Concerned about declining confidence in his administration’s policy in Iraq—and, equally important, falling support for his reelection campaign—President George W. Bush gave the first of several planned speeches on Iraq to an audience at the Army War College.  Alas, he offered the usual platitudes about providing Iraq “a free, representative government” and occupying that country only for “as long as necessary.”  He promised that “Iraqis will govern their own affairs”—except, apparently, such peripheral matters as changing occupation rules and blocking U.S. military action.

U.S. forces will not be coming home soon.  Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recently told Congress: “I think it’s entirely possible that U.S. troops could be stationed in Iraq for years.”  At best, “we will be able to let [the Iraqis] be in the front lines and us be in a supporting position.”  Yet the Pentagon has developed contingency plans for inserting another 25,000 soldiers, should the security situation deteriorate.  Unfortunately, the President’s warning that “Terrorists are likely to become more active and more brutal” is nearly his only prediction that has proved to be accurate.

Suicide bombings are not the only barrier to progress.  Consider the problems leading up to the creation of the provisional Iraqi government.  Onetime administration ally Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, was accused of being a corrupt Iranian spy.  The head of the Iraqi Governing Council was assassinated.  The Abu Ghraib prison abuses sapped already declining Iraqi support for the United States.  Reconstruction work lagged because of violence and insecurity.  Fighting continued in the holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf; the United States retreated from her promise to arrest radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.  American, Italian, and South Korean hostages were beheaded before a global audience.

Until Iraq possesses a government seen as legitimate by Iraqis, which is unlikely until free elections are held, nationalists will continue to make common cause with Baathists and terrorists against American and allied forces.  (Even moderate Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani says the interim regime, though a step forward, lacks “electoral legitimacy.”)  Unfortunately, the death toll will continue to rise.  There will be more dancing Iraqis celebrating the killing of more coalition soldiers and civilians.

How should we respond?  The tough-minded advocate using whatever force is necessary, no matter how many Iraqis die, to maintain order; we should have leveled Fallujah, a city of 300,000, for instance.  Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute says that we still should do so, despite the nominal return of sovereignty to Iraq.  We cannot, however—that is not what America is about, especially if our professed goal is to promote liberty and democracy in Iraq.

The goal of establishing a democratic, humane, Western-oriented Iraq, is surely worthy.  It is also likely an illusion.

George Downs and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University considered 35 cases and concluded that in only one did a “full-fledged, stable democracy . . . emerge within 10 years” after U.S. intervention.  The oft-celebrated cases of Germany and Japan differ dramatically from Iraq: Both were real countries, with a sense of nationhood, relatively homogenous populations, and democratic experience.  That does not mean Iraq cannot become a democracy.  Washington, however, is unlikely to achieve that end through force of arms.

Of course, it has long been the mantra of the Bush administration and its supporters that there is a lot of good news in Iraq that is not being reported.  For instance, the harbors are being cleaned, reports columnist Mark Steyn.  The occupation authority put out one cheery fact per day—the issuance of grants to promote women in leadership, the inauguration of new economic regulatory bodies, and more.

There is little good news for Washington, however.  House-to-house fighting in Fallujah and multiple risings in Shiite cities in April constituted a violent leap beyond improvised explosive devices and snipings.

Don’t worry, proclaims columnist Jack Kelly: “If we stand firm, victory is all but certain.”  If so, it seems to be a victory that Iraqis do not want.

A Gallup poll conducted in March and April found that, while Iraqis were gratified by Saddam Hussein’s ouster, 57 percent of them wanted U.S. forces to leave immediately and an astonishing 52 percent believed that attacks on U.S. soldiers are at least “sometimes” justified.  A plurality said that the United States had “done more harm than good.”  Strip out the small Kurdish population, almost unanimous in its backing of the United States, and the numbers are far worse.  “Go home,” said 61 percent of Shiites, 65 percent of Sunnis, and 75 percent of Baghdad residents.

That poll was conducted before the extended violence in Fallujah and Najaf and the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, which undoubtedly have driven America’s negatives even higher.

Alas, the Bush administration’s options are shrinking.  It has continually breathed fire regarding deadly insurgents and terrorists, only to retreat each time after achieving little more than bad publicity.  For instance, occupation officials long threatened the Sunni insurgency with destruction, to no obvious effect.  “This will not be tolerated,” said occupation head Paul Bremer of al-Sadr—who, months later, remained at large with his militia members still battling U.S. forces.  When amnesty was offered to his militia if they would stop fighting, al-Sadr avoided arrest while winning a two-thirds approval rating from Iraqis.  After promising to retaliate for the killing of four contract security personnel in Fallujah, the United States besieged the city, then temporized for weeks, and finally pulled back in favor of former Baathist generals.  Can anyone spell appeasement?

The United States is desperately enlisting Iraqi security forces, but insurgents are targeting them, too.  Nor are the men trained and paid by Washington trustworthy; a quarter of the Iraqi police ran off or joined the rioters during the civil uprisings.  In Fallujah, civil-defense personnel may have led the four American contractors into a trap, while the police stayed in their walled compound as the Americans were being murdered and their bodies desecrated.  The new Iraqi army simply refused to fight in Fallujah.  Iraqi forces have proved to be no more reliable in battles since then.

The transition to Iraqi sovereignty has proved to be equally difficult.  Bremer’s occupation authority changed strategies month by month.  President Bush was left to hope for success through a U.N.-orchestrated rescue.  Yet confused charges and denials about who would be appointed interim president and prime minister left it unclear that anyone was in charge.  The leaders ultimately selected by the U.S.-U.N. process were respectable, but lacked popular authority.

The constitution, largely developed by the United States, is a worthy document—but it is unlikely ever to be put into practice.  Representatives of the majority Shiites on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council evidently agreed to the constitution only to speed elections, after which, if the Shiites take control as expected, they will revise it.  Sharp disagreements between Kurds and other Iraqis over promised Kurdish autonomy were barely papered over.

U.S.-imposed limits on the sovereignty of the interim Iraqi government combined with contradictory statements about whether Baghdad could send U.S. forces home—after Washington had expressed its expectation of maintaining more than 100,000 troops in Iraq through at least 2006—undercut the perceived authority of the new Iraqi government.  Under pressure from Tony Blair, among others, President Bush publicly promised that Baghdad would possess “full sovereignty,” but U.S. officials have indicated that everything from security to oil will be beyond the new government’s authority.  Plans for a huge American embassy suggest that the Bush administration expects Baghdad to be little more than a puppet regime.  This ensures that indigenous insurgents and outside terrorists will continue to have an excuse, however cynical, to ply their deadly trade—and that enough Iraqis will back them to spread the violence.

Hostile attitudes are especially likely to grow if the United States leaves forces in Iraq for years, as suggested by Wolfowitz, and especially if Washington does “whatever it takes” to preserve U.S. control.  Brutal suppression of Iraqis might deter further brutal murders of Americans, but it is more likely to encourage additional attacks.  U.S. forces have raided homes, arrested suspects, and encircled entire cities in barbed wire.  The resistance never ebbed.  The assault on Fallujah united some Shiites and Sunnis, an ominous development.

Perhaps America has not been ruthless enough.  Ruthlessness, however, inevitably afflicts the innocent as well as the guilty, creating yet more anger.  A year ago, U.S. forces killed and wounded some 80 demonstrators in Fallujah.  American troops killed nine Iraqi policemen chasing a suspect toward a U.S. checkpoint in Fallujah later last year.  These might be inevitable accidents of war, but they should leave no one surprised that hostility toward Washington reaches well beyond disaffected former Baathists.

The consequences of the occupation do not stop at Iraq’s borders.  Unfortunately, even as Al Qaeda has been badly damaged by allied military and security operations over the last two years, a host of smaller groups around the world have been created or rejuvenated.  And Iraq has become a potent recruiting vehicle for them.  In a new report, the International Institute for Strategic Studies concludes: “Galvanized by Iraq if compromised by Afghanistan, al Qaeda remains a viable and effective network of networks.”  Indeed, adds the IISS, “over 18,000 potential terrorists are at large with recruitment accelerating on account of Iraq.”  The President may be right to describe Iraq as the “central front” in the War on Terror, but it is so only as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that, “A year after the war in Iraq, discontent with America and its policies has intensified rather than diminished” around the globe.  For instance, large majorities of Jordanians, Moroccans, and Pakistanis, whose governments support the United States, view America unfavorably.  Huge majorities believe Washington to be insincere in its War on Terror.

Last year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld presciently asked whether Washington was killing terrorists faster than it was creating them.  When it comes to Iraq, at least, the answer seems to be no.

Washington must develop an exit strategy—not a closet strategy, now advanced by Paul Wolfowitz, to hide U.S. forces on bases behind high walls once more Iraqi cops are on the streets.  Of course, even after multiple terror bombings, Washington cannot pull out precipitously no matter how much it would like to do so.  And the United States has an interest in making a real hand-off to Iraqis as smooth as possible.

The United States needs to understand what is essential for American security and what is not.  An Iraq in which the harbors have been dredged is not.  An Iraq in which more schools have opened is not.  Even an Iraq with Western-style elections and liberties is not.

All of these are desirable.  None is essential, however, nor necessarily attainable at an acceptable cost in terms of lives and resources, burden on the military, and other deleterious consequences—most notably, the encouragement of more terrorism.

Rather, the criterion of success is simple: Is America more secure?  She is if an Iraqi government comes to power that cooperates in identifying, fighting, and eliminating Al Qaeda forces and helps to dampen Islamic jihadist sentiments.

America is not safer if Baghdad traffics with terrorists.  She is not more secure if Iraq offers sanctuary to Al Qaeda operatives and facilities.  She is not better off if Baghdad creates weapons of mass destruction.

Making Iraq more democratic will not necessarily make America more secure.  Democratic governments representing those hostile majorities in Jordan, Morocco, and Pakistan would endanger America.  Democracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere also likely would bring to power regimes that would wish the United States ill.  So too, perhaps, in Iraq.

Washington should work with Iraqis to develop a firm, accelerated timeline for elections, full restoration of Iraqi sovereignty, promulgation of a permanent constitution, and complete U.S. troop withdrawal.  The timing will be somewhat arbitrary, but the process cannot be allowed to drag on.  Washington should begin drawing down its military presence now, with the objective of removing all of its occupation forces—while leaving in place any advisors or liaison officers necessary to aid in dealing with Al Qaeda—by mid-2005 at the latest.

Could Iraq hurtle toward a bloody breakdown?  Perhaps, but that situation threatens even with an American presence.  Indeed, U.S. garrisons and patrols risk inflaming conflict.  Should widespread civil, religious, or ethnic strife impend, it would be better for Washington to be out of, rather than in, the picture.

Could radical Shiites attempt to establish a theocratic state?  Perhaps, though most Iraqis—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd—appear to favor a more secular system.  And, as occupier, the United States could ill afford to reject a duly elected government.  Better to set only the truly essential bottom line: no terrorist connections and no WMD’s.

Could jihadists claim a moral victory from an American departure?  Perhaps, but they will achieve a clear strategic victory if America stays.  With Iraq, the United States has created an entirely new battlefield against forces, Baathist remnants and Iraqi nationalists, that otherwise would ignore America.  For Al Qaeda and related groups that focus on the United States, the Iraqi occupation has created yet another terrorist excuse and recruitment aid.

President Bush says that he plans to “finish the work of the fallen,” apparently for however long that might take.  Even Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry takes the “we cannot fail” position, proclaiming: “No matter who is elected president in November, we will persevere” in helping “Iraqis build a stable, peaceful and pluralistic society.”  And a number of outside analysts still talk of an occupation for years, decades, or even longer.

Many of the latter, however, predicted that resistance would cease after the fall of Saddam Hussein—then, after his capture.  They also believed that Iraqi oil would pay for Iraqi reconstruction.  They are the people who promised that most U.S. forces would come home last summer and suggested that democracy would sweep the Middle East following America’s invasion.  Their claims that an extended U.S. occupation, if only a little tougher and longer, will succeed are no more credible.

America must not cut and run, it is routinely said, and that is true.  The alternative, however, must not be to reinforce failure, accepting ever-increasing costs that make a future policy change even more difficult.  It is in America’s interest to get out; Washington must develop a plan to leave on its own terms, before it is forced out.