Timetable vs. Road Map for Iraq

One election doesn't make a democracy. And history shows that even in countries with regular elections, democracy - the kind that includes rule of law and civil liberties - often isn't cemented for at least a generation.

But hopes have risen after Iraq's elections on Sunday in which voters mostly defied the threat of retaliation from antidemocracy terrorists. So much so that some see Iraq on a steady path to democracy and the US can predict an end to its military role.

In fact, many political leaders in the US now want President Bush to be specific on the timing of a withdrawal, and also prove his sincerity about leaving Iraq by downsizing troop levels immediately.

This call to reveal a "timetable" for a pullout depends to a large degree on an accurate reading of the enemy's tactics and intentions, as well as of the viability of Iraq's newly elected Constituent Assembly to write a constitution, appoint a respected government, and build a loyal and effective military that can replace US forces.

Demands for specific pullout dates also rest on the idea that Iraq's emerging democracy is in jeopardy simply because foreign forces are there, acting as a magnet for terrorists. Setting a date for a US pullout would force Iraqis to work harder for their own security while also reducing the draw for further attacks.

Mr. Bush, however, has set out a road map instead of a timetable for ending the US presence. He wants results on the ground that will ensure America's investment in lives and money won't be reversed. Most of all he wants an elected government to ask for a US pullout. For now, he's taking the risk that a lower profile for the US military and an elected Iraqi leadership that includes Sunnis will reduce Sunni support for the terrorists.

Still, the terrorists have astutely changed tactics in response to countermoves by the US military. There's still a danger they could exploit any weaknesses in the growing Iraqi defenses as US forces decline in number.

The last time the US made a major force withdrawal during a war was Vietnam. Within two years after the US exit in 1973, the shaky government in South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam. Comparing Iraq to Vietnam isn't always correct, but one lesson from that war is that the US was not careful enough in leaving behind a viable government with adequate forces.

It should be easy for Bush and Congress to agree on milestones in Iraq for reducing the US commitment. Dates matter less than results, however, and so far the results, such as Sunday's election, suggest Iraq is heading in the right direction.

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