To keep the word "quagmire" from haunting the election debate, President Bush must start closing out the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But America's simultaneously rushed and grudging transfer of power on June 30 may pose an even greater risk: exposing the war's ultimate failure. Facts on the ground -- the stubborn absence of weapons of mass destruction, no smoking gun on Saddam-al Qaeda connections -- have forced the Bush administration to fall back on saying that ridding the country of its brutal dictator was enough to justify the war.

That raises the stakes surrounding the June 30 handover and the elections expected early next year. Once Iraqis take charge, Americans may well ask whether the promised payoff -- an Arab democracy serving as a beacon throughout the Middle East -- is also a chimera.

In Afghanistan, the United States had what might be called a negative goal: denying al Qaeda safe haven. If that meant getting rid of the Taliban, all the better. There was no pretense that the war was fought to transform the nation. Thus, the administration let the warlords keep their fiefdoms, superimposing a weak central government on the existing mosaic of power. Supported by a real coalition, the United States had other people's money, troops and prestige to help make things better while it quietly disengaged. Low expectations and willing international allies made the situation manageable. Things are different in Iraq.

As a candidate, Bush vowed that the United States would pursue a humble foreign policy. He said the military would not sully its hands with "nation-building." In Iraq, he then embarked on a nation-building exercise of hubristic proportions, without the capabilities, plans or partners to do it right. The administration had faith that liberation alone would do the job and didn't think through the details. The numbers and composition of the occupying force, the failure to stop looting and rampaging in the crucial early weeks, the rejection of existing institutions and individuals that offered a starting point only made the nation-building harder.

Now, in trying to paste together a government acceptable to both Iraq and Washington, the administration is struggling with a governance challenge it did not initially seek or want. Iraq, which lacks a participatory political tradition, has a long-oppressed Shiite majority, a Sunni minority and a de facto Kurdish state within its borders. Getting things wrong could mean Iraq's return to internal repression and antipathy toward the West or the country's fragmentation through civil conflict or a wider war.

What would the United States do then?

The administration is torn between disengagement and retaining control, and its underlying ambivalence threatens both objectives. A near-term exit requires relinquishing power and responsibility, come what may. Delivering the promised new Iraq requires holding on tightly behind the scenes to keep the cork from popping. Trying to have it both ways can be dangerous. The last time we tried to be half-responsible for a country, backstopping the United Nations in Somalia, everyone paid dearly.

Getting into a country is, in many ways, the easy part for policymakers. Getting out responsibly can be much harder -- particularly when the war is controversial and the peace just an afterthought. Policymakers may find themselves with no good choices. With the June 30 transfer, the Bush administration will be gambling on an untested, uneasy Iraqi leadership, armed with ragged institutions, vulnerable oil pipelines and uncertain external assistance, to midwife a new democracy amid chronic violence. The U.S. government fears an implosion -- visible political fracturing, an acute security crisis -- that would mock the sacrifices made to remove Saddam.

The inherent risk of owning Iraq dissuaded the first Bush administration from pushing U.S. forces on to Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War. The elder Bush was a pragmatic internationalist, and his realpolitik foreign policy was tinted with an understated sense of noblesse oblige toward the rest of the world. He avoided the trap into which the United States so often falls -- adopting the rhetoric of wild aspirations that makes Americans feel good but carries expectations and responsibilities with it. His son has yet to learn this lesson. The president's foreign policy is brimming with missionary conviction and grand design. Inspired by the vision of a city on a hill, the Iraq invasion was stripped of the commitment and flexibility needed to realize it. The consequences of this unsettling combination are coming home to roost.

Sarah Sewall, project director at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, was deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping during the Clinton administration.