One night last week Jay Leno, the late-night entertainment show host, made a joke that went something like this: "They want us to give our ports to the Arabs? We can't even give Iraq to the Arabs."
It was a tragicomic line dreamed up for him by his writers, laden with exaggeration and misstatement to make the audience chuckle. Of course, the Bush administration is not planning to "give our ports" to the Arabs. Nor is Iraq America's to "give to the Arabs."
But there is a kernel of truth in the joke that underlies the serious challenge confronting the United States in Iraq, and the marginally related political problem confronting it by the acquisition by an Arab government of a British company that handles a variety of functions in six American ports. The port problem is the fruit of ineptness and incredible political tone- deafness on the part of the administration.
It appears that a 45-day pause in the deal's implementation will now take place in which all the potential hazards from terrorism will be thoroughly explored. If the process is transparent, Congress is consulted, the press and public given all the facts - as should have happened the first time around - the deal may yet go through. The "Arabs are taking over our ports" headlines may fade away. Thus would end another embarrassment for the administration needlessly caused by poor communication and lack of sensitivity.
The situation in Iraq is much more dire. We are now at the crux of the postwar challenge there confronting both Iraqis and Americans. It is whether, after the US has deposed Saddam Hussein and given Iraqis the chance to embrace democracy, they will seize it or descend into political disarray and civil war.
The destruction of holy places, and the spilling of blood by Arab against Arab as the US stood by without enough troops to halt it, is an ugly chapter in the story of Iraq's postwar progress. Religious leaders on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide have called for an end to violence. Political leaders must bury their differences and personal ambitions and create the coalition government overdue in formation. The situation is dangerous but not impossible to solve. Paul Bremer's just-published book, "My Year in Iraq," recounts one delay after another in getting a transitional government under way and an interim constitution written during his term there as American proconsul in 2003 and 2004. It required constant nudging, negotiating, encouragement and occasionally bare-knuckled threats, to produce results and a fragile facade of unity.
Since Bremer's departure from Iraq in mid-2004 much progress has been made, not the least being the enthusiastic participation last year by millions of Iraqis in their first truly democratic elections. They did so in the face of terrorists' threats to kill anybody who voted.
As the political process has moved forward, the terrorists have stepped up their attacks, not only against Americans but mostly now on Iraqis. When the situation deteriorated last week, the US mounted an intense diplomatic effort, with President Bush calling for an end to violence and a resumption of talks to install a new coalition government. On the ground in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, the able US ambassador, undoubtedly used every persuasive tactic to achieve the same end.
The stakes are high. A reversal now on the road to political order and democracy in Iraq could deter fledgling moves toward greater freedom in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab lands that have been observing the Iraqi situation with keen interest.
It could also have sweeping political consequences in the US. A descent into ongoing chaos in Iraq would undoubtedly stimulate demands from Democratic and other critics of President Bush for an earlier withdrawal than planned of American troops.
It would be a crushing setback for the president both personally and for the cornerstone of his foreign policy, namely the expansion of democratic principles to nations that do not presently enjoy them.
Hardest hit would be the people of Iraq, who deserve better after their long years of suppression under Mr. Hussein and their tribulation in time of war. Tensions seemed to ease early this week, but as Paul Bremer concluded in his book: "There is no quick path to renewing a society like Iraq's, recovering from brutality." Addressing American soldiers in Iraq, he said: "We must honor your sacrifices by showing the patience and determination to finish the job."
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.