WASHINGTON -- In early 2005, the advance of freedom in the Middle East had an air of inevitability. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Beirut to demand an end to Syrian occupation. Eight and a half million Iraqis voted with purpled fingers. Even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak permitted a multiparty election. People talked of an "Arab Spring."
By 2006, what had seemed inevitable was dismissed as incredible. Iraq had descended into civil strife, apparently aided by elections that reinforced sectarian divides. Voting in the Palestinian territories brought Hamas to power. Mubarak, the old angler, reeled back most of the freedoms he had granted.
Some American conservatives found Burkean lessons in the fading freedom agenda, asserting that democracy is a fragile flower that only grows in a rich cultural soil tended by Jeffersons and Hamiltons. Many liberals seemed relieved that President Bush didn't seem right after all, though this involved global setbacks for political liberalism. It may seem strange that anyone should feel a thrill of vindication when the ideals of their nation appear to falter. But let us judge not, that we be not judged.
Now spring is returning. January's local elections in Iraq favored secular nationalists instead of clerical parties. In Lebanon, Hezbollah was defeated in an open and vigorous vote. Kuwaiti women have been elected to parliament for the first time. And in Iran, brave women and men have demonstrated that democracy, not just nihilism, counts martyrs in the Muslim world.
If one lesson stands out from these years of bipolarity, it is this: Experts will overinterpret events to confirm pre-existing views. No snapshot in this complex historical process is the permanent picture. Every idealist will have his day; every realist will have his night.
But while the development of democracy in the Middle East is not linear, it is also not random. It moves in steps, but upward. Taken together -- a constitutional Iraqi democracy, a powerful reform movement in Iran, democratic achievements from the Gulf sheikdoms to Lebanon -- this is the greatest period of democratic progress in the history of the region. Given consistent outbreaks, it seems clear that the broader Middle East is not immune to the democratic infection. And there are reasons that the democracy agenda will remain central to American foreign policy, whatever the mood of the moment.