We are now witnessing the planning for the third phase of the US's venture in Iraq: disengagement. The first two were occupation and reconstruction – the outcome of which (both political and economic) is not yet clear.
Henry Kissinger once wrote that public support is the acid test of a foreign policy. With midterm elections looming that could be closely contested, it is evident that among some voters, particularly Democrats, there is weariness with the violence in Iraq.
However, from votes in the Senate last week, it is also clear that there is little sentiment for setting a specific date for an American troop pullout. For example, the ill-fated proposal by Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts went down in a resounding defeat. And Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York, seek- ing to chart a centrist course for her likely presidential run, has supported the war but deplored setting a date for a military pullout.
With Democrats divided, The New York Times published a US military plan for substantial cuts in US troop levels in Iraq by the end of 2007. The plan is hedged with caveats that make it provisional and dependent on lessened violence and increased political stability in Iraq. In other words, if Iraqi security forces "stand up" on the promised schedule, and Iraqi politicians succeed in knitting together a reasonable government, US troop strength in Iraq could be reduced to five or six brigades from the present 14 by the end of next year.
Another condition for the provisional plan to succeed, however, is that it be discussed with Iraq's new government, get their input, and be in line with estimates of their own buildup of security forces.
Even with the projected US rundown of its forces in Iraq, two brigades of American soldiers, one in Kuwait and one elsewhere, would be kept ready to be redeployed to Iraq in the event of emergency.
These plans have been drawn up by the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. That he shared the podium at the Pentagon last week with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as the two discussed troop withdrawal with reporters suggests that the Bush administration favors the plans – although formal approval has yet to come.
It is probably hardly coincidental that General Casey was on hand as the Senate debated the Democrats' resolutions on troop withdrawal. He took sharp aim at the Kerry resolution, saying that his hands would be tied if he were presented with a firm date for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
Thus the Bush administration may now be able to disarm Democratic criticism that it has no plan for the endgame in Iraq by pointing to the Casey plan. That is a plan that would afford considerable flexibility depending on the course of events in Iraq.
While the situation that prevails in Iraq could have a significant effect on the midterm elections this fall, all may be entirely different by the presidential elections of 2008. It is likely that either Iraq will have descended into an all-out civil war between its religious and ethnic factions, or it will have moved toward becoming a stable, democratic society. While President Bush cannot be reelected, the outcome in Iraq will affect his legacy.
His hope is that a democratic Iraq will nudge other Arab lands in the same direction. He has a firm belief that liberty is a "God-given" gift to which all men and women are entitled. Such a liberating process among the lands of Islam would be something for which his presidency would be remembered.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.