Although Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied that the United States is losing the war in Iraq, he admitted that the United States is negotiating with important groups in the insurgency. Pursuing such talks is a good start but not enough.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Rumsfeld showed his continuing flair for “spin”: “Foreign troops are not going to beat the insurgency. It’s going to be the Iraqi people that are going to beat the insurgency and Iraqi security forces. That’s just the nature of an insurgency, and it may take time....”

Yes, lots of time. If the best army in the world cannot defeat the insurgency, the inexperienced and oftentimes hapless Iraqi security forces are unlikely to do so. Negotiations with rebellious groups are a tacit admission by the Bush administration that the war is being lost and run directly counter to Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion that the insurgency is in its “last throes.” The talks implicitly acknowledge that the insurgency cannot be extinguished by military means and that dialogue with the rebels is an attempt to find a political solution to the conflict.

But advocates of peace should let the Bush administration save face, at least the portion that doesn’t already have egg on it. Admitting—at least tacitly—that a problem exists is the first step toward a solution, and negotiating with the insurgency is the right move.

Unfortunately, the ongoing talks are unlikely to succeed. The Sunni Arab rebels are unified in demanding a specific timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, according to the Sunday London Times. Fearing the loss of leverage over Iraq’s future, the administration has resisted making such a commitment. Ideally, the administration would like to use U.S. troop withdrawal as a bargaining chip to win Sunni participation in the Iraqi political process.

The Sunnis have been extremely uncomfortable with that political process because they fear that the Shi’a and Kurds—who control the U.S.-backed Iraqi regime—will use the central government’s power to pay them back for their past oppressive rule of Iraq. The Sunnis, with some justification, fear that democracy in Iraq could result in a “tyranny of the majority.”

The Sunnis know that the only thing propping up the Shi’ite-Kurdish government is U.S. military power. If the U.S. forces leave, the Sunnis have a better chance of again taking over the central government to prevent its use against them. If they feel really threatened, the Sunnis may not honor any agreement to lay down their guns after the United States withdraws. And that is precisely the administration’s fear.

But a way out exists for the United States. Although they are battle-hardened, the Sunni guerrillas would not automatically win back control of the central government in a post-U.S. Iraq. The Kurds have formidable militias that have been trained by the best armies in the world, and the majority Shi’a have their own militias, some of whom have combat experience, as well as a pool of potential recruits that dwarfs the other groups. Although the potential for civil war exists after a U.S. withdrawal, it might be avoided if the administration is open to radical new ideas, such as a decentralized government.

Because the Sunnis fear Shi’ite domination, they may have an incentive to quit fighting if this fear is eliminated. The only way that can be done is by making the Iraqi central government weak or nonexistent. That way, no group fears that any other group will gain control of the Iraqi security forces and use them to oppress the other groups. In any decentralizing settlement, those security forces would need to be dismantled and security provided by local militias or police forces.

Decentralized governance—a confederation or a partition—would immediately satisfy only the Kurds, who experienced a de facto state of independence from the rest of Iraq for more than a decade. Like the Sunnis, the Shi’a would like to control all of Iraq. Although the Shi’a have the numbers, their community is fractious and their militias are probably the weakest. Without U.S. military power, the Shi’a are not strong enough to dominate all of Iraq.

So although decentralized governance may not seem the perfect solution for all of the main Iraqi groups, they may be willing to accept it because they are each individually too weak to control all of Iraq but want to ensure the security of their own peoples and territory. Even potential reactions by Iraq’s neighbors to a controlled weakening of the central government have probably been overstated. The Turks would likely be constrained from reckless military action by their overwhelming desire to get into the European Union, and the export of Persian Iran’s failed theocratic rule to Iraq’s Arab Shi’a would probably have at most limited success.

Decentralized governance is not a panacea. The administration is so far in the hole that civil war remains a distinct possibility. And the issues of oil revenue sharing, the status of Kirkuk, and the boundaries for areas of self-rule would have to be settled. Despite these challenges, however, a negotiated U.S. withdrawal and agreement among Iraqi groups for a decentralized solution are the best hope for salvaging Iraq. Because the U.S. public will eventually demand a U.S. withdrawal, a controlled decentralization of Iraq is better than one arrived at later in chaos or civil war.