Inside the Bush administration policymaking apparatus, there is strong feeling that U.S. troops must leave Iraq next year. This determination is not predicated on success in implanting Iraqi democracy and internal stability. Rather, the officials are saying: Ready or not, here we go.

This prospective policy is based on Iraq's national elections in late January but not on ending the insurgency or reaching a national political settlement. Getting out of Iraq would end the neoconservative dream of building democracy in the Arab world. The United States would be content having saved the world from Saddam Hussein's quest for weapons of mass destruction.

The reality of hard decisions ahead is obscured by blather on both sides in a presidential campaign. With six weeks remaining before the election, Bush cannot be expected to admit even the possibility of a quick withdrawal. Sen. John Kerry's political aides, still languishing in fantastic speculation about European troops to the rescue, do not even ponder a quick exit. But Kerry supporters with foreign policy experience speculate that if elected, their candidate will take the same escape route.

Whether Bush or Kerry is elected, the president or president-elect will have to sit down immediately with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military will tell the election winner there are insufficient U.S. forces in Iraq to wage effective war. That leaves three realistic options: increase overall U.S. military strength to reinforce Iraq, stay with the present strength to continue the war or get out.

Well-placed sources in the administration are confident Bush's decision will be to get out. They believe that is the recommendation of his present national security team and would be the recommendation of second-term officials. An informed guess might have Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, Paul Wolfowitz as defense secretary and Stephen Hadley as national security adviser. According to my sources, all would opt for a withdrawal.

Getting out now would not end expensive U.S. reconstruction of Iraq, and it certainly would not stop the fighting. Without U.S. troops, the civil war cited as the worst-case outcome by the recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate would be a reality. It would then take a resolute president to stand aside while Iraqis battle it out.

The product would be an imperfect Iraq, probably dominated by Shiite Muslims seeking revenge for long oppression by the Sunni-controlled Baathist Party. The Kurds would remain in their current semi-autonomous state. Iraq would not be divided, reassuring neighboring countries -- especially Turkey -- that are apprehensive about ethnically divided nations.

This messy new Iraq is viewed by Bush officials as vastly preferable to Saddam Hussein's police state, threatening its neighbors and the West. In private, some officials believe the mistake was not in toppling Saddam but in staying there for nation-building after the dictator was deposed. U.S. military dead then totaled slightly over 100, while now they have surpassed 1,000.

Abandonment of building democracy in Iraq would be a terrible blow to the neoconservative dream. The Bush administration's drift from that idea is shown in restrained reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin's seizure of power. While Bush officials would prefer a democratic Russia, they appreciate that Putin is determined to prevent his country from disintegrating as the Soviet Union did before it. A fragmented Russia, prey to terrorists, is not in the U.S. interest.

The Kerry campaign, realizing that its only hope is to attack Bush for his Iraq policy, is not equipped to make sober evaluations of Iraq. When I asked a Kerry political aide what his candidate would do in Iraq, he could do no better than repeat the old saw that help is on the way from European troops. Kerry's foreign policy advisers know there will be no relief from that quarter.

David Brooks' Aug. 29 column in the New York Times Magazine, "How to Reinvent the G.O.P.," is regarded as a neocon manifesto and is not popular with other conservatives. "We need to strengthen nation-states," wrote Brooks, calling for "a multilateral nation-building apparatus." To chastened Bush officials, that sounds like an invitation to repeat Iraq instead of making sure it never happens again.

{copy} 2004 Creators Syndicate, Inc.