WASHINGTON – For all the talk about Iraq in the presidential campaign, a crucial question largely has gone unanswered: What would it really take for either President Bush or a President Kerry eventually to bring home U.S. troops?

Both candidates say they are committed to defeating the insurgents, building an Iraqi force that can defend the country and putting Iraq on the road to democracy. What is not clear is what either would do in terms of U.S. troops if those conditions were not achieved fully.

Could U.S. troops ever withdraw, if the insurgency were not crushed but only weakened? How good would Iraqi security forces have to be to be good enough to defend their country? Would it be enough to have a stable Iraqi government if it were elected by only part of the country?

One question no candidate would want to touch is what would happen should the violence escalate. Could there come a point when the situation appeared hopeless, U.S. public opinion had turned against it and the president would have at least to consider a withdrawal or redeployment of U.S. forces?

“No president wants to cut-and-run on purely good policy grounds, but all presidents realize that if you lose public support, you could be forced to do what you don’t want to do,” said James M. Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Bush administration has a standard answer to the question of how long U.S. troops would stay in Iraq: as long as necessary, and not a day longer.

As he repeated that last month in Cincinnati, Vice President Dick Cheney said the mission of the United States “is to get a democratically elected government in place and get the Iraqis in a position to be able to provide for their own security.”

Administration officials have been divided, though, about just how successful Iraqi elections in January have to be. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that if some parts of Iraq are inaccessible to voting, a partial vote would be better than none. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the election will not be credible unless all Iraqis have the opportunity to vote.

As for securing Iraq, both Bush and Kerry expect “we will cobble together some kind of stability on the security and political front,” said Bathsheba N. Crocker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It will continue to be messy, probably, and it won’t be a perfect scenario,” she said. “But it may at least enable us to feel that if we started to pull out U.S. troops, the whole thing wouldn’t fall apart.”

Kerry has stressed the importance of helping Iraq build a democracy and protect itself, saying Bush’s efforts have been inadequate.

The Massachusetts senator has said he would secure more international help to ease the burden on the United States. His goal is to begin withdrawing U.S. forces within six months and complete the withdrawal within four years.

Yet Kerry’s prospects for winning international backing are uncertain.

If public support for the U.S. presence in Iraq should fade, Kerry and Bush could face different pressures to stay firm or pull out.

Kerry’s commitment to what he described as “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” is not as clear as Bush’s, but any move to withdraw short of clear victory could lead to harsh criticism from Republicans, who are likely to keep control of both houses of Congress.

“Kerry will be just as constrained as Bush would be in terms of figuring out how to extricate U.S. forces,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank.

Bush’s legacy will be tied closely to Iraq’s future. Presumably that would make him more likely to stay the course but also could make him appear more credible – at least in Republican eyes – if he were to decide it was time for U.S. soldiers to leave.

Some Republicans have expressed discomfort with the prospect of a long-term U.S. nation-building effort in Iraq.

“There is definitely sentiment among some Republicans to get out,” said Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute. But, he added, “I don’t think that would carry the day in a second Bush term.”

The danger of an early withdrawal is that Iraq might fall into civil war or the kind of lawlessness that would allow terrorists to thrive.

“You can develop and embrace an exit strategy from Iraq, but what are the repercussions on the broader war against terrorism?” said Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corp., a think tank.

Thomas Keaney, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, says the timing of a U.S. withdrawal might be somewhat out of the president’s control. Iraqi leaders could face political pressure to ask U.S. troops to leave, he said.

“The ball is not in our court entirely. Maybe not even primarily,” Keaney said.

On the Net:

U.S. Central Command security transition page: http://www.mnstci.iraq.centcom.mil/

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