WASHINGTON -- No literary observation better describes the situation in Iraq than Charles Dickens' paradoxical opening line in "A Tale of Two Cities": "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
On the best side, this is a country of 26 million people who have been freed from a brutal, repressive dictatorship, a country that wrote and approved a self-governing constitution and then marched to the polls to elect representatives despite death threats from terrorist insurgents.
Schools were opened to boys and girls alike; freedom of the press led to the establishment of hundreds of independent newspapers and radio and TV stations; people protested and rallied without fear of reprisals; businesses blossomed; a stock market opened; millions of cell phones appeared everywhere; and Iraqis were going "online."
A government is being formed, though negotiations over its makeup have been slow; a growing number of Iraqi soldiers are training under the aegis of U.S. and NATO troops; and, for the first time in many decades, a glimmer of hope for the future has been rekindled and now burns more brightly.
A nation has been reborn.
But this is also the worst of times: brutal, bloodthirsty terrorist forces, most of them from outside Iraq's borders, are indiscriminately killing men, women and children in a reign of death calculated to spawn fear, chaos and civil war. Car bombs detonate with deadly precision, dynamite-jacketed suicide killers roam crowded plazas and gunmen open fire on innocent civilians, police and Iraqi troops.
Oil pipelines are blown up, electric utilities are sabotaged, Iraqi officials are kidnapped and executed, and places of worship are destroyed.
This dark side has become the face of Iraq in the U.S. media, on television and in newspapers. It is violence seemingly without end, whose aim is to paralyze Iraq and force U.S. withdrawal so the insurgents can achieve their ultimate goal: to bring down the government and install a terrorist regime that will snuff out the flickering light of freedom our brave soldiers have lit.
Because this violence is what Americans see day in and day out, the result is understandable -- a loss of confidence in President Bush to turn the situation around and a loss of support for the war's original purpose: to build a free, anti-terrorist, democratic government in Iraq.
This week, Bush and other administration officials were making the case to stay the course and finish the mission, attempting to convince Americans there was reason for optimism and that the Iraqis were immeasurably better off with Saddam Hussein gone, even in the midst of their struggles to preserve their freedoms.
It's a difficult argument to make, and Bush knows this better than anyone. "In the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken," he told the City Club of Cleveland on Monday.
"Others look on their television screens, and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq," he said. "They wonder what I see that they don't."
Bush acknowledged that the American-led counterinsurgency has gone through much "trial and error," but that U.S. and Iraqi forces had captured or killed many terrorists and had brought a semblance of peace to cities like Tal Afar (once controlled by Al Qaeda forces).
In the end, the critical nexus of Iraq's future will rely on the deployment of Iraqi troops and police, and here's where there is much reason for hope. "The progress made in bringing more Iraqi security forces online is helping to bring peace and stability to Iraqi cities," Bush said.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Iraqi soldiers are leading about half the military missions now, and that figure will only grow in the months to come.
Bush's optimism is based on a vision of what Iraq will become: a self-governing, robust democracy aligned with the West against the forces of terror. It will not come about quickly or easily, but it will happen.
Where his critics see only doom and gloom, the president sees progress in the growing strength and skills of Iraqi troops, in the hunger for a better life in the Iraqi people and in the inability of the terrorists to stop the movement toward self-government.
A population can live with terrorism for a long time, combating it while they build their nation. Look at Israel. The bombings did not wear down the Israeli people. It only made them more determined to do whatever was necessary to secure their safety and freedom -- and preserve their nation.
That's what the Iraqis are doing now, and that's why they deserve our continued military support until they can defend themselves from the forces of evil that attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001.