President Bush and would-be president John Kerry seem to agree that what America needs in Iraq is a new set of allies. They're right -- but only to a point. What America needs far more urgently is a new set of goals for Iraq and a new way of thinking about international terrorism.

And that need is complicated by the fact that neither major-party candidate can talk about it. Bush senses that Americans see his "stay the course" talk as a sign of strength -- even though they increasingly see that course as a road to nowhere. Kerry understands that to even suggest a rethinking of America's mission in Iraq is to invite charges that he would "cut and run."

But while the candidates can't talk about it, the public, indeed the world, already has. And the new consensus seems to be that bringing American-style democracy to Iraq is no longer an achievable goal -- that the best we can hope for is a truce sufficient to get our troops out of a situation they shouldn't have been in in the first place. Even the president's touchstone question -- Aren't the Iraqi people better off for our toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime? -- no longer gets quite so resounding a "yes."

The one thing Americans agree on is that terrorism remains a real threat. The reason so many still support our present action in Iraq may be as simple as this: There's no other anti-terrorist activity in play. This leads to a sort of willful illogic: We must support what's happening in Iraq, even though we believe it isn't helping and may even be making us more vulnerable to terrorist attack, because otherwise we'd be doing nothing about terrorism.

We need to change the conversation. First, our goals for Iraq itself must be scaled back. No more insistence on Western-style secular democracy. We must acknowledge the unlikelihood of a politically stable Iraq in which Islamic clergy don't play a major role. It may be all we can hope for just to forestall civil war.

And even that modest goal can't be met by our reliance on military might. Our very presence in Iraq -- militarily and commercially -- is provocative. The most dangerous thing for an Iraqi these days is to be seen as cooperating with us. The new conversation must be about how to achieve stability, not how we can forcibly pacify the place. This suggests more reliance on international diplomacy than the Bush administration seems comfortable with, and it might even suggest the possibility of conversations between Western and Iraqi clergy.

None of this will be possible politically, however, unless the American people believe our government is committed to the war against terrorism.

How do we think about this one? Daniel Yankelovich suggested one way back in July, at a forum at the New York Academy of Sciences.

Yankelovich, co-founder and chairman of Public Agenda, said a half-century of observing social and political movements has led him to believe that all successful movements have three pillars of support: (1) a small group of committed militants, (2) a large group of moderates who deplore the militants' tactics but share their grievance and (3) a convenient scapegoat.

"You can't argue with [al Qaeda militants and their allies]," he said. "They are determined to kill us. We have to deal with them through force and force alone.

"But to address the other two legs, we need an enlightened long-term political strategy to divide the moderates from the jihadists and to remove ourselves from the role of scapegoat."

Unfortunately, we're not likely to get anywhere near such a sensible approach between now and Nov. 2. Bush can't go there, in part because he has succeeded in linking "winning" in Iraq with success against terrorism and partly because his neocon brain trust still believes that forcing democracy on the region is the only long-term solution. Kerry can't go there, because he is desperately afraid of being labeled an appeaser who would walk away from the more than 1,000 Americans already killed in our mindless venture.

But there is this tantalizing bit in a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. Though respondents favored Bush by a slight margin, 58 percent said they hoped for "major changes" in a second Bush term, compared with only 9 percent who say they'd like to see a second term that looked like the first one.

willrasp@washpost.com