kind of commitment. In 1945 and 1946, reports researcher Seth Jones of the RAND Corp., the United States had 100 troops in Germany for every 1,000 Germans. In Iraq, we have about five soldiers for every 1,000 Iraqis.
Not only that, but Germany was an easier mission. We didn't face armed opposition. American forces, notes Mr. Jones, didn't suffer a single postwar combat casualty in their sector of Germany. The country also had a modern economy, as well as experience with democracy. Iraq has neither.
There's an obvious alternative to the grand talk of nation-building: holding direct elections at the earliest practical date, turning over power to a government with some legitimacy and heading straight for the exits. In other words, leave Iraq to the Iraqis.
With their superior numbers, the Shiites are likely to gain control sooner or later anyway. By resisting that outcome and dragging our feet on elections, we are only alienating them and discrediting our motives. Accepting the Shiite demands would antagonize Sunnis, but they're already against us -- and better to antagonize a minority than a majority.
It would also pave the way for a government with the strength to restore order. The regime might be at least somewhat authoritarian, but given Iraq's backwardness and brutal history, that's probably inevitable in the long run. And it would be a small price for us to pay to be out of Iraq.
But the Bush administration doesn't really want to be out of Iraq. It prefers to stay and exercise control, to make sure the nascent democracy doesn't produce the wrong sort of government. It wants to refute any charges that we would "cut and run." It yearns to redeem a war launched on premises we now know were false.
So we're miring ourselves deeper and deeper, facing armed attacks and mass demonstrations, while holding on to hope that things will improve. But as they say in the military, hope is not a strategy.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.