Two fairly significant questions must be answered before the US can emerge in good order from the postwar turmoil of Iraq.
What do the Iraqis want in the way of government after Saddam Hussein? And when can they get it?
The first question has, until now, been tough to answer in a nation living in terror of Hussein and traditionally "reelecting" him with a 100 percent majority.
Since Hussein's toppling, uncertain security has hindered polling, but the American Enterprise magazine, working with Zogby International, has just completed a poll in four disparate cities - Basra, Mosel, Kirkuk, and Ramadi - that sheds light on the current state of thought. The poll was conducted in August, with a sample of 600 respondents, and a plus or minus degree of accuracy of 4.1 percent.
The magazine's editor, Karl Zinsmeister, who occupies a chair at the American Enterprise Institute, spent a month as an "embedded" journalist with the 82nd Airborne during the campaign to liberate Iraq. He says the results of the poll show that the Iraqi public "is more sensible, stable, and moderate than commonly portrayed, and is not so fanatical, seething, or disgusted with the United States after all."
Despite this cheerful conclusion, it doesn't necessarily translate into confidence in the US reconstruction program for Iraq. Actually, 50 percent of those polled thought America would do more to hurt than help Iraq over the next five years, versus 36 percent who thought America would help. Women were particularly wary of the US.
But, Mr. Zinsmeister says, offered five models to choose from (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Syria, or the US), 37 percent of Iraqis polled said the US was the country they'd most like their new government to be modeled on. Saudi Arabia was in second place at 28 percent.
For a war-torn country, optimism was quite high. Seven out of 10 said they expected their country and personal lives to be better five years from now. Half said democracy was Western and would not work in Iraq, 4 out of 10 said it would, 1 out of 10 were not sure. Sunnis were more negative about democracy, Shiites more positive.
Women were significantly more upbeat about democracy than men.
As for an Islamic government, 60 percent said "No," only 33 percent "Yes."
Some 57 percent of Iraqis with an opinion had an unfavorable view of Osama bin Laden, 41 percent of those were "very unfavorable."And as for a Baath revival, 74 percent of those asked said that Baath Party leaders should be punished for past crimes.
Two-thirds of those polled urged that US and British troops should remain for at least another year.
Nobody suggests that the task of bringing democratic government to Iraq is easy. But if these poll results are representative, it is far from hopeless.
Which brings us to the second question of significance: When can Iraqis expect to see a transition from military occupation to an Iraqi civilian rule with credibility?
One way or another, it looks as though that is going to occur faster than was thought in the first days after the war ended. At weekend meetings in Geneva of the five permanent UN Security Council members, France demanded sovereignty for the interim Iraqi Governing Council in a month, to be followed by conclusion of a new constitution by year's end and elections in the spring. Even some members of the Iraqi Governing Council consider that timetable unrealistic. It is also opposed by the US. There is also sharp disagreement between the US and France over whether the transition should be overseen by the Americans or the UN.
But with the expense and burden of Iraq's postwar economic and political reconstruction for the US becoming daily more evident, and the specter of all this being a negative during President Bush's campaign for reelection next year, the argument for an earlier, rather than later, transition to Iraqi governance is gaining traction.
What is a realistic time frame? Can it be achieved without the surrender of US control of the process?
For the Bush administration this is not merely a matter of face. Given the American cost in lives and money of ridding Iraq of Hussein, it is reasonable for the US to be assured that the new regime will be democratically inclined, and not return Iraq to Baathist terror or Islamic extremism that would provide a sanctuary for Al Qaeda.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.