In Iraq, Don't Cut And Run. Cut and Don't Run.

"I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American," President Bush said on May 24. Right, but what about making them Taiwanese? Or South Korean, or Turkish, or Mexican, or perhaps Russian? Now, there we might have something.

Bush intends to give Iraq "a representative government that protects basic rights, elected by Iraqis." His critics implicitly agree with him that anything less than democracy would constitute failure, which they see looming.

Both views may be wrong. The biggest mistake America could make in Iraq would be not to try for democracy there. The second-biggest mistake might be to try too hard.

In an influential Commentary magazine article in 1979, Jeane Kirkpatrick, a Georgetown University professor (she later became U.N. ambassador in the Reagan administration), argued that in Iran and Nicaragua and elsewhere, America's efforts to democratize authoritarian regimes too quickly had backfired catastrophically in the face of determined insurgencies. "The American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed," she wrote, "but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under the previous autocracy—regimes, moreover, hostile to American interests and policies."

She discerned a pattern. The United States would pressure a friendly authoritarian regime to enter into negotiations "to establish a 'broadly based' coalition headed by a 'moderate' critic of the regime, who, once elevated, will move quickly to seek a 'political' settlement to the conflict." Alas, it never worked. "Only after the insurgents have refused the proffered political solution and anarchy has spread throughout the nation will it be noticed that the new head of government has no significant following, no experience at governing, and no talent for leadership." The moderate government collapses, the insurgents win, America faces a new enemy.

The failure, she argued, was based on a fatal U.S. misunderstanding of "how actual democracies have actually come into being." Typically, they emerge from "traditional autocracies," which she distinguished from radical and totalitarian ones. "Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits" of democracy, she said. A traditional autocracy, provided it is reasonably friendly to the U.S. and poses no threat to its neighbors, may look ugly, but it can provide the stability that incubates democracy.

In only two modern countries was democracy imposed quickly and successfully from outside: West Germany and Japan, both after World War II. Many more cases have followed Kirkpatrick's model of liberalization within an authoritarian, but not totalitarian, regime. As if to underscore the point, Russia recently tried to leap straight to multiparty democracy and failed. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia now appears to be moving through a phase of authoritarian consolidation, from which, the West can only hope, real democracy might yet emerge.

The Bush administration seems to see Iraq through the prism of Japan and Germany. In this view, representative democracy in Iraq can succeed because American forces will stay there to guarantee it. America, goes the mantra, will not cut and run.

Well, maybe it won't, but much of the public is eyeing the exits. Building democracies in Japan and West Germany required U.S. occupations lasting seven and four years respectively, and in neither place did the Americans face an angry population or a hardened insurgency fed by conniving neighbors and an international terrorist network. The Pentagon has done its utmost for more than a year and still cannot even control the borders or protect the head of the governing council outside the coalition's own gates. Almost 70 percent of Iraqis told the Gallup Organization recently that they feared for their lives if they cooperated with the occupation. Worse, outside the Kurdish north, a sizable plurality of Iraqis believe that public cooperation with the coalition would not speed up stability anyway.

The Iraqis are probably right. It appears that only Iraqis themselves can secure their country, sometimes using methods that Americans cannot countenance. So here is Plan B: Aim for democracy in Iraq, but settle for less. Cut and don't run.

Under this scenario—call it realism—America and the United Nations would stay on in Iraq, but they would take a minimalist role. They would jump-start elections and then draw a few red lines around whatever Iraqi government emerged: no atrocities, no civil war, no threatening of neighbors, no intervention by neighbors. The allies would help train and equip Iraqi forces, patrol the borders, and protect the flow of oil and gas. Other than that, they would leave Iraqis alone.

"Self-imposed guidelines are very important in Iraq," says Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank. "We should say very clearly to the Iraqis and the world that Iraq is on its own."

And then? The U.S. and U.N. will probably bequeath to Iraq a delicately balanced compromise government, with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds all represented. As Kirkpatrick warned in 1979, such brokered regimes tend to be too weak to govern. In the course of things, the weakman government may give way after an election or two to a strongman government, consolidating power much as Putin has done in Russia. The regime would set about curtailing if not dismantling democracy, while preserving the trappings.

We know a lot about such governments; indeed, America has had them in some of our big cities, such as New York City under Tammany Hall and Chicago under the first Mayor Daley. Typically, they are one-party political machines that buy off most of their enemies through patronage and use police power to intimidate the rest. Such regimes are far from pretty, but they are more interested in stability than in ideology, and they are a far cry from the megalomania and mass terror of a Saddam Hussein.

Pipes argues for accepting such a regime in Iraq as the best of real-world alternatives. "I think the administration's goals are too heady, too ambitious," he said. "If it turns out I'm wrong and things go according to plan, I will be delighted. My goal is not to have Iraq be less well-off. It is a judgment call." Countenancing a "democratically minded strongman," Pipes argues, would slow the democratic transition, not block it; and democracy, when it came, might be the stronger for emerging from within.

In an interview, Kirkpatrick, now at the American Enterprise Institute, said, "We need to set the bar within the realm of the possible. We need to face the fact that [Iraqis] have absolutely no experience with democracy."

The trouble with such realism is that it may be unrealistic. Given the amount of rhetorical capital Bush has invested in his call to make Iraq a democratic beachhead in the Middle East, settling for even a moderate autocracy might come off as a surrender. The world would hoot at America's enthronement of "Saddam lite." And could America's troops really just stand aside with a shrug if an Iraqi Putin or Pinochet began closing newspapers and arresting enemies?

But realists have three strong rejoinders. First, a Putinized or Pinocheted Iraq, however flawed, would be much better than a Saddamized one. Second, Iraq would be constantly prodded from inside and outside toward genuine democracy, and would probably arrive there within a generation. Third, for outsiders to indefinitely prop up and micromanage a dysfunctional government in an unstable environment may work, sort of, in a tiny place like Kosovo, but it cannot work in Iraq.

For good reason, the Bush administration talks the talk of democracy; but realism, like Washington's cicada brood, lurks underground, awaiting its season. To realists, an Iraq that became an Islamist stronghold or a terrorist haven or a pawn of its neighbors would be a defeat, but a less-than-democratic Iraq would be merely a disappointment. In the realist view, U.S. forces' willingness to cede effective control of Falluja to former Baathists, provided they observed certain limits, was less a surrender than a model. It wasn't pretty, but it worked.

"I would love to have democracy in Iraq, but we're not going to create it," an administration official told me last summer. "That's not the reason we conducted the military activity, and it's not the reason we're there now." Iraqis, he said, will have to govern their country in their own fashion. He might have quoted Kirkpatrick, who wrote, 25 years ago, "History is a better guide than good intentions."