PRESIDENT BUSH'S central postwar strategic objective has been to keep Iraq whole and relatively insulated from regional vultures, even if it required a delay in Saddam Hussein's departure.
But Bush is now getting caught up in Iraq's civil war, in protecting the rebels from Baghdad, and he is losing his strategic focus. He thus runs the risk of the rebels -- who are backed by secret deliveries of arms and money by Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia -- transforming Iraq into a second Lebanon.
The happiest outcome, of course, would be for the Iraqi opposition (the Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Assyrian Christians and exiled democrats) to patch up their historical hatreds and form a harmonious democratic government in Baghdad. But this is a pipe dream whose pursuit will guarantee Iraq's fragmentation, not its democratization.
The real choice is between Lebanonization and this: a united Iraq with a weakened central government run by some of Saddam's cohorts. The second is the lesser evil for Iraqis and Americans.
Bush does not have much power to bring about the lesser-evil solution, but he can make a difference. He can stress to Iraqi military leaders that he favors a united Iraq and the restoration of order as long as they avoid their traditional brutality.
He also can tell our coalition partners and Iran to butt out of the civil war. Once they taste blood and oil, there will be no containing their ambitions.
Bush was firmly on the right course until the fighting ended two weeks ago. Then, with the Iraqi army killing rebels in the streets, he sent out confusing signals.
He warned Baghdad against using chemical weapons on the insurgents, and stopped Iraqi forces from using helicopters and moving fixed-wing aircraft. The impulse here was a good one -- to give Iraqi forces second thoughts about mass killings.
But the warnings also sent the wrong signal to Iraq's neighbors about U.S. intentions. They thought Bush was altering course and favoring Iraq's breakup.
Iran rushed into the opening and supplied small arms to its brothers, the Shiite fundamentalists, in southern Iraq. Turkey dispatched arms to the Kurds in the north, a surprise move given Ankara's usual opposition to Kurdish separatism.
Saudi Arabia offered cash to a diverse and untenable new group based in Beirut and Damascus. Syria reached out secretly to its few hidden contacts in Iraq's ruling Baath Party.
Secretary of State Baker only made matters worse on Sunday. Though he said the U.S. was not secretly providing arms to rebels, he hinted at other covert aid (which administration officials later denied).
Washington has to say a clear "no" to any effort by Iraq's neighbors to pour in arms and exploit the civil war. According to U.S. intelligence experts, more arms for the rebels will not produce their victory. At the most, the rebels can be expected to hold off the Iraqi army -- and turn their country into fiefs rivaling their tragic brother Arabs in Lebanon.
Separatism surely sounds sweet to peoples long terrorized by Baghdad and Saddam. But replaying the Lebanese experience would be a nightmare of at least equal proportions.
Outside powers would prey on the chaos. The next war and the next eruption of Islamic fundamentalism would be waiting around the corner, with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the whole Persian Gulf at high risk.
There is hope for another way if Bush will focus again, and hard, on preserving one Iraq. That means not destroying the only centralizing forces in the country -- Saddam's Baath Party and the military.
It means that holding Iraq together should take priority over Saddam's fast ouster. He can, must and will be removed by economic pressure, later.
His likely successors, Baath Party and military leaders, will be enervated and beleaguered. Bush can use that vulnerability to wrest concessions on constitutional reforms and greater local autonomy for the Kurds.
Deserved Kurdish autonomy will be more secure if granted by a debilitated Baghdad than if the Kurds have to fight for it every day. Full independence for Kurds would mean independence for the Shiites, and that is not a healthy trade-off.
Few want to see Saddam remain in power a minute longer than PTC necessary, or see bad guys succeed him in Baghdad. But a unified Iraq with a weak central government may represent the only chance for its people to be at peace with each other and with their neighbors.