As the war in Iraq enters its fifth year, the sad truth is that an end to the U.S. military role seems nowhere in sight.
That is true even though President Bush and the Democrats are focused increasingly on strategies intended to enable withdrawal of most American forces.
That is presumably the ultimate goal of both the controversial "surge" Bush has authorized for U.S. military forces and the initial diplomatic steps his administration has joined. It's certainly the target of measures the Democrats are pushing in Congress.
And it's a position that polls show most Americans favor. Still, it's hard to see anything happening soon. Bush has consistently refused to promise early withdrawal. Barring any unexpected breakthrough, the likeliest way to end the bulk of U.S. involvement may well be the election next year of a Democratic president - or perhaps the threat of one.
Even that might not produce total withdrawal, given that leading Democratic candidates, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, seem reluctant to promise a total pullout, though they favor an end to the American combat role.
The Democratic presidential candidates all favor starting a withdrawal within the next year or sooner. The only potential Republican candidate who does is Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who has delayed a decision on a long-shot bid.
Their views reflect a split the polls have shown for some time: Most Democrats and independents oppose the war and the Bush policies; Republicans back them.
But, despite intensive efforts, there is no early prospect that Democratic leaders can pass a measure to curb President Bush's ability to conduct the war, let alone muster two-thirds to override a presidential veto.
But that doesn't mean they won't keep trying, given the strong support among rank-and-file Democrats for ending the war and pressure from anti-war groups.
Party leaders are already under fire from some factions for the Senate's failure to pass a plan to withdraw. They face even greater pressure if they fail to pass the restrictive measure scheduled for House action this week.
Meanwhile, Bush has taken advice he initially disdained from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, a diplomatic initiative including Iran and Syria that could lead to troop reductions in the final year of his presidency.
U.S. officials reacted positively to initial talks in Baghdad. Next month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to represent the United States at a second round, expected in Turkey.
But Bush made clear in a somber statement Monday, marking the fourth anniversary of the U.S. attack on Iraq, that it will take some time to know whether either the military surge or the Iraq-initiated diplomatic effort reduces sectarian violence enough to permit him to claim success and perhaps withdraw some troops.
Despite his pleas for patience, public support for withdrawal keeps growing. The most recent Gallup Poll showed that 60 percent favor a congressional timetable for withdrawing all U.S. troops by the end of next year.
Republican strategists fear that the GOP's prospects for retaining the presidency and regaining one or both houses of Congress will be jeopardized if voters don't see signs of a way out by the time presidential primaries take place next year.
And despite the difficulty congressional Democrats have had in writing legislation to unite their strongest war critics with those favoring a more gradual withdrawal, the main barrier to congressional action is not Democratic disunity but the resistance of Republicans and President Bush.
Thus, Democrats stand to have a definite advantage, especially without a clear sign that the Bush policy - or any of the Republican candidates - will produce the result a majority of Americans want.