While President George W. Bush insists that “America will never run,” a fierce debate is raging just below the surface of his administration over when and how America should exit from Iraq. The debate pits those who favor a massive effort to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy for the Middle East against those who want to concentrate the U.S. mission on defeating insurgents so American troops can return home.

The wisdom of a war against Iraq had few doubters within the Bush administration. Yet this consensus obscured a deep division over the war’s purpose. We could characterise this as a split between “democratic imperialists” and “assertive nationalists.”

Led by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, and neoconservatives outside the administration, the democratic imperialists believe America can be secure only if the rest of the world is remade in America’s image. Accordingly they favor deploying ever more U.S. troops and spending ever more money to create a stable, democratic Iraq. Their model is postwar Germany, where a long-term military occupation and the Marshall Plan created the conditions for a free, democratic and prosperous Europe with Germany at its core.

Assertive nationalists such as Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, and Dick Cheney, the vice president, do not share this ambitious and costly vision. They believe America’s security demands foremost the defeat of its enemies and the elimination of the threats they pose. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Saddam Hussein’s ties to terrorists and his appetite for weapons of mass destruction made him an unacceptable risk. He had to go.

For assertive nationalists, the purpose of U.S. engagement in Iraq is not to create a democratic Eden, but to defeat insurgents and terrorists. Their model is Afghanistan, where a sovereign local government, backed by international peacekeeping troops, handles internal security and U.S. troops focus solely on counter-terrorist operations.

Where does Bush come down in this debate? He has occasionally used the rhetoric of democratic imperialists, notably in last week’s stirring speech before the National Endowment for Democracy. But his long-standing disdain for nation building, his lackluster interest in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and his initial failure to push his subordinates to generate a plan for rebuilding Iraq all mark him as an assertive nationalist. His recent bid to speed the training of Iraq’s police and security forces in order to reduce America’s military presence is further evidence of this.

A continued decline in public support for Bush’s Iraq policies will only reinforce his preference for the Afghan rather than the German model. He is likely to move ever more quickly to restore Iraq’s full sovereignty and to transfer political power to the interim Iraqi government. A smaller U.S. military contingent would then focus on counter-insurgency and anti-terrorist operations.

Such a shift in strategy could reduce the domestic political costs of the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The more focused American mission would enable U.S. troops to retreat into well-guarded compounds outside the cities, only to emerge to conduct quick raids against insurgent forces. The smaller military footprint should appreciably lower the number of U.S. casualties.

But would it serve the interests of stability within Iraq, the Middle East and the world? The example of Afghanistan is sobering. Two years after the Taliban regime was ousted, senior Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders remain at large and security is precarious everywhere but in Kabul. While a constitutional process is moving forward, the country is hardly the vibrant democracy some hoped it would become.

A more focused counter-insurgency effort in Iraq may prove more successful, if only because the U.S. commitment to success is likely to be greater. It may thus be possible to establish some degree of stability over the next six to 12 months. But turning a society devastated by war and brutal repression, economic mismanagement and corruption, and deep ethnic, tribal and religious differences into a beacon of democracy will require a far larger and deeper international effort than Bush appears to have in mind.

Ivo H. Daalder is a Special Adviser on National Security at the Center for American Progress. Daalder and James Lindsay are co-authors of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy which has just been published by Brookings Press.

This story also appeared in the Nov. 11 edition of the Financial Times.

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