The Iraqis have voted.  Now, it is time to start bringing home America’s troops.

More than 1,400 Americans had died, and nearly 11,000 had been wounded, by the end of January.  The war has already cost $200 billion, and the President is asking for another $80 billion.

Yet President George W. Bush refuses to set any timetables.  The Pentagon expects to keep 120,000 personnel in Iraq through 2006.  Some analysts talk of staying for years.

America’s dead “have made the ultimate sacrifice defending freedom,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.  Sadly, however, we know that the war was a mistake, fought on grounds that turned out to be false.

The foundation of the Bush administration’s case for war was Iraq’s presumed WMD arsenal.  But Saddam Hussein’s government possessed no such weapons and posed no serious threat to America.  Rather than admit error when its WMD claims proved false, the administration seamlessly switched rationales.  Although the removal of Saddam Hussein from power was welcome, sacrificing American lives to “promote democracy” was always a dubious justification.  Unfortunately, the administration demonstrated both arrogance and incompetence while implementing its occupation policy.

After losing ground for months, White House officials looked hopefully toward the planned January poll as the turning point.  Yet after every widely heralded success—the killing of Uday and Qusay Hussein; the capture of Saddam Hussein; the “transfer of sovereignty”—security deteriorated.

In the face of catastrophic failure, the Bush administration has no apparent strategy.  Instead, it is attempting to improve its p.r. efforts.  Last fall, the Pentagon issued a $17.7 million contract to reach out to Iraqis.  The Pentagon also provides media training and “talking-point” cards for Iraq-bound troops.

Bush-administration officials apparently just hoped that things would get better.  Alas, the same officials have been proved wrong at virtually every point.  They certainly aren’t believed by leading Republican legislators.  Bush has been “perhaps not as straight as maybe we’d like to see,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Nor do Iraqi officials offer much cheer.  Says Gen. Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, director of Iraq’s intelligence services: “I think the resistance is bigger than the U.S. military in Iraq.  I think the resistance is more than 200,000 people.”  At least 40,000 of them, he believes, are full-time fighters.

So the White House eventually downplayed the election’s significance.  Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said two weeks before the ballot: “Clearly, we don’t see the election itself as a pivotal point.”  Washington has again moved the goalposts.

Most Iraqis view American forces as occupiers, and most want them out.  If the newly elected Iraqi government truly represents them, it will demand that Washington go home.  Even the President acknowledges that, in that case, America must leave.

If the new regime seems more receptive to the desires of Washington than to those of Iraqis, more Iraqis will support the insurgency; those same Iraqis are likely to work hard to defeat those who now kill and maim only when there is no longer a U.S. presence on which to focus their anger.

Yet President Bush says the troops cannot leave “until we have completed our mission.”  But victory—if it means a Western-oriented, liberal democratic regime—looks increasingly distant.

In any case, there is no reason to believe that the insurgency will disappear.  The affection of Iraqis will not be restored through financial aid or battlefield victories.

Maybe a massive military build-up combined with a willingness to kill as many people as necessary, without wasting much time distinguishing between guilty and innocent, would reestablish order.  Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that the Bush administration’s goals are unattainable unless the United States is willing to “commit 500,000 troops, spend $200 billion a year, probably have a draft.”  Few Americans seem inclined to bear (and impose) that burden to enforce Washington’s will on the Iraqi people.

Admittedly, withdrawal is not a pleasant option.  Iraq’s government will remain vulnerable, and a civil war may ensue.  However, the U.S. presence is an irritant inflaming conflict.  If ethnic war erupts, it is better for America to be out rather than in.

Jihadists will paint a pull-out as a defeat for the United States.  But a continuing occupation encourages terrorist recruitment.  And a panicked retreat later, with U.S. troops under fire, would be worse.

Withdrawal will also leave Iraqis who aided the United States open to retaliation.  This is unavoidable.  Washington could admit any friendly Iraqis who want to come to America, as it did after the first Gulf War.

The President may counsel patience as he expresses his desire “to spread freedom.”  But the “pessimists and hand-wringers,” as Bush spokesman Scott McClellan denounced them, have been consistently right.  Demagogic attacks on his critics will not salvage Bush’s Iraq policy.

Our current policy is unsustainable.  The United States must pull out of Iraq.  The withdrawal cannot be immediate, but it must be speedy.  Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld now says that Iraq need not be “peaceful and perfect before we can reduce coalition and U.S. forces.”  Washington should begin withdrawing its troops, with the goal of a complete departure by the end of the year.  The exact time frame is less important than the goal: quickly bringing American personnel home and placing full control of Iraq’s destiny in the hands of Iraqis.

“My promise” to those who have lost someone in Iraq “is that we will complete the mission so that their child or their husband or wife has not died in vain,” said President Bush.  It does no honor to those who have died to throw away more lives in a vain attempt to establish American-style democracy on the Euphrates.  The best way to honor America’s heroic dead is never again to repeat the Bush administration’s misguided rush to war.