The paradox of Iraq's Sunday elections may be this: Seldom in recent history has such a process seemed so flawed from the outset, and at the same time so possibly consequential for much of the world.
The imperfections in the vote are obvious. Many candidates have remained anonymous, due to assassination fears. Insurgent intimidation of voters is rampant. Final results won't be known for days, perhaps weeks, and the whole electoral assemblage of slates and parties and religious influence is confusing in the extreme.
Yet when an unknown percentage of eligible Iraqis travels to the polls, it will mark a turning point for their own country. Whether that leads to sectarian civil war, or a struggle toward plurality, will probably affect US involvement in the region for years to come. And, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted recently, that experience in turn may shape overall US
foreign policy for a decade, as did the sting of Vietnam, and victory in the cold war.
Thus for Iraq itself, and nations affected by the geopolitical shock of the US invasion, Sunday may mark not the beginning of the end, or even the end of the beginning, but the beginning of the beginning of what comes next.
"It is a delayed start of a genuine effort to start an Iraqi political process.... It is the opening of a door," says Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
At his news conference on Wednesday, President Bush described the Iraqi election as part of a global march toward freedom. He placed it with recent votes in Ukraine and Afghanistan, and among Palestinians, as a pathbreaking step by peoples long oppressed.
The vote will be "a grand moment in Iraqi history," Bush said.
Recent elections in previously undemocratic parts of the world are indeed welcome news, says Mr. Carothers. But they are something of the exception to the rule, he points out: In recent years, the great explosion of growth in the number of world democracies that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union has slowed.
In 1996, there were 118 electoral democracies in the world, according to Freedom House. Today there are 117.
The Middle East remains a region that has resisted democracy. Many in the region are cynical about what they believe to be a stage-managed Iraqi election.
If Iraq is to be an electoral example, it will have to maintain progress over time. "You can't assume people [in the region] will wake up Monday and say, 'Wow, that was great. Let's do that, too,' " says Carothers.
News from Iraq itself about the security situation leading up to the elections remained bleak. Thursday a suicide tractor bomb exploded outside the Kurdish Democratic Party office in the northern city of Sinjar, killing four Iraqi soldiers and a guard. One US marine was killed and four others wounded while conducting "stability operations" in Babil Province, according to US officials.
These events followed the single deadliest day for US troops in Iraq since they invaded nearly two years ago. Thirty-seven Americans were killed on Wednesday - 31 in the crash of a Marine helicopter in a desert sandstorm.
Continued violence in Iraq and the inability of the US to even appear to make progress in calming the situation are leading to increasing calls in Washington for an exit strategy.
The US presence is simply making things worse now, said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts Thursday. US units are targets as much as helpers, he said.
"We need a new plan that sets fair and realistic goals for self-government in Iraq, and works with the Iraqi government on a specific timetable for the honorable homecoming of our forces," said Senator Kennedy in remarks at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
But in an opinion piece published earlier this week in The Washington Post, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, both former Republican secretaries of State, insisted that the implications of the term "exit strategy" must be clearly understood.
"The essential prerequisite for an acceptable exit strategy is a sustainable outcome, not an arbitrary time limit. For the outcome in Iraq will shape the next decade of American foreign policy," they wrote.
A debacle in Iraq would embolden radicals and fundamentalists. A quick US withdrawal would launch a civil war that would dwarf Yugoslavia's, draw in neighboring nations, and confuse the rest of the world about American foreign policy aims, wrote Messrs. Kissinger and Shultz.
The US needs to hold steady and keep fighting in Iraq, says Walter Russell Mead, a foreign-policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. The tide of history is with the US, he insists.
"Remember, 80 percent of people in Iraq more or less want the changes we want," says Mr. Mead. "The real power of Iraqi society is with us."