An air of unreality is polluting our country's political discourse on the U.S. role in Iraq. Opponents of the coalition deployment were already questioning the continued U.S. presence and second-guessing the intervention itself. Now they are raising the bar for a "successful" handover of power in Iraq to absurdly high levels.

Iraq is and will continue to be a contentious issue -- all the more reason for every political side and interested party to restore some perspective to our national debate. To begin: Where do our Iraq operations really stand? The first phase of the country's transformation was completed when the U.S.-led coalition overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein. The second ends this week when an interim Iraqi government assumes power.

These are important milestones, but when Iraqis awaken July 1, they will not suddenly find themselves denizens of a stable democracy. This momentous day will merely be one of many steps on the long, hard journey to democracy. To reach the end of that road, the international coalition and Iraqis must work together to build accountable government, a viable economy, effective security structures, reliable media, the rule of law and other foundations of a civil society.

I share the administration's belief that relinquishing sovereignty over Iraq from the coalition to an Iraqi government now will facilitate and expedite this process -- but there will be setbacks, and the process will be arduous. I do not agree with those who suggest we are doomed to failure or that we have achieved little. Yes, the battle is ongoing and victory cannot yet be ensured in some quarters, but we have accomplished much.

As President Bush has noted, some targets have been reached at a faster pace than in postwar Germany and Japan. For the others, remember that the United States is in its ninth year in Bosnia, where we have spent roughly $29 billion and still have about 1,000 troops deployed to enforce a flawed peace plan that legitimizes ethnic divisions and paralyzes the central state. In Kosovo, where several hundred U.S. troops are deployed, the United Nations controls a national economy that is in worse condition than when the U.N. was entrusted with restoring it five years ago.

Meanwhile, in only 15 months in Iraq, the coalition has facilitated the production of more than 150 newspapers, the operation of an effective police force, the reopening of schools with propaganda-free textbooks, the rebuilding of more than 400 villages razed by Hussein, the re-creation and appreciation of a national currency, and the return from Iran and Turkey of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees.

Legions of dedicated American and other soldiers, public servants, businessmen, and nongovernmental workers in Iraq have struggled to complete these tasks and will continue to fulfill their mission in the face of unimaginably difficult obstacles. Terrorists are trying to drive them out by capturing and gruesomely murdering innocent civilians. At the same time, a group of U.S. troops has damaged their collective credibility by beating and ritually humiliating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. Here at home, critics carp and, intentionally or not, too often suggest that Americans are serving and dying in Iraq in vain. Some suggest that if we had it to do over again, we would not and should not.

Some Democrats even claim that the coalition's failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq invalidates their earlier explicit support for our intervention. In fact, their own statements at the time show that they supported the war not only because it would eradicate the weapons threat but also because it would end human rights abuses and regime-sponsored terrorism, as well as create conditions for democracy. This isn't just "selective amnesia" in an election year. It's irresponsible hindsight.

Backbiters and back-stabbers are as entitled as anyone to ask questions, but they, like the rest of us, must remain realistic and credible. Today Iraq is poised for increased prosperity and a better political future. Many, if not most, of its people are imbued with hope. Thousands of brave Americans, with the support of most of us here, are slowly but surely turning that hope into reality.

If our hope is not fully realized, it will not be because President Bush decided to withdraw on the advice of those who expected miracles and instant gratification. We will have set noble yet tangible goals, worked diligently and sacrificed honorably. If we succeed -- as I believe we will, sometime after this wretched political season is over but in the not too distant future -- the people of Iraq and their neighbors in the Middle East will benefit from political rights, civil liberties and freedom of a kind that the Arab world has never seen before.

The writer, a former Senate majority leader, was the Republican candidate for president in 1996.