The Bush campaign finally has a response to John Kerry's Iraq critique that doesn't involve the word "flip-flop." The new line, in the words of Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt, is that Kerry advocates "retreat and defeat." The president, by contrast, "will complete this mission." As President Bush himself declared during last week's news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, "We will stay the course and stand with these people so that they become free."

This sounds plausible enough. After all, Kerry says he hopes to withdraw all U.S. troops in his first term, while Bush claims to reject any such timetable, saying that America will stay in Iraq "as long as necessary, and not one day more." But in fact Bush has a de facto timetable of his own. And it will probably set in motion an American "retreat" no matter who takes the oath of office next year.

Bush is adamant that Iraq not delay elections due to be held by Jan. 31, regardless of conditions on the ground. That seems consistent with his promise to stay the course. But in fact, quick elections could produce an abrupt change of American course.

Opinion polls show that most Iraqis want U.S. troops to leave their country sooner rather than later. A May survey by the Coalition Provisional Authority found that 41 percent of Iraqis wanted coalition forces to leave immediately, while 45 percent wanted them to leave once a permanent government is elected. Only 6 percent thought troops should stay as long as is "necessary for stability."

Those numbers are particularly significant because while the January balloting will not actually choose a permanent government -- but rather an interim national assembly that oversees the writing of a new constitution -- polls suggest that most Iraqis think it will. And thus they think it should begin the process of American withdrawal.

Given these realities, the surest way for Iraqi politicians to win votes will be to run on a simple slogan: "U.S. out of Iraq." Elections usually unleash nationalist, populist passions, especially in countries with weak democratic traditions. And in a country with an acute memory of colonial rule, appearing to support indefinite foreign rule will be the political kiss of death.

According to the New York Times Magazine's David Rieff, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, has said that any conversation between an American and an Iraqi should end with the question: "When are you leaving Iraq?" Sistani has warned that if elections are delayed, he will call for a boycott. Even the spokesman for Iraq's foreign ministry -- a spokesman in a government essentially handpicked by the United States -- recently urged a timetable for American withdrawal.

The Bush administration seems to be listening. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that elections would proceed on schedule even if they could be held in only "three-quarters or four-fifths of the country." And according to The Post's Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks, the Pentagon is planning a post-Nov. 2 offensive aimed at retaking recalcitrant Sunni cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra in a bid to make elections possible there as well.

But ironically, since Sunni Arabs are even more anti-American than Shiites, the more the United States lures them to the polls, the more likely Iraqi voters are to demand that the United States leave. And for all President Bush's talk of completing the mission in Iraq, his administration has already signaled that it would comply. As early as May, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced that if a sovereign Iraqi government requested it, "we would leave." And this week, Rumsfeld stated, "Any implication that that place [Iraq] has to be peaceful and perfect before we can reduce coalition and U.S. forces I think would obviously be unwise."

In other words, the United States would begin pulling out before Iraq had a permanent constitution or a permanent elected government and before its government had even secured the entire country. So much for Bush's pledge to Allawi that "America will stand with you until freedom and justice have prevailed."

To listen to the Bush campaign, John Kerry wants "retreat and defeat," while the president remains committed to vanquishing the terrorists and building a democratic Iraq. But the gap between Bush's rhetoric on the stump and his policies on the ground grows with each passing week. In reality, it is Bush, not Kerry, who is laying the groundwork for America's withdrawal from Iraq, a withdrawal that secures neither democracy nor security in the country that was meant to transform the Middle East.

Would such a withdrawal represent "defeat"? Luckily for the president, he won't have to answer that question until after Nov. 2.

The writer is editor of The New Republic. He will answer questions at 2 p.m. today on