A Grim Graduation Day

By Richard Cohen

The Washington Post

Tuesday, June 29, 2004; Page A23

The New York City schools implemented a very controversial program this year to end social promotions. One of the fail-safe points comes in the third grade, when students, for some odd reason, have to prove that they can read and do some math. It's a good thing for the Bush administration that Mayor Mike Bloomberg was not doing Paul Bremer's job. If so, Iraq would have been left back.

Instead, Iraq graduated to sovereignty two days early -- a ceremony accelerated not because Iraq was doing so well but because it was doing so badly. The event was a surprise, moved up and held within the U.S.-controlled Green Zone for security reasons. "You are ready now for sovereignty," Bremer declared in the straight-faced manner of a principal who has just shaken hands with an illiterate. We will, it seems, leave no child behind.

The real failure here is not Iraq's, of course, but the Bush administration's. It is the parent and it once set out certain goals for its progeny that, by any measure, Iraq has not met. The first and most important is security. In the week preceding the sovereignty ceremony, about 140 Iraqis were killed in terrorist attacks. A day before, a U.S. Marine was shown as a hostage and a Pakistani civilian worker, kidnapped sometime earlier, was threatened with decapitation. Iraq is by no means secure.

Nor can it stand on its own -- another goal once enunciated by the Bush administration. About 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, fighting an insurgency that even the Pentagon, not known for its frankness, concedes is "much stronger" than anyone anticipated. Beyond that, no one seems to know who leads it, how it is coordinated and what, besides an American exit, it really wants. To quote "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid": "Who are those guys?" The insurgency clearly exists, but just who controls it -- if anyone does -- is unknown to American intelligence.

The ceremony in Baghdad is the appropriate time to pronounce the war in Iraq a failure, maybe even a debacle. Its only success was the removal of Saddam Hussein -- an ogre, yes, but one who had been largely defanged by years of U.N. sanctions, arms inspections and his own stunning incompetence. No meaningful link to al Qaeda has been established, no weapons of mass destruction have been found and no diminution of terrorism has resulted -- an astounding trifecta of failure.

In fact, as the State Department reluctantly reported, there is now more worldwide terrorism than ever before. Even Saudi Arabia, our friendly filling station, is a risky place for Americans. More successes like Iraq and Americans won't want to travel farther than Bruce Springsteen's Jersey shore.

Yesterday's ceremony was propelled by both logic and politics. The first has to do with one reason for the insurgency -- the U.S. occupation. The sooner Iraqis deal with Iraqis, the better the chances that a stable government of some sort can be formed. The swiftness with which the liberation became the occupation testifies to Iraq's low tolerance for anything that suggests Western (colonialist) interference.

But politics, too, plays a role -- the coming U.S. elections. The apparent policy of the Bush administration is to keep combat deaths to a minimum -- even if that means letting the bad guys go. It has enacted the doctrine first enunciated by Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, who, in paraphrase, said, "Watch what we do and not what we say." So watch when American soldiers do not clear out infestations of militia fighters, as has already been the case in Fallujah. That might be bad for Iraq, but it's good for Bush in November.

We all should wish the graduate well. If Iraq implodes -- civil war, etc. -- then the Middle East that Bush wants to transform into an Islamic Iowa is going to go to pieces, the final repudiation of the British Colonial Office's grand design for the region. Already the Kurds are making noises that sound suspiciously like a declaration of independence and no one, it seems, knows what the Iranians are up to -- or what they will do if their fellow Shiites, a majority in Iraq, somehow manage to lose the promised elections. Iraq faces so many formidable problems that if it were a stock I'd sell it short.

A supposedly new Iraq was born this week, a graduate going off -- really being kissed off -- without the necessary skills. It is riven by an insurgency and burdened by an economy that Saddam Hussein ruined and war hardly helped. The insincerely proud parent of this miserable misfit is the Bush administration, whose incompetence has been staggering. Yesterday's charade, though, is only half-done. Graduate the kid, if need be, but fail the principal.

cohenr@washpost.com