When the Iraqis go to the polls Sunday, they will begin choosing a new government. The Americans, of course, won't cast a single ballot -- but they will be voting with their feet. If the elections unleash more violence, beyond the suicide bombers who struck polling stations during early voting Thursday, President Obama and Gen. Ray Odierno may feel compelled to keep some U.S. combat troops in Iraq beyond their stated August withdrawal date. The military has drawn up contingency plans for such an event.

Why are we so focused on Iraq's parliamentary election -- to the point that it may dictate how long American forces remain enmeshed in war? Well, we've been in love with foreign elections for two decades now. Since votes in Central and Eastern Europe came to symbolize victory for democracy over communism, the United States has looked to elections as turning points that allow us to declare success and scale back our presence or role. Ink-stained fingers and lines at the polls have become symbols of the triumph of U.S. initiatives and the new eras of democracy or peace that we've ushered in for people in distant countries.
Foreign policy by election is appealing for simple reasons: We are good at organizing elections. An election result is concrete. Unfortunately, elections aren't all we've built them into. They are not defining moments, but only a small part of much larger and more complicated stories, and they can even, at times, keep democracy from taking root.
No matter; European countries and the United Nations have joined America in raising the expectations for elections far beyond what they can deliver. While "elections do not a democracy make" has become a common refrain in Washington and European capitals, in reality the pressure to hold votes, as soon as possible, in countries that are transitioning from autocracy or war remains extremely high.
A good recent example of this phenomenon is Afghanistan. The United States and the United Nations insisted on presidential and parliamentary elections there in 2004 and in 2005. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld called the election in October 2004 "breathtaking." Speaking in Macedonia on Oct. 11, after the vote, Rumsfeld said: "The great sweep of human history is for freedom. We see that in this region, we have seen it in Afghanistan, and let there be no doubt we are going to see it in Iraq."
In Iraq, the United States led the organization of two parliamentary elections and a referendum on the constitution in 2005. After high turnout and relatively little violence when Iraqis went to the polls in December of that year, President George W. Bush spoke from the Oval Office, declaring the day "a major milestone" for democracy in Iraq.
The current elections in Iraq are important to the Obama administration, too. Vice President Biden dashed to Baghdad in January to try to work out a compromise when some Sunni parties threatened to boycott the election over banned candidates.
This rush to election "milestones" continues a trend that started more than a decade ago in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The determination to spread democracy by elections continued in U.S. and U.N. policy toward African countries that were pushed, cajoled and occasionally blackmailed by the threat of suspended aid into holding multiparty balloting.
The United States has invested heavily in foreign elections, funding civil-society organizations that mobilized voters, created the expectation of change and fomented protest when governments published fraudulent elections results. A few of these votes have had momentous consequences, but most have simply sealed changes that had unfolded over a period of years. In September 2000, President Slobodan Milosevic lost the Serbian election; afterward, dramatic protests swept the country and forced the government to accept the true voting results it had tried to conceal. But such transformative events are rare. Even Serbia, after those first heady weeks, struggled for years with deep divisions between those with democratic aspirations and nationalists who were resentful of Serbia's diminished status.
U.S.-led attempts to support changes elsewhere through similar protest movements -- for example, in Ukraine in 2004 and Lebanon in 2005 -- had more modest results, because the underlying conditions were different. In Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, the presidential candidate of the pro-democracy forces, was recognized as the winner after prolonged protests over vote-rigging. But last month, his rival, Viktor Yanukovich, the symbol of Soviet-style authoritarianism in 2004, emerged victorious in new presidential elections, showing that the Orange Revolution was no permanent turning point.
In Lebanon, once the theater of massive street demonstrations and counterdemonstrations that followed the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri had run its course, the elections were fought along the same old sectarian lines by the same old political figures, without a hint of renewal.
The 1994 elections in South Africa, by contrast, were unquestionably a milestone in that country's history. For the first time, the entire population was able to vote, putting an end to white rule and bringing the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela to power. Pro-democracy organizations from the United States and around the world rushed to assist with the balloting, as if the future of the country depended on that single event.
But the election was the culmination of a process that started 10 years earlier, when the ruling National Party recognized internally that apartheid had failed and that change was inevitable. Delegations of U.S. and other foreign observers nevertheless swooped in for the vote as if their presence was key to transforming the country. The voting was preceded by almost four years of negotiations between the ANC and the National Party. While the elections were a time for celebration and rejoicing, power in the country had already shifted.
Occasionally, elections have even proved a hindrance to democratic change. In September 1996, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe organized parliamentary elections in Bosnia. Less than a year after the Dayton accords, this balloting confirmed the power of the most nationalistic parties, making the implementation of the peace agreement more difficult. Likewise, in Angola in 1992 and Cambodia in 1993, internationally sponsored elections failed to override the power of entrenched leaders. People went to the ballot box, but war resumed in Angola, and eventually, Cambodia's leaders were toppled by a coup.
No matter how free and fair, elections can reflect only the power shifts that have already taken place, and are not the cause of these shifts. That's the lesson of more than 20 years of foreign elections supported, if not entirely engineered, by the United States, Europe and the United Nations.
Elections are a reason to mobilize political organizations, but if the organizations that want change are weak, the mere fact of a vote can't override that frailty. Instead, elections simply confirm the status quo, as they did in Bosnia and Lebanon. Typically, dozens -- or in the case of Iraq, hundreds -- of parties form to compete in elections, but they almost always fail against well-established political forces. In Eastern Europe, Russia and the Caucasus in the 1990s, former communist officials ran for office again and many won, although parties changed their names and candidates sought to whitewash themselves as democratic.
The groups with the greatest success at the ballot box have usually been those appealing to nationalist sentiments or, more dangerously, to ethnic identities. In Iraq, despite attempts by American democracy-promotion groups to support new parties and train their leaders, the viable contenders in the current contest, as in 2005, are still the religious parties formed in exile in opposition to Saddam Hussein.
In Afghanistan, too, old autocratic trends are reasserting themselves under the democratic veneer imposed by the United States and the United Nations. The 2009 presidential elections were a sorry affair, with voting results blatantly manipulated to give President Hamid Karzai an uncontested victory, and the United States and the United Nations were initially reluctant to stop the fraud.
Elections are far from perfect. But they will probably continue to be given outsize importance because of the way they capture our imagination -- and because of the tidy punctuation marks they offer in messy situations. Elections are a convenient mechanism to mark the end of an intervention; typically, international presence starts winding down at that point.
But we expect too much from the simple, finite events we call elections. We shouldn't rejoice if one day of voting appears untainted by corruption, nor should we despair if the wrong guy wins.
Nothing that happens in this Iraqi election will be decisive. No coalition is expected to come close to winning a majority of the vote, and the balloting will be followed by months of negotiations over the composition of the new government. The new government is likely to be rather similar to the present one in terms of the political forces it represents, though some new faces may occupy key positions.
Iraq will remain a country riven by sectarian and ethnic divisions, and a new cabinet will have to provide some representation to all groups. Once the campaign billboards come down in Baghdad, the same politicians will make deals and the same groups will try to make up for their lack of political clout with violence. And the story of post-Saddam Iraq will simply move to another chapter in a long book.