WASHINGTON — In two days the people of Iraq will go to the polls and vote for their new government. It will be the third national election in the country in a year, and, depending on what happens, it will be heralded as a major victory for the United States, and particularly the Bush administration, or decried as a major defeat. In all likelihood, it will be neither.
It is completely understandable that Americans want a ruling on Iraq - a final call from the judges on whether it was all worth it. But the fact is, when one is building a country, those calls are hard to make. What Thursday's vote will do, if it goes well, is finally give us something real to gauge in Iraq over the coming months and, yes, years - which is the time frame we should all be looking at now.
That's hard to accept in a nation that takes great pride in accelerating everything from dining to dating. But it's the truth. Already voters in this country have bounced back-and-forth in their opinions on Iraq. There have been four main public opinion story lines.
Most saw it as a success immediately after the invasion. Then it didn't seem to be going well when some threw bombs - not flowers - at us. Then Iraq had the elections last January with all those purple index fingers, and things were looking up. But then the insurgency didn't go away; it actually got worse.
Those aren't really four different stories, though; they are all part of one big story that will go on for some time. A nation isn't really forged in an election or even a constitution. It is forged in the way it handles the small questions its people face day to day and the big problems that inevitably challenge what that nation claims to be.
Iraq, in other words, will be defined by what it proves to be over time, not what it is on Thursday or what its documents say it is. And that is why the politicking over it has gotten so difficult to bear.
When Rep. John Murtha proposed that the US begin withdrawing troops in six months, the Pennsylvania Democrat was attacked by Republicans who called him a defeatist looking to "cut and run." Mr. Murtha's point, largely lost in the political game, was that the troops had actually become detrimental to the US effort there and were helping to spur on the insurgency.
It was Howard Dean of the Democratic National Committee who sounded the defeatist note. In a radio interview Mr. Dean said, "The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong."
There are legitimate questions about the future of Iraq and there are (as many Democrats have pointed out) serious questions about how the US got involved there in the first place. But it is a bit early to simply declare the whole franchise kaput.
The "we're on the road to victory" crowd is also getting increasingly difficult to stomach.
President Bush recently released his "Plan for Victory," which contained no significantly new information, while he talked about a battle that was "primarily led" by Iraqis. But a Time magazine reporter embedded with troops at the front lines in that fight said the president's characterization was "completely wrong." The reporter said in some cases the Iraqi troops "fell apart."
Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, fresh from a trip to Iraq, recently wrote in a much-discussed Op-Ed about the progress being made in the country. The piece, which has been heralded by the "road to victory" crowd, described the fight there as being between 27 million Iraqis and 10,000 terrorists. That's one way of looking at it, of course, but it rests on a pretty big assumption and one that goes straight to the meaning of Thursday's election.
There may be 27 million Iraqis, but what they all want isn't at all clear. Some of them want highly contradictory things - and we are talking about a lot more than red-state/blue-state differences of opinion here. They are differences on things as fundamental as the role of religion, the role of women, and the role of the government itself.
There is the very real question of how many of those 27 million Iraqis even really want to be Iraqis. Some may want to be residents of Kurdistan or even Iran - ideas that might challenge the idea of a free and stable Iraq.
Iraq, in its infancy, is just beginning to deal with the issue of what it wants to be when it grows up. What happens Thursday is a first step, but not much more. Any celebration or obituary that quickly follows the results will be misguided.
• Dante Chinni writes a twice monthly political column for the Monitor.