Condoleezza Rice is someone I knew to be a very bright scholar when we were both fellows in Stanford University’s arms control seminar. Yes, we differed on occasion, but I never had cause to doubt her ability to reason. Now, I do.

Confronted by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos with the news that fiery Moqtada al-Sadr — whose Mahdi militia has twice engaged in fierce armed conflict with U.S. troops since the 2003 invasion — was the kingmaker in the selection of Iraq’s next prime minister, Rice replied sanguinely, “Iraq is a complex place, there’s a lot of voices.”

But as Stephanopoulos pointed out, the voice in question has been raised to offer military support to Rice’s nemeses, Syria and Iran. In Syria, Sadr pledged to fight in “the defense against our common enemies,” the United States, Britain and Israel. Visiting Tehran, he offered the support of Iraqi fighters in the event of an attack by the United States over the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, stating unequivocally, “If neighboring Islamic countries, including Iran, become the targets of attacks, we will support them.”

There is no way to soft-pedal it: The astounding rise of an anti-American firebrand like Sadr is an indicator of how wide and complete a political defeat pro-Western forces have suffered in Iraq. Written off by most Western observers as nothing more than a rabble-rousing irritant in the first months of the U.S. occupation, Sadr has more than survived his confrontation with the world’s only superpower: His faction was the big winner in the recent elections, now entrenched as the largest single force in the dominant Shiite coalition. So it is that the political support of a young radical, who not so long ago was considered a wanted outlaw by the occupiers, has now determined the selection of Iraq’s new leader.

Not that the new prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leader of the Dawa Party, is much better. He has even closer ties to the fundamentalists in Iran, who provided him with a safe haven during his years of opposition to Saddam Hussein. He looks moderate only next to Sadr. Rice should recall that Jaafari pointedly refused to shake her hand when she visited Baghdad, because she is a woman. Even worse, the theocratic model for what is in store for this nation where women previously enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than in most of the Arab world has already been created in the Shiite-controlled region around Basra in the south: The veil is now de rigueur, armed religious enforcers patrol the streets and exercising free speech can earn one a de facto death sentence.

With Shiites violently extending their grip on power under the cover of electoral democracy, the Sunni rebellion is only likely to escalate. Chaos rather than order is what the future holds for Iraq. That is why Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, warned recently that his country might come to regret its decision to support the Iraq invasion. “I’m not sure we won’t miss Saddam (Hussein),” Diskin said in a speech to students at the Eli settlement that was secretly recorded and broadcast last week on Israeli TV. “When you dismantle a system in which there is a despot who controls his people by force, you have chaos.”

Bush’s ex-secretary of state, Colin Powell, made the same point when he reportedly warned Bush and his Cabinet of the so-called Pottery Barn Principle: If you break it, you own it. Unfortunately, it is not just Iraq that America is breaking, but the power and influence of the Islamic world’s secular nationalists — like Hussein — in their decades-long power struggle with ultra-religious forces. From Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian Authority to the resurgence of the theocrats in Tehran to the Talibanization of southern Iraq, anti-Western religious extremists are in the ascendancy. No wonder the commander of British troops in the Shiite-dominated Basra area sounds defeated: “It becomes more and more difficult for ourselves to be here. You almost move from being part of the solution to being part of the problem.”

Rice might contemplate those words of warning before she prattles on about the bright new day aborning in Iraq. Last June, when Stephanopoulos asked Rice if she agreed with Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim that the insurgency was in its “last throes,” Rice replied in the affirmative, citing the “elections again in December that will bring about a permanent government.” Unstoppable in her myopic optimism, she now blithely ignores the results of that election and predicts “an Iraq that is a tolerant Iraq, an Iraq that will fight terrorism.” In your dreams, Condi.

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