The Democrats’ victory on November 7 and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s departure a day later marked the beginning of the end game in Iraq.  The moment is reminiscent of December 1970, when President Nixon decided to pull U.S. forces out of Vietnam by the end of the following year.  The major difference is that Nixon’s decision was very much his own—his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, among others, had opposed it—whereas President George W. Bush would have preferred to “stay the course” “until the job is done.”

It is noteworthy that Dr. Kissinger, ever the realist, declared last November that the United States would have to choose between stability and democracy in Iraq—and that democracy was out of reach: “I think that’s reality.  I think that was true from the beginning,” he said.

Iraq is not a nation in the historic sense . . . The evolution of democracy . . . usually has to go through a phase in which a nation [is] born.  And by attempting to skip that process, our valid goals were distorted into what we are now seeing.

The Bush policy has failed.  The “job” has never been clearly defined, and therefore—to paraphrase Mr. Rumsfeld—the presumed moment of its successful completion has always been an unknown unknown.  Domestic approval for President Bush’s handling of Iraq has dropped to the lowest level ever—31 percent—and the erosion of support was most pronounced among self-designated conservatives and Republican men, key supporters who elected Bush to the White House and gave him a second term in 2004.

The appointment of Robert M. Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld was a belated intervention by the grown-up team of George H.W. Bush to put the house in order and salvage the family name.  The self-serving idiots who cooked up the mess denied the obvious, but the insiders know the truth: When Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks was asked if a Newsweek headline, “Father knows best,” was just “an easy, cheap Oedipal way for the press to characterize what’s going on,” he responded that “just because it’s easy and cheap doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

Another visible sign that the realists are attempting to limit neocon damage was the long-expected return of James A. Baker III to center stage, as co-head of the Iraq Study Group (ISG).  The prodigal son opposed the establishment of the ISG a year ago, but, by late November, he was reduced to citing it four times in a single speech.

The commission urged the Bush administration to open diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria, to make it feasible to start “redeploying” (i.e., pulling out) U.S. forces from the region in 2007.

In recent months, despite his mille-narian rhetoric, President Ahmadinejad’s foreign-policy objective has been to convince Mr. Bush that regional stability is impossible without his acquiescence and that the cost of trying to isolate and intimidate Iran may prove prohibitive.  He is essentially right: The United States has no formula to contain Iran and, at the same time, maintain the semblance of Shiite cooperation in Iraq.  It would be in the American interest to give Iran a stake in a new regional-stability framework.  A viable resolution of the nuclear row depends very much on how the parties can come to terms with each other politically.  If Washington recognized Tehran’s regime, stopped threatening it, and agreed to controls on weapons of mass destruction across the region—including Israel’s—it would make considerable progress in dealing with the nuclear issue.  A bullish, increasingly self-confident Mr. Ahmadinejad will demand a price for his stake in the project that Mr. Bush had been loath to pay.  In the end, he may have no choice—and the predicament is entirely of his own making.

Unlike Ahmadinejad, Bashir Assad is a secularist who can be won over to the idea of a peace treaty with Israel in return for Washington’s recognition of the legitimacy of his regime.  Furthermore, Hezbollah—feeling cocky after its successes last July—cannot function in Lebanon if the lifeline from Damascus is severed.  Other Arab countries may publicly frown on this scenario while discreetly supporting it.  The Arab world is aware of the connection between Iran and Hezbollah, and it is uncomfortable with the implications of Iran’s growing influence and stature in the region.  If offered a new regional arrangement underwritten by the United States that would make him an accepted player, Assad may terminate all support for the insurgents in Iraq and help make the quagmire there more manageable for the United States.

Baker’s suggestion makes eminent sense.  Syria has never been guilty of a terrorist outrage comparable to Lockerbie, yet Libya’s Qaddafi—having done his penance—has been rehabilitated.  In the aftermath of September 11, Damascus passed on to the United States hundreds of files on Al Qaeda and other anti-Western terrorists and their organizations throughout the Middle East, many of whom targeted Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others besides the United States.  By contrast, any “regime change” in Damascus remains a risky proposition as long as the Muslim Brotherhood represents the only likely alternative to Assad.

The ISG also recommended telling the Shiite-led Baghdad government that U.S. troops will only stay if it ends sectarian violence.  That Iraq is in the grip of a civil war is no longer a matter of semantic dispute, and the United States must not act, or be perceived as acting, in support of one side in that war.  The Shiites have upped the ante by sentencing Saddam to death, and Washington must prevent his execution in order to make a phased disengagement possible.  A viable exit strategy demands the development of a working rapport with Iraq’s six million Sunnis, who provide the backbone of the insurgency.  Seeing firsthand that they cannot expect fairness or justice from this or any other Shiite-dominated government, those Sunnis will be even less motivated than before to end their resistance.

The Sunnis rightly fear economic disadvantage by being left with no oil, and Washington should exert its influence to ensure that oil and gas revenues—which now go largely to the Shiite south and the Kurdish north—are more equitably divided.  It is necessary to place Kirkuk—a major center of oil production—in the Sunni Arab unit in the middle of the country.  We need a Sunni stake in the coming Iraqi oil bonanza.  For p.r. purposes, it can be presented as “democratic”: There is, in fact, no Kurdish majority in the city of Kirkuk or its region.  Kurdish nationalists may claim it as their regional capital for sentimental and financial reasons, but they should be told in no uncertain terms that they cannot have it all.  De facto statehood in the northern third of Iraq—minus Kirkuk—is more than the Kurds could have hoped for a mere decade ago.  They should count their blessings and play along.

Winning over the Kurds is necessary to prevent a joint Shiite-Kurdish front against such proposals.  This demands the lure of substantial legally sanctioned and constitutionally enshrined Kurdish autonomy in a decentralized Iraq (whether Ankara likes it or not), with the parallel warning to the Kurds that, in the final analysis, they have less reason to fear the dethroned Sunnis than they do Ayatollah al-Sistani and his Shiites, whose long-term goal is to turn the whole of Iraq into an Islamic republic ruled by sharia.  The Shiites’ continued good will, by contrast, may be purchased by allowing them to turn their oil-rich putative statelet in the south into a mini-Islamistan if they are so keen on the concept, so long as the Iranians are kept firmly out of the proceedings.

To control the situation, the United States will need to create a split within the ranks of Iraqi insurgents between the ideologues of jihad, who don’t give a hoot for Iraq as such but simply want to use her as a chapter and a focal point in their global struggle, and those who are driven primarily by nationalist and tribal motives.  This would require overcoming distaste for a dialogue with former Ba’athists and Saddam loyalists, but no such dialogue will be possible if Saddam is hanged under the noses of American soldiers.

On the other hand, if Washington were to act to prevent such an outcome, the breach with the Shiites would draw closer and make Iraq even less governable than she is today.  Since such a breach is likely inevitable, it is better to risk it now and level the playing field than to continue pandering to Shiite designs that are quickly turning most of Iraq into an Islamic republic in the image of Iran.  Caught between the Sunni rock and the Shiite hard place—again, both of his own making—Mr. Bush should ensure that Saddam’s additional trials and subsequent appeals will drag on through the next two years of an embarrassing, lame-duck presidency.

With the return of the realists, it is finally possible to expect the development of a plan construed along these or similar lines.  It is ironic that the current Bush administration resorted to “realist” arguments in 2003, when it used nonexistent WMDs as an excuse for a Wilsonian mission of spreading democracy, but the time for such inanities is finally over.

The disengagement scenario will contain many unknowns and may generate new dynamics that are difficult to predict and control.  Unlike anything we have seen coming from the White House, the Pentagon, or the State Department under George H.W. Bush’s inept son, however, it also offers a chance for disengagement without any further harm to America’s standing, and without any further transformation of Iraq into a chaotic, ungovernable base for jihad