The prevailing view in Washington these days is that the Iraq war and its aftermath have placed huge obstacles on President Bush's path to a second term. Mr. Bush, argue the pundits, had outlined a scenario for Americans -- one involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD), links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, U.S. troops welcomed as liberators -- that hasn't panned out.
Further, the ever-rising costs in blood and money of occupying Iraq have sparked opposition to the administration's policies among the public and on Capitol Hill. And these sentiments could produce an angry anti-Bush backlash on Election Day 2004.
Indeed, the president could become an ex-president if he persists in following the policy narrative drawn by his neo-conservative advisers. By continuing to depict the ouster of Mr. Hussein as part of a grand imperial American plan to make Iraq and the Middle East safe for democracy, Mr. Bush will only dig himself into a deeper hole.
Mr. Bush should recognize before it's too late that, not unlike other dogmatic ideologues in history, the neo-conservative intellectuals who argue that Iraq could be turned into a shining model of democracy for the Middle East are advancing their own wishful thinking and political agendas. They are not advancing the interests of the rest of America.
The notion that Iraq and most of the Arab Middle East could be transformed into a full-fledged democratic system is nothing short of a fantasy. Much of the region is at the stage of political development that Italy and much of southern Europe were in middle of the 19th century.
Nonetheless, implementing this ambitious strategy in its most basic form -- establishing a one-person, one-vote system in Iraq -- could bring to power the kind of anti-Western Shiite leaders who would ignite a religious and ethnic civil war in Iraq, undermining America's interests in the region.
That kind of outcome demonstrates the tensions between the two concepts that drive the neo-conservative project: democracy that permits free elections and imperialism that requires stability. Hence, a democratic empire cannot be sustained in the long run, leaving the power-that-be in control with no other choice but to engage in repression.
Getting out of Iraq before it's too late would require Mr. Bush to adopt a more realistic and, in some respects, nationalistic policy framework.
The military victory in Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein could be portrayed in the fast-approaching election campaign as an attempt to get rid of a longtime nemesis of the United States and its allies -- a brutal dictator who in the past developed WMD and supported anti-American terrorist groups.
At the same time, however, the president should re-embrace the kind of "humility" in foreign policy that he projected during the 2000 presidential race. Then, it seemed that he did not support the grand designs of "nation-building" in Iraq and working with a coalition of other powers to maintain stability in Iraq and the Middle East.
Now that the war is over, the United States should declare victory and use its power to secure limited, core U.S. interests. Those are that a new government in Baghdad doesn't maintain ties with anti-American terrorist groups and doesn't try to develop or acquire WMD.
To lower public expectations about Iraq would require the White House to accept that the two most likely scenarios under which U.S. troops could exit from Iraq will shatter neo-conservative dreams.
Those scenarios are the rise of an authoritarian leader who could maintain a unified Iraq by centralizing power in Baghdad and the division of Iraq into three separate Kosovo-like mini-states under some kind of regional and international safeguards. That could be a U.S.-Turkish protectorate in the Kurdish north; a European-Arab military presence in the Sunni areas; and a U.N. authority in the Shiite parts.
Only by transforming the current Pax Americana strategy in Iraq, by allowing America's allies a chance to sit in the postwar driver's seat, will the Bush administration be able to persuade France, Germany, Russia and India to share in paying the costs of stabilizing and reconstructing Iraq.
Such an approach, based on realism and common sense, would doubtless anger the White House's neo-conservative allies. But a working strategy that reduces the burden of occupying Iraq and extricates the United States from that country would be welcomed by American voters.
It also would provide Mr. Bush with an opportunity to achieve an electoral victory on the heels of a military conquest.