When a Flip-Flop Actually Makes Sense

Regardless of their party or ideology, politicians have a habit of flipping and flopping on all kinds of issues. In a world shaped by unreliable information and stupid advice as well as unpredictable circumstances, the innate tendency of the successful pol to drop yesterday’s inconvenient certainties is not necessarily a bad trait. The most dangerous leaders tend to be those who insist on steadfast commitment to failing policies out of zeal, pride or superstition.

At long last, George W. Bush is beginning to behave more like a politician than a zealot. After months and years of ill-concealed hostility to the United Nations, he now turns to the international civil servants in Turtle Bay to save his mission in Iraq from catastrophe. United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been “tasked” to clean up the administration’s political wreckage and avert chaos after June 30, when sovereignty will supposedly revert to the Iraqi people.

In another signal of the importance suddenly accorded to international institutions by the White House, the President has also nominated U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte to serve as ambassador to the new Iraq. Mr. Negroponte, one of the nation’s most experienced diplomats, was notably unenthusiastic about the drive to war last year, even while he dutifully carried out the President’s reckless policies.

Were the stakes not measured in human blood, this rush to the U.N. would rank among the most comical flip-flops in recent diplomatic history. It’s an embarrassing comeuppance for arrogant unilateralism that Mr. Bush has yet to acknowledge, let alone explain. (Perhaps the Almighty has quietly advised Mr. Bush, who often suggests that he is guided by heaven, that the U.N. is not really an instrument of Satan after all.)

Any impulse to laugh, however, is stifled not only by the continuing peril to our troops and to millions of innocent Iraqis, but by the haunting possibility that the President may have come to his senses too late.

While Mr. Bush and his supporters talk loudly about “staying the course” in Iraq, their course took a sharp, dizzying turn when he ceded authority over the interim government to Mr. Brahimi. This shift followed the remarkable admission by L. Paul Bremer, the American satrap in Baghdad, that the Bush administration had no idea who or what would replace his writ in six weeks.

Just how stunning a reversal the Brahimi mission represents can be seen in the angry reaction of the neoconservative policymakers and pundits who ushered us into this bloody cul-de-sac. Among the outraged is former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, who regarded dismissal of the U.N. as one of the ancillary benefits of the Iraqi adventure. He now warns that the U.N. role should be kept to “an absolute minimum,” whatever that means. The Wall Street Journal accuses the President of “abdicating” responsibility to Mr. Brahimi in an editorial that contemptuously describes him as “an Algerian who works for Kofi Annan,” the U.N. secretary general.

The right-wing ideologues must avoid watching the news. They will not admit they were wrong about the number of troops needed to pacify Iraq, wrong about the need for broad international support and wrong about the expected attitudes of Iraqis toward the Americans who threw out the hated dictator.

The neoconservatives were fundamentally misguided about the likelihood of a secular democracy emerging from the ashes of Baathism. Now they seem to believe that the turmoil threatening Iraq’s future can be solved by military means, even if no more American troops are available to be deployed there. They’re wrong about that, too.

Those mistaken assumptions, cherished by Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, have badly diminished the prospects for a stable Iraq. With an inadequate military contingent and a pseudo-coalition that is starting to disintegrate, the United States was never able to establish real security in Iraq. Since the tragic destruction of the U.N. headquarters by terrorists last August, Mr. Annan understandably has been reluctant to send a significant delegation to assist in Iraq’s reconstruction.

Yet despite the U.N.’s trepidation and troubles-including the scandalous mismanagement of the old oil-for-food program-it represents the only alternative to the increasingly unpopular occupation authority. If Mr. Bush deserves blame for the mess from which he now struggles to extricate us, he also deserves credit for realizing that no escape will be possible without international assistance.

In the environment created by his administration’s incompetence, the prospects for success are dicey at best, no matter what he does now. But failure is far more likely unless the President returns to the U.N. Security Council to seek a resolution that will bestow legitimacy on the new Iraqi authority, the constitution that will be drafted next year and the following elections. When he ran for President in 2000, Mr. Bush said he would approach the world with humility. There could not be a better time to finally fulfill that promise.

When a Flip-Flop Actually Makes Sense