CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — Are fair elections all that the peoples of Palestine and Iraq need to resolve their many problems? From listening to some members of the Bush administration, you might think so. On Jan. 9, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza (but notably not their compatriots living in exile) took part in a generally fair vote that made Mahmoud Abbas head of the Palestinian Authority (PA). And on Jan. 30, Iraqis should vote for a Constitutional Assembly and interim parliament.
It is uncertain whether Iraq's vote can be held as scheduled, given the breadth of the insurgency. But even if it is held, neither that election nor the one in Palestine will assure the rights of the voters unless Iraqis and Palestinians also rapidly win their national independence. In addition, during the process of transferring sovereignty, the US (and Israel) need to convey - and also model - two of the key "big ideas" behind any true theory of democracy: the need to resolve differences through discussion, rather than violence; and a complete respect for the rights of others, including - crucially - those with whom we disagree.
If the Palestinians and Iraqis do not speedily win national independence, then elections held to "interim" bodies will have little meaning. But worse, democracy itself can get a bad name.
That has already happened once. Back in 1996, Palestinians were excited to take part in an election for PA head because they knew this person would then negotiate the sovereignty issue with Israel. They elected Yasser Arafat with the clear expectation that he would speedily win their full national independence. But for a variety of reasons - some, but by no means all, connected to Arafat's flaws - the negotiation with Israel stalled and then collapsed. The Palestinians found themselves once more living under the direct rule of the Israeli military. The whole idea of "democracy" suffered along the way. Palestinian participation in this year's election was notably less enthusiastic than it was in 1996.
There is much the US can do to speed the Palestinian-Israeli negotiation to a final outcome involving - as Mr. Bush has stated - two independent states living peacefully side by side. One key task will be to urge both leaderships - not just that of the Palestinians - to turn decisively away from violence, and to engage in a reasoned discussion of their differences.
The violence used by some Palestinian extragovernmental groups has always, rightly, been condemned. But the Israeli government has also used excessive, rights-abusing violence in many circumstances. One example: deliberate, extrajudicial killings (assassinations), which have killed more than 180 targeted individuals and 130 bystanders since September 2000. The US, as a principal backer of the negotiations, must insist that both sides pursue a rights-respecting policy that eschews all extrajudicial or escalatory violence.
But it's in Iraq that the US faces the greatest test of its commitment to the "big ideas" of democratic self-governance. Will the US be prepared to hand over sovereign power in Iraq to a duly elected leadership even if it disagrees with many of the policies espoused by that leadership? The principles of democracy indicate it should.
Will the US be prepared to end its own troops' use of escalatory violence during the handover to an elected Iraqi authority? The antiviolence part of the theory of democracy indicates that it should. (So, too, does simple expedience. Many of the US troops in Iraq are vulnerable.)
At many steps along its tortured path in Iraq, the US has already used quite unnecessary and excessive violence. This violence has inflicted considerable harm on ordinary Iraqi men and women and on the safety of public spaces. It has obstructed Washington's ability to realize its own political goals. In addition, whenever the powerful-seeming Americans use massive violence to deal with Iraqi opponents, that sends a strong message to Iraqis that using violence to resolve differences is OK. This is a profoundly antidemocratic message.
How can the US chart a new course? Whether the elections are held this month or not, the US needs to bring about the speedy transfer of real sovereignty in Iraq to an authority more legitimate than its own - either an elected Iraqi leadership, or the United Nations.
Along the way, it must do all it can to de-escalate violence, engage in good-faith negotiations with critics, and otherwise model all the key themes of democratic practice. Such steps make sense on their own terms. They will also do more, over the years ahead, to help embed the "big ideas" of democracy in Iraq and neighboring countries than holding one imperfect and possibly polarizing election ever could.
True democracy is about much more than just holding elections. It's about self-governance, responsibility, a commitment not to use violence, and respect for the rights of those who hold opposing views. Will we see these principles take root in Iraq and the Holy Land over the years ahead? Let's hope so - and work to make it happen.
• Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies.