THE new insistence of Iraq's occupation government on a timetable for withdrawal of American forces has to be a painful - and well-deserved - reckoning for President Bush.
Mr. Bush has argued all along that a withdrawal schedule would only hand Iraq to our adversaries there, who would simply wait until U.S. troops left and then take over.
Now the occupation government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in demanding such a schedule, is in perfect accord with the desires of most Americans, as expressed in the 2006 election results and public opinion polls ever since.
The other piece of irony is that the Bush Administration turned itself inside out to put into place an occupation government that would at least give the appearance of independence from U.S. control.
The Maliki government is, of course, scarcely independent. Its true measure of independence is an estimation of how long Mr. Maliki and his cohorts would be able to survive once U.S. forces are withdrawn? The answer would probably be "hours."
At the same time, the United Nations mandate under which U.S. forces are in Iraq will expire on Dec. 31 and, absent an agreement with the Maliki government, any fig leaf of legitimacy will be stripped away.
How did we get into this mess? The short, prewar-based answer is that the United States invaded Iraq with no endgame in mind. Victory was never defined. If it were defined in someone's mind at the time, adequate resources to bring it about were never planned nor committed.
Why are we still there? It used to be that the Bush Administration couldn't, for political reasons, agree to withdraw because to do so would be to admit that we were wrong to have gone there in the first place. Now it's something else.
There is the real possibility that the administration feels the necessity to hang on to try to gain some sort of special access to Iraq's resources for American oil companies. But it is also perfectly clear that the only way we could preserve such a presence would be to station significant numbers of American troops in Iraq - forever - to protect it. As the past five years have shown, that's an untenable prospect.
The argument that chaos in Iraq would follow a U.S. withdrawal is an equally dead-end argument. In the meantime, the tame Maliki government has the Bush Administration up a tree.
Faced with this dilemma, it wouldn't be hard for the United States to regain the initiative. That could be done by announcing that we have done as much in Iraq as we can or intend to do and proceed immediately with a systematic withdrawal of all our forces.