When a student said he had consulted the great philosophers without finding evidence of God, Benjamin Jowett, master of Oxford's Balliol College from 1870 to 1893, replied, "If you don't find a God by five o'clock this afternoon, you must leave the college." Deadlines can be useful spurs.
But they also can be foolish fixations. On June 30, the deadline for transferring "sovereignty" to something Iraqi, no such thing will happen. There will be nothing to receive sovereignty, and the United States, whose writ does not run throughout Iraq, does not possess real sovereignty to give away.
The new faux government will lack two main attributes of sovereignty: a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and the ability to make laws. U.S. responsibility for using violence to maintain -- actually, to create -- order will remain. And Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy to whom President Bush has delegated the task of devising the interim government that will serve until January elections, says the interim government should not legislate. We may call this a government, but as Lincoln said: If I call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does the dog have? Five? No, four, because calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.
Brahimi is a useful reminder of how limited are the United Nations' uses. He says Israel is complicating his governmental carpentry in Iraq, and force is "never" the right answer to problems such as the seizure of Fallujah by armed insurgents. So, calm would come to Iraq if Israel returned to the 1949 armistice lines? Brahimi is called the best the "international community" has to offer, which may be true.
U.S. forces in Iraq can never be at the disposition of such people. Which makes it especially urgent to get to elections, the only possible source of legitimacy for an Iraqi government. The one clear use for the United Nations in Iraq is to help conduct elections. This prophylactic dose of U.N. involvement should reduce the need for any more involvement of the likes of Brahimi.
Elections should assure those of the Shiite majority that they will rule, thereby concentrating their minds on the practicalities of governance. Elections will put the Sunnis on notice that they must come to terms with majority rule.
Might elections provoke a Shiite-Sunni civil war? Yes. The presidential election of 1860 catalyzed the American Civil War. But in Iraq, civil war might be preferable to today's combination of disintegration tempered by violent Sunni-Shiite collaboration against U.S. supervision.
There is no historical precedent for the position the United States is now in. The fate of an immensely important undertaking, the entire Iraqi project, rests on the good will, or at least the forbearance, of one reclusive, inaccessible man, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has never consented to meet with Paul Bremer, the president's man in Iraq. Sistani has it in his power to make the U.S. presence in Iraq untenable.
Democracy is not merely majority rule, but it is essentially majority rule. Democracy should restrict the rights of a majority to work its will and should protect minority rights. Ideally, majorities should be unstable, shifting coalitions of minorities. This is why James Madison sought a geographically "extensive" and sociologically complex society that would generate a wholesome multiplicity of factions, which is the best guarantee against the tyranny to which democracies are prone, the tyranny of the majority.
But regardless of what democracy should do, broadly and over time it must mean majority rule. In Iraq, the Shiite majority needs to be assured now that it will rule soon.
Violent Sunnis must be crushed. Shiites need an incentive -- protecting their capacity to rule after elections -- to crush them and to discipline their own ranks. Iraq's third component, the Kurds, have representative institutions up and running, and an army to strengthen their hand in negotiating favorable parameters of federalism. They also seem amenable to a U.S. military presence in their midst.
The results of elections, including theocratic elements, may be markedly unlovely. That may break the big hearts of those in the U.S. government who hope for a luminously liberal democracy to shame the entire Middle East into emulation, thereby justifying the war originally justified primarily by the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But pursuit of that ideal can impede achievement of something tolerable: a stable, perhaps illiberal, even authoritarian Iraq which cooperates in the war against terrorism. Call this an exit strategy.