The election results are being universally accepted as, in considerable part, an expression of dissatisfaction with President Bush's Iraq policy. However, the reason for the declining public support for the Iraq engagement is not universally understood or accepted.
President Bush had two strategic objectives in Iraq.
The first was to remove the threat that Saddam Hussein might give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, who might use them against us.
That threat turned out to be less than thought. However, taking action against such a threat is the sort of use of military force that the American people will support, if persuaded that the threat is substantial.
The second objective was to transform Iraq into a model democracy to serve as a transforming force in the Middle East.
One of the elements of the Bush doctrine holds that for the United States to be safe from terrorist attack, freedom, democracy and market economies have to spread around the world, particularly in the Middle East. And since American security depends on that, the United States must be a forceful agent of such change.
The first objective, removing the threat of Saddam Hussein, was accomplished with lethal efficiency.
The second objective isn't going as well.
There is obviously a desire for democratic governance among the Iraqi people, manifested now in three elections. However, there is not yet a willingness among the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds to make the concessions and take the risks required to establish a truly functional, stable and unified Iraq.
Meanwhile, the United States is left with the primary security responsibility in a country rived by sectarian violence.
This is not the sort of mission the American people will long support. By nature, the American people are still inclined toward being the peaceful trading nation George Washington famously urged us to be. For the most part, our instinct is to leave other nations and peoples alone, except to try to sell them something.
The people of the United States will not support a prolonged military engagement in which they do not perceive a direct and imminent threat to our security.
President Bush, of course, continues to see such a threat in Iraq. If we withdraw, he says constantly, the terrorists win. The American people don't see it that way, and their sense of the true security stakes is sounder than that of President Bush.
Even the Pentagon estimates that there are only a couple of thousand foreign jihadists in Iraq. They are a serious security problem because they are thought responsible for most of the suicide bombings. However, they are not a threat to take over the country.
The Sunni insurgency consists principally of Baathist revanchists not willing to accept the loss of power and authority inevitable in a democratic Iraq with an overwhelmingly Shiite majority. They have utterly no interest is setting up an expansionist, radical caliphate.
Having toppled Saddam, there is now a threat to local and even regional stability if the United States withdraws from Iraq before an Iraqi government is up and operating that rests upon broad factional consent and is capable of providing security and basic services.
However, a military engagement to stave off local or regional instability is a different proposition than a military engagement to protect the United States against a direct threat of terrorist attack.
The people of the United States would probably support an ongoing advisory and training role in Iraq. However, support for an ongoing military engagement is coming to an end.
President Bush, regretfully, still doesn't get this. He still talks about Iraq as a central front in the war on terrorism. He says that American troops will come home only after victory is achieved.
A successful effort to protect the country against terrorist attack cannot be at odds with the basic instincts of the American people regarding a proper U.S. role in the world.
The Bush doctrine in general, and the current role in Iraq specifically, are at odds with those instincts. In his post-election press conference, Bush said: "We're not going to leave (Iraq) before the job is done."
In reality, Bush has, at most, until the 2008 election to use U.S. military power to achieve some sort of stability in Iraq.
During the 2008 election, the American people are likely to pull the final curtain down on direct military engagement in Iraq, irrespective of conditions there.