The US' quandary is that it is both part of the problem and part of the solution. So long as a large number of US troops remains as an occupying force, they serve as a recruiting tool for insurgents. As the political scientist Robert Pape has shown in a careful study, resistance to foreign occupation is a prime motivation for suicide bombers.
But, if the US leaves too soon, the elected Iraqi government may be unable to cope with the insurgency, sending Iraq the way of Lebanon in the 1980s or Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Similarly, if Bush sets a short timetable, he may encourage the insurgents to wait him out. But, unless he makes it clear that US troops will leave in the near term, he will reinforce the impression of imperial occupation. The key to resolving this dilemma will be to press for local compromises that involve Sunnis in the political process, and to step up the rate of training of Iraqis to manage their own security. Even then, success is uncertain.
One failure is already clear: that of the neo-conservative dream of creating a military ally that could serve as a long-term base for US troops in the campaign to transform and democratize the Middle East. Three elections have produced some degree of legitimacy for the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, but without a sense of community and effective institutions, elections merely create a tyranny of the majority. That may be better than former president Saddam Hussein's tyranny of the minority, but it is hardly modern democracy.
Bush compares his goal in Iraq to the democratization of Japan after World War II. But Japan was a totally conquered, ethnically homogeneous country with no insurgency, a large middle class and previous experience of political openness. Even then, success took seven years.
Instead, Bush should plan on a two-year window to give the Iraqi government as strong a chance as possible before the Americans leave, while emphasizing that Iraqis will thereafter be responsible for their own security and political salvation.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Copyright: Project Syndicate