“Why not us?”

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek– hardly a Bush administration cheerleader– offers a cautiously hopeful take on prospects for next month’s elections in Iraq.

I arrived in London the day after Hamid Karzai’s inauguration as Afghanistan’s newly elected president. Britain’s most serious left-of-center newspaper, The Guardian, reported on the event in detail, noting that after decades of war, coups and bloodshed, this was a historic day. Its op-ed page had a somewhat different interpretation. It carried a huge, lurid cartoon of Dick Cheney, surrounded by Bush, Rumsfeld and Karzai, all looking drunk or mad or both, and singing, “Ashghanistan! Ashghanistan! From Sea to Shining Sea!!!” Is this the European left’s response to elections in Afghanistan? If so, it had better brace itself for even worse news: elections in Iraq.

(Steve Bell’s and Martin Rowson’s morbid and distinctly unfunny cartooning style– wielding off-target sledgehammers rather than carefully-aimed rapiers– makes me long for the days of the late, great liberal Washington Post cartoonist Herblock.)

Six months ago America was headed for disaster in Iraq, with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani threatening to call for active Shia opposition. At this point, Iraq policy was taken out of the Pentagon and run out of the White House, under Condoleezza Rice and her associate Robert Blackwill. Then began the reversals. Washington finally asked the United Nations to step in and arrange a transition that would junk the U.S.-appointed (and highly unpopular) Governing Council. The new, Interim Government, which came into being in June, was chosen by the United Nations and blessed by Sistani. De-Baathification ended. Military operations became much more conscious of their political effects, beginning with a carefully executed one in Najaf. And while vowing that it didn’t need more troops, the administration has slowly increased troop strength so that by January 2005 the force will be 30 percent larger than it was a year ago.

The United States has paid a terrible price for this war—in Iraq and in the world at large—unconscionably high, given how many of these costs were avoidable. And I could be wrong about Iraq, in the sense that things could get much worse. Civil war, rampant anti-Americanism and terrorism are all part of the possible future. But what I am not wrong about is that a more decent, pluralistic Iraq would make a huge difference in the Arab world. Already the preparations for Iraq’s elections are stirring debate and discussion among its neighbors. Remember, these are the first genuine, national elections in the entire region. As 300 million Middle Easterners watch Iraqis going to the polls, they will surely ask a simple question: “Why not us?”

The current issue of Foreign Affairs has an exchange between two scholars, Tony Smith and Larry Diamond. Smith accuses Diamond, a longtime supporter of human rights, of making a “pact with the devil” by working (briefly) for the United States in postwar Iraq. Diamond, who had opposed the war, responds: “I do not regard the post-war endeavor as a pact with the devil. Let Smith and other critics visit Iraq and talk to Iraqis who are organizing for democracy, development, and human rights. Let them talk to the families that lived under constant, humiliating, Baathist rule. Let them see some of the roughly 300 mass graves of opponents of the regime who were brutally slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands. Then they will find out who the devil really was.” I can’t say it better.