THE TROUBLES in Iraq are prompting a swelling chorus of manifestos from critics of the Bush administration, both liberal and conservative, who would have it abandon its goal of establishing a democratic regime in place of the former dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The critics style themselves as hard-nosed realists; they say it's time to dispense with the administration's utopian illusion that Iraq could be made a model for political freedom in the Middle East. It's time, they say, for a more pragmatic exit strategy. Their critique of the administration's shallow thinking and incompetent planning is incisive, and they are right that the United States needs to adjust its policy to reflect its depleted legitimacy in Iraq. But there's a problem: The ways out of Iraq offered by the "realists" are as illusory in their fashion as were the Pentagon's plans for a quick and easy transition.

Some want the United States to resign itself to Iraq's becoming a military-run soft autocracy, like Egypt; they point to the emergence of a military force in Fallujah commanded by former Baathist generals as the beginning of that trend. Yet Iraq could not be consolidated under such a regime without massive bloodshed; that Saddam Hussein remained in power by filling mass graves was not an accident. Some, especially those in Washington who have long championed the cause of the Kurds, favor Iraq's partition into three loosely confederated mini-states. This would please the Kurds but almost certainly lead to a Yugoslav-like series of wars that would prompt the intervention of Turkey, Iran and other neighbors. The Shiite and Sunni Arab populations in Iraq do not live in easily partitioned districts; Baghdad, for example, is home to millions of both.

Liberal opinion is drifting toward support for unilateral withdrawal or perhaps the fixing of a firm departure date for U.S. troops. But withdrawal in defeat would be catastrophic for U.S. interests around the world and a historic victory for Islamic extremism. The announcement of a pullout deadline would be almost as bad. If Iraqis become convinced that the United States is prepared to leave without achieving its political objectives, those objectives will be immediately discredited, leaving civil war as the only means for resolving how the country will be governed.

The administration was wrong to believe that an Iraqi democracy could be quickly established or that the resulting regime would necessarily become a showcase of liberal values. Yet now that Iraq's previous dictatorship has been destroyed and the country's varied communities have been freed from the apparatus of terror, the supposed utopian solution -- elections -- offers the most pragmatic way of establishing a viable government. Elections, as opposed to war or outside appointment, are still the mechanism favored by the country's most powerful political forces for determining Iraq's future. They offer the best chance of defeating the extremists.

Elections, in short, are the best U.S. endgame in Iraq -- provided the administration adopts a realists' view of them. It is sensible for the United States to give the United Nations as large a role as it will accept in organizing and conducting those elections; it is foolish to cling to the idea that U.S. political favorites, such as some of the exiles on the appointed Governing Council, can survive a popular vote. It is unrealistic to believe that U.S. appointees and advisers can be positioned to control the future government or that unilateral U.S. control over security matters can be maintained past the first ballot; Iraqi forces must be prepared to control security. The Bush administration also must accept, sooner rather than later, that an elected Iraqi government is likely to embrace economic or social policies not favored by the United States and may not be particularly friendly to Washington or to Israel.

At best an elected Iraqi government will be a fragile and awkward entity that exercises only loose control over the country and requires long-term support by foreign troops and other outsiders. It will look more like Lebanon than Switzerland. Getting there will require an enormous second effort by the United States, which will have to sacrifice more while somehow recruiting more support from the rest of the world. Failure is a distinct possibility. So why should democracy be tried? We believe that it is a vital goal. But it is, at this point, also the most realistic way forward.