The test of a great nation is whether it has the capacity to own up to its mistakes and change course for the sake of the country and the world. The Johnson and Nixon administrations failed this test in Vietnam, prolonging an unwinnable war that cost millions of lives while weakening America at home and abroad. The Bush Administration likewise shows no sign of facing up to its errors in Iraq. As US casualties mount (thirty-four deaths since George W. Bush declared combat over on May 1) and the financial costs of the occupation grow (Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s latest estimate is $3.9 billion a month for the military costs alone), the Administration seems more concerned with preserving its postwar imperial position than with creating a stable and democratic Iraq. The result has been a badly bungled occupation and an increasingly embittered Iraqi population that blames the United States for the lack of progress on everything from the disruption of basic services, to the continued civil disorder, to the slow movement on giving Iraqis a real say in their future.

It is time for the White House to acknowledge that it made a profound strategic mistake in waging war in Iraq without the support of the international community, and that the United States and its small band of allies do not have the resources, expertise or legitimacy to stabilize Iraq, let alone establish the conditions for an Iraqi democracy. It is also time for the White House to request that the United Nations take over primary responsibility in Iraq as the only way of accomplishing this goal.

Faced with some tough questions from members of Congress, Administration officials did acknowledge recently that they underestimated both the cost and security dangers of the postwar occupation. But they seem to believe that their belated efforts to establish an Iraqi Governing Council and to woo international “help,” together with a more aggressive response to guerrilla attacks, will be enough to keep the sinking ship afloat. Again, as in their initial calculations, they are likely to be mistaken.

Take the most basic issue, security. Rumsfeld attributes the security dangers in Iraq to a few Baathist “dead-enders,” along with some foreign elements trying to embarrass the United States. But that description underestimates not only the extent of the resistance but its causes. Opponents to the US presence also include many Shiite clerics and their followers, and even among secular-leaning Iraqis the United States has few active supporters.

The Administration’s plans for an Iraqi police force have been plagued with problems. On July 5 a bomb in Ramadi killed seven members of the first class of US-trained police, confirming many Iraqis’ fears that they will be targeted by local militias if they are seen as cooperating with the Americans. Meanwhile, efforts to secure international forces to augment and replace overstretched US troops have had little more success. India has just announced that it is turning down a US request for 17,000 troops, on the grounds that it could not make such a commitment without a UN mandate. Likewise, no Arab country will commit any sizable contingent unless it is to a UN force–nor will countries like France or Russia, which opposed the war in the first place. And countries like Poland that are willing to send troops are unlikely to do so for any length of time without the financial compensation that a UN peacekeeping framework provides.

The only way for the White House to rectify its mistake would be to turn over the postwar administration of Iraq to the UN, which despite its limitations is in a better position to pull together the forces and expertise required for the long-term project of establishing self-government in Iraq. This is not an argument for the United States to abandon its responsibilities in Iraq. But Washington must face the fact that we cannot fulfill those responsibilities as long as we are seen as an occupying power that lacks the full support of the Iraqi people and the international community.

The Administration will continue to deny what it has created in Iraq. Therefore not only Democratic and Republican elected officials but all concerned citizens must demand that the White House change course. Shifting public sentiment offers an opening: A late June Gallup poll found 42 percent of Americans now believe things are going badly in Iraq, up from 29 percent in early June. At the same time, a June PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll found that 64 percent of Americans wanted the UN to take the lead in building a democratic government in Iraq, up from 50 percent in April. Reflecting that desire, Senator Edward Kennedy, in a July 15 interview, urged the White House to give up its “arrogant” attitude and “bring in the international community” in Iraq. To raise tough questions about the Bush Administration’s handling of Iraq is not partisan politics–it’s the test of a strong democracy. Without those questions, Bush’s illegal and unnecessary war will become an even greater tragedy, for America and for the people of Iraq.