STANFORD, CALIF. — The election coming up in Iraq may turn out, in the long view of history, to be even more important than our own recent election. Both elections represent a country at a crossroads, with a choice of very different paths to take - for many years to come - according to the results of the voting.
If Iraqi voters choose a government that will perpetuate their right to continue freely choosing their own government, that will represent a radical change and something unique in the history of the entire Arab world. Its repercussions on surrounding Middle Eastern countries could be momentous in the years and generations ahead.
On the other hand, depending on who is elected, this could turn out like the first elections held in some African countries after they achieved their independence in the 1960s: "One man, one vote - one time." Too often, the winner of that first election made sure that no one else could ever be elected to replace him.
The terrorists pouring into Iraq obviously understand the high stakes in this election, not just for Iraq but for the whole region and for the terrorist networks that this region has spawned and exported around the world.
The Bush administration has poured American blood and treasure into Iraq in hopes of an outcome that will spare future generations of Americans another tragedy like 9/11. Just the fact of taking this long view contrasts sharply with the Clinton administration's focus on short-run issues of political damage control, which amounted to sweeping international problems under the rug and leaving them for future administrations to deal with.
Like every judgment, however thoughtful or informed, this judgment by the Bush administration can turn out to be mistaken. The only way to avoid making mistakes is to avoid making decisions - which can be the most catastrophic mistake of all.
What do the chances for a democratic Iraq look like? This is the cloudiest of all crystal balls to look into.
Do the Iraqis themselves want a democracy? More important, do they have the prerequisites for sustaining democratic government? After all, Western democracies emerged slowly, over the centuries, through trial and error. Is it realistic to expect Iraq to make that leap in a few years?
President Bush is obviously among those who believe that all people long to be free. The history of the emergence of freedom in historically despotic Japan and Germany after World War II, and in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Communist dictatorships there, provide hope. But nothing can provide a guarantee.
It is one thing for the Shiite majority in Iraq to want to be free and something very different to expect them to want - or even tolerate - the consequences of that country's Sunnis or Kurds being free. An enduring democracy requires tolerance, and it is hard to think of any place more intolerant than the Middle East.
Some blame the Islamic religion for the narrow and backward features of many Muslim countries. Yet there are Muslim countries that have had women as heads of state, which the United States has not yet had. But these were not Arab countries in the Middle East.
Islam cannot be blamed for everything that has gone wrong in Islamic countries, any more than Christianity can be blamed for everything that has gone wrong in Christian countries. Middle Eastern civilizations existed for centuries, and developed their own distinctive character, before the rise of Islam.
Indeed, some of the oldest civilizations in the world arose in the Middle East, at a time when much of Europe consisted of illiterate tribal societies. The loss of their historic prominence during the past few centuries, combined with their large and painfully visible lags behind the West today, is one of the humiliations poisoning the Middle East.
Such humiliations can leave people a choice of hating themselves for their failures or hating others for their success. Most people, of whatever race or religion, prefer to blame others.
America and Israel are the convenient scapegoats today. But the great Islamic civilizations began their decline before there was an America or a modern state of Israel.
The fate of much more than Iraq will depend on what the Iraqi elections tell us.
• Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. © 2004 Creators Syndicate, Inc.