The U.S. relinquished formal sovereignty in Iraq last week, having discovered that the role of occupier is more difficult and treacherous than it had foreseen. Yet, despite the bloody nose the Americans have suffered since they wrested power in Baghdad from Saddam Hussein, Washington can point to several hopeful signs this week.
One is the initial popular acceptance (registered in polls of Iraqi public opinion) of the new interim government and of plans for elections early next year. Another is NATO's decision at its summit meeting in Istanbul to embrace Middle East nations in a new relationship, a central purpose of which is to encourage reform in the region along lines spelled out a couple of weeks ago at the G-8 summit on Sea Island, Georgia. Then there's the news of Iraq's new government assuming legal custody of Iraq's former dictator.
These developments mark small successes in President George W. Bush's overall strategy for winning the war against terrorism, which has been largely overshadowed by the mayhem in Iraq. The heart of that strategy is to promote democracy in the Middle East, which Bush rightly believes offers the only long-term answer to the underlying causes of terrorism.
After all, democracies are less likely to start wars than are dictators, and for the same reasons they are less likely to spawn terrorists. Most of the terrorism that plagues the world, remember, springs from the Middle East.
Today, out of 22 Arab countries, not one has a government elected by its people. Of the world's other 170 governments, 120 (70 percent) were chosen in bona fide elections.
The rise of democracy in the Middle East will benefit not only the U.S. Middle Easterners, just like people in every other region, crave the dignity of selecting their own rulers and being free to voice their opinions.
We have seen evidence of this in the UN's Arab Human Development Reports composed by a team of Arab scholars and in the eloquent demand for democracy issued by 200 of the Arab world's most venerated intellectuals who gathered this March at Egypt's Alexandria Library. We saw it, too, in the way most Iraqis welcomed their liberation from Saddam's dictatorship -- even if they soon came to resent the continued U.S. presence in their country. If America succeeds in implanting democracy in the region it will benefit the Arabs even more than the Americans.
Is America sincere? Why should the Arabs believe Bush's honeyed words about democracy? Such scepticism is easy to understand because the U.S. has not pushed democracy in this region in the past the way it has done in Eastern Europe or South America.
But September 11 convinced Americans that our traditional approach to the region was a failure. Bush himself said last year that his approach amounted to a repudiation of "60 years of Western" policy of "excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East". These 60 years included the administration of Bush's father. This is not something he would say lightly. Nor, if he were insincere, would he go out of his way, as he has done, to say that our goal of democratisation applies not only to states that have been hostile to us but also to close US allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However earnest the U.S. effort, are the Arabs ready for democracy?
Perhaps the absence of democracy in the region reflects some profound cultural incompatibility with democracy. Similar speculation was once voiced about the prospects of democracy in Asia.
During World War II, it was the official wisdom of the U.S. State Department that we could not democratise Japan because history had taught us that democracy could never work there. Such doubts were expressed about democracy's prospects not only in Asia but also Latin America, Catholic Europe, and even the U.S. south. Time and again, democracy has proven to be compatible with more variegated cultures than many experts had expected.
Even so, can democracy be stimulated from the outside? Doesn't every nation need to establish democracy for itself? Ultimately, the endurance of democracy depends on the roots it can sink in the values and expectations of the populace, but we have many examples in which democracy was first implanted by outsiders.
Moreover, outsiders can give a helping hand to indigenous democrats who are working or struggling for democracy. Although U.S. popularity may stand at an all-time low in the Arab world, America's advocacy of democracy is hard to dismiss, as evidenced, for example, by the declaration of last month's Arab League summit in Tunis which acknowledged the need for democratisation.
How far the U.S. will get in its democracy campaign will depend to a great extent on what happens in Iraq following the transfer of sovereignty.
The shining model that Washington once hoped it could make of Iraq has shown itself to be an illusion. Still, if an elected government follows, and with it the emergence of a more open and livable society than Iraq had known before, then Bush's strategy may yet be on the road to success.