WASHINGTON -- Americans are by nature and experience an optimistic people who tend to be skeptical of those who see nothing but gloom and doom ahead of us.
Then why do public opinion polls show that Americans are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the U.S. military and humanitarian efforts in Iraq to put that country on the road to a permanent democracy?
Much of it has to do with the negative spin that is put on just about every report about Iraq -- often ignoring facts that might give Americans a more favorable, longer-term view about events there. One TV nightly news report about the bitter House fight over Democratic calls for a troop pullout from Iraq never mentioned the nearly unanimous vote that killed the withdrawal resolution.
The White House, too, has been less than effective in countering these reports, especially in the face of a new assault by Democratic war critics last month. A White House official recently told me that "we need to do a much better job of getting our side of the story out, and that's changing."
But the administration seems to be getting its act together. We saw that with the deployment of the White House's biggest guns in the past week. Vice President Cheney launched a counteroffensive on Iraq war critics that gave a needed counterweight to the debate, followed by President Bush's renewed defense this week about the progress being made in Iraq.
Indeed, the case for significant progress in Iraq is compelling and has proven the naysayers wrong each step of the way. Three years ago, the possibility of Iraqis going to the polls to vote for a provisional, unified government to begin writing a new constitution was dismissed by critics as highly unlikely. Iraq was too divided and too fearful of the terrorist death squads to conduct a credible election.
But Iraqis turned out in droves at the polls despite the dangers, bravely dipping their finger into the purple ink to show they voted, and a tenuous provisional government was born. Then we heard new predictions from the chattering class that Iraq was too divided to agree on a governing constitution and that the country was plunging toward civil war. Wrong again. The major parties, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, defying all odds, agreed on a document that was not perfect, but, like our own founding fathers, used murky language to paper over disputes while preserving a sense of unity that was pivotal to the emerging national government.
That was followed by a litany of pessimistic predictions and fears that the constitution would be voted down by a majority vote in at least three provinces. But that didn't happen, either. In fact, the constitution won a fairly strong vote of approval, despite terrorist death threats against anyone who voted for it.
Now the Iraqis are approaching the third and critical step in the creation of a permanent government with the elections of a national legislature and new leadership on Dec. 15. Yet again, we hear the familiar voices of what Spiro Agnew once called the "nattering nabobs of negativism" who say that Iraq is still too divided and inexperienced to overcome the terrorists in its midst. Yet thousands of candidates are running for several hundred seats in the new parliament, and some will be assassinated as a result as the death squads step up their suicide bombings as the election draws near. Many of those at risk of assassination are Sunnis who spurned the elections earlier but are now joining in for fear of being left out of the power struggle.
Whatever happens between now and then, the election will take place, a legislature will be chosen, and the terrorists will suffer yet another severe defeat in the political arena.
The election's message to the terrorists: you can kill some of us, even many of us, but you can't kill all of us, and you cannot defeat the movement toward an independent, free and democratic government.
We've all heard the polling questions that tell us a strong majority of Americans now think that Bush's decision to go into Iraq was a mistake. In light of the climbing toll of U.S. casualties, that view is an understandable one. But some polls ask a related question that suggests another view.
One poll, conducted last month by the bipartisan RT Strategies, asked Americans if the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq would help or hurt troop morale. A stunning 70 percent said a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces would hurt morale over there while 14 percent said it would help.
This strongly suggests that Americans want to finish what we've started, that they want to give the Iraqi government every chance to show they're capable of taking over their own security. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thinks that day will come "fairly soon."
We've counted the Iraqis people out too many times, only to see them face down the terrorists in election after election to achieve representative government. That's reason enough to be optimistic about the challenge we face there just as the Iraqis are poised to hold the most important election in their country's history.