President Bush has so badly lied himself into a corner that he now needs the bipartisan “Iraq Study Group” (headed by the Bush family’s fix-it man, former Secretary of State James Baker) to tell the American public that things are rapidly going south in Iraq. According to the New York Times, one commission member anonymously acknowledged, “There’s a real sense that the clock is ticking, that Bush is desperate for a change, but no one in the White House can bring themselves to say so with this election coming.” But media reports of the situation in Iraq should tell the American people that the Bush administration is lying to them about the prospects for success there. Yet, unlike the Hungarians, who have repeatedly put tens of thousands of protesters in the streets to try to oust their prime minister for lying about the Hungarian economy, Americans seem apathetically resigned to their politicians’ conviction that lying is just good, clean fun.

It is unclear whether even this commission is capable of telling the truth about Iraq. White House officials and fellow commission members told the Times that Baker is unlikely to generate findings that do not have the prior, tacit approval of President Bush. The Times quotes one of Baker’s colleagues as admitting, “He’s a very loyal Republican, and you won’t see him go against Bush.” Because Baker is a respected elder statesman with no job on the line, one would think it would be easier for him to put loyalty to America before loyalty to George W. Bush or the Bush family. Apparently not.

Unfortunately this misplaced loyalty has caused Baker to rule out the only viable solution remaining for Iraq: the decentralization of Iraqi governance. Baker would have to admit the situation is dire there to adopt this drastic solution that I proposed more than a year and a half ago and that Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has more recently endorsed. Baker has already dismissed the idea of dividing Iraq into three autonomous regions and distributing the oil wealth among the Kurds, Shiites and Sunni Arabs. He has argued publicly that the populations in the major cities are too intermingled to create autonomous regions, which he claims would cause a civil war if implemented.

On their recent trip to Iraq, if Baker and almost all of the other commissioners had set foot outside the Green Zone fortress, they would have found that the country is already in the throes of a civil war. In fact, the civil war and the resulting ethnic cleansing have reinforced what is a natural partition. The Kurds and their militias have their own quasi country in which the Iraqi government does not govern and the Iraqi flag does not fly. Many of the Shiite areas are governed by militias, which have also infiltrated the Iraqi police and army. In Sunni areas, guerrillas effectively control many towns. U.S. forces have been unable to disarm any of these armies.

The civil war will intensify if these regions are not allowed to govern themselves. Given Iraq’s recent history, these groups are fighting each other because they fear that the new central government will be used to oppress whatever group or groups are not in power. The only way to ease their fears is to make the central government weak or nonexistent. As for multiple ethnic/religious groups living in the cities, it is a fallacy that each of the autonomous regions in Iraq would have to be composed of contiguous territories. There could also be more than three regions created. In addition, if, for example, the regional lines had to be drawn so that some members of the Sunni group were a minority in the territory of the Shiite group, the Shiites might be deterred from violence against them because they had a minority in the Sunni areas, and vice versa.

Many opponents of decentralization or partition use the example of the civil war during the break up of Yugoslavia. Yet that is not the only model. Czechoslovakia and most of the Soviet Union broke up peacefully. The citizens of artificial countries often want self-determination because other groups within the country are trying to rule them or don’t recognize their culture, language or religious preferences. Even in the case of Yugoslavia, when Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia separated from Yugoslavia, if the Serbs in those states had been allowed to affiliate with Serbia, a civil war might have been avoided.

The United States should announce to the various Iraqi groups that U.S. forces will be rapidly withdrawn by a specific date. This action should be coupled with a U.S. offer to mediate a conclave of all Iraqi groups to attempt to negotiate an agreement on genuine self-determination. The threat of the United States removing the only remaining prop for the Iraqi government should motivate the petroleum-rich Shiites and Kurds, who dominate that government, to reach an oil-sharing agreement with the petroleum-barren Sunnis. The Sunnis are the only group that wants to maintain a united Iraq, because they fear that they would be left without oil if Iraq broke up into autonomous regions or separate states. An oil-sharing agreement reached before any decentralization would alleviate that fear.

The president and those giving him advice should admit the truth to themselves and to the American people: A unified, democratic Iraq is unattainable. Only then can they adopt and sell the radical solution of recognizing the existing de facto partition in Iraq and drastically shrinking or even eliminating the potentially oppressive central government. This solution is the only remaining hope for a U.S. withdrawal with any honor and the best chance for achieving peace and prosperity in Iraq.