NEW YORK — Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, a frequent advisor to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, has concluded that the United States must choose between stability and democracy in Iraq -- and that democracy, for now, is out of reach.
"I think that's reality. I think that was true from the beginning," Kissinger said in an interview last week.
"Iraq is not a nation in the historic sense," he said, pointing to the ferocity of the conflicts among Kurds and Sunni and Shiite Arabs. "The evolution of democracy ... usually has to go through a phase in which a nation [is] born. And by attempting to skip that process, our valid goals were distorted into what we are now seeing."
Instead of holding elections and trying to build democratic institutions from the ground up, Kissinger said, the United States should focus on more limited goals: preventing the emergence of a "fundamentalist jihadist regime" in Baghdad and enlisting other countries to help stabilize Iraq.
Speaking in unusually blunt terms at a time when the administration is reviewing policy options for Iraq, Kissinger emphasized that he did not intend to be critical of the president or other officials who have managed the U.S. effort in Iraq.
"I supported going in," he said. "I'm basically supporting the administration. And these are the criticisms of a friend of the administration who thinks well of the president."
Kissinger has made some of these points before, especially his argument that the United States should try to "internationalize" the problem of Iraq by enlisting other countries, including Iran, Syria, Pakistan and Russia, in a joint effort.
But as debate escalated over possible changes in U.S. strategy in the wake of the Democrats' victory in the congressional election, his latest comments amounted to a sharp critique of the administration's course.
He said he would have preferred a post-invasion policy that installed a strong Iraqi leader from the military or some other institution and deferred the development of democracy until later. "If we had done that right away, that might have been the best way to proceed," he said.
In Iraq, he said, elections, the centerpiece of the administration's political strategy, merely sharpened sectarian differences.
"It [was] a mistake to think that you can gain legitimacy primarily through the electoral process," he said.
And he suggested that Bush may have been slow to change course in Iraq because advisors told him the United States was winning the war.
"As long as he was told he was winning, he had every reason to pursue the recommended strategy" that his advisors had proposed, Kissinger said.
He declined to elaborate, except to add that it was impossible to portray the current state of affairs in Iraq as "winning."
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that what we're seeing now would be an odd appearance for a victory," he said.
In public, Bush and his aides have given no indication that they intend to scale back their efforts to build democracy, which the president has declared his central goal not only in Iraq, but across the Middle East.
In private, however, middle-ranking administration officials have acknowledged that the goal of building a democratic Iraqi government supported by Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds has become increasingly distant in the face of unremitting sectarian violence.
The task now, Kissinger said, is to manage the devolution of Iraq into a "confederal state" in which Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions would govern themselves "with substantial autonomy."
"The question now is, how do you manage that?" he said. "That's not an exercise in political science. That's something that has to reflect some balance of forces and some balance of interests."
An initial step, he said, would be to convene an international "contact group" including Iran, Syria and Turkey to try to create a stable balance among Iraq's factions.
"The reason I favor an international conference is that many countries have an interest in avoiding" a radical Iraq, he said. "Iran doesn't want a Taliban in Iraq."
"That creates a framework to internationalize it to some extent," he said. "It will not solve the problem by itself."
Until now, the administration has resisted offering Iran and Syria a formal role in stabilizing Iraq, although it has offered to talk with their governments about U.S. complaints that Iran is supporting Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria is aiding Sunni insurgents.
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who with former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) leads a bipartisan commission that is working on proposals for new policy options in Iraq, has also said he favors bringing Iran and Syria into a diplomatic effort.
"My basic approach to the Baker-Hamilton commission is to try to support it," Kissinger said. "I think we need a bipartisan approach to this, so I will not look at flyspecking the outcome."