It is tempting to think that the Bush administration can set an interim government in place in Iraq around the middle of next year and, as a consequence, start drawing down US troops there. The next seven or eight months are indeed critical ones. But reality suggests that the US military involvement will need to go on in Iraq for significantly longer than the American public may want.
Many years after World War II and the Korean war, US forces remain stationed in Europe and South Korea. Though circumstances are quite different, and although Iraqis and neighboring Muslim states are far less enthusiastic about the presence of US troops in their region than South Koreans and Germans were about the presence of US troops on their soil, there are several reasons an extended US presence in Iraq is likely.
One is the major investment the US has made in Iraq. Again last week, on his lightning visit to Baghdad, President Bush asserted: "We will stay the course." He doesn't want failure to overtake the ouster of Saddam Hussein and US hopes for a free and thriving Iraq.
Second is concern for the security of various Iraqi factions. They need protection. Who else but the US can offer this and forestall a descent into civil war? Neighboring Muslim countries that have their own agendas? The UN, which after being victimized itself by terrorists, has little stomach for Iraqi peacekeeping? NATO, whose European participants are themselves tormented by differences over Iraq? Although Iraqis want early self-government, they're aware of the need for an American shield for some time. Third, there is the continuing haunting presence of Hussein, presumably hidden in Iraq, gone from power but not forgotten.
It's inconceivable that the US would countenance military withdrawal from Iraq while Hussein remains at large, broadcasting threats to Americans and the Iraqis who cooperated with them. It would be as if the Allies, after liberating Germany in World War II, decided to go home leaving Adolf Hitler alive and hidden somewhere in that country to organize and rise again.
The reality is that postwar Iraq is far more complex than anyone expected. There was anticipation of a horrendous flow of refugees and major sabotage of oil wells, neither of which transpired. Unanticipated was the collapse of the police system and widespread looting that damaged the country's infrastructure. Nor were forces that thrust so brilliantly toward Baghdad equipped with the intelligence-gathering techniques to deal with a nasty guerrilla war.
In the face of these problems, continuing American casualties, and pressure from European allies, the administration is accelerating what was to have been a measured progression toward a new constitution, elections, and a government that would move Iraq toward a democratic post- Hussein future.
The foreshortened plan initially envisaged an assembly selected by local governments and the existing US- appointed Iraqi Governing Council that would, in June, pick an interim government to draft a constitution, under which elections would presumably be held.
Religious leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority opposed this plan unless there were direct elections for such a government. Confronted by this setback, the Governing Council on Sunday voted to hold full national elections to choose the interim government in June. Whether this compromise will in fact produce the desired result remains to be seen.
Various other constitutional approaches have been suggested to bring Iraq's factions together on a faster timetable. One, advanced in The Wall Street Journal last week by noted Islamic authority Bernard Lewis and former CIA director James Woolsey, suggests a reversion to the 1925 Constitution adopted by Iraq. This provides for a monarchy - a head of state who would reign, but not rule. "Selecting the right monarch for the transitional government," wrote Mr. Lewis and Mr. Woolsey with considerable understatement, "would be vitally important."
Tantalizing though such musings are, it seems evident that a substantial military force will be required until Hussein is captured or killed, and all the institutions that make for a democratic society - including a free press, independent courts, and a police force of efficiency and integrity - have been nurtured and established.
That protective role must surely be primarily played by the Americans who have given Iraq this opportunity.
• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.