I suspect I was like millions of people Sunday, glued to the television watching the people of Iraq braving mortars and suicide bombers to vote in the first elections in that country in a half-century. Forty-four people died in election day violence, but that didn't deter millions of voters from showing up at the polls. Approximately 60 percent of eligible voters defied terrorist threats and fascistlike intimidation to exercise their hard-won right to create a system of self-government.
As President Bush said, in voting against terrorists and for democracy, Iraqis voted for the future premised upon hope and optimism - a defeat for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and a historical victory for the cause of freedom.
The headlines and pictures on front pages of newspapers across America, especially those on the front page of the Washington Times, of Iraqi women voting for the first time ever, visually depicted their courage and thirst for democracy. The New York Times described it this way: "The scene was suffused with the sense of civic spirit that has seemed, so often in America's 22 months here, like a missing link in the plan to build democracy in Iraq." The Wall Street Journal poignantly observed, "The world won't know for a week or longer which candidates won yesterday's historic Iraq elections, but we already know the losers: the insurgents. The millions of Iraqis who defied threats and suicide bombers to cast a ballot yesterday showed once and for all that the killers do not represent some broad 'nationalist' resistance."
Back in 1982 and 1983, along with Sen. Scoop Jackson and others, I was part of the bipartisan Kissinger Commission on Central America, which was designed to give aid to the Contras and help foster democratic reforms in El Salvador and Nicaragua. I believe these efforts eventually led to the election of Presidents Violetta Chamorro in Nicaragua and Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador. Today, President Bush has a chance to do in Central Asia and the Middle East what the Reagan/Bush administration did for Central America.
A fortnight from now Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will meet.
This meeting, coming on the heels of historic elections in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq, offers a historic opportunity for a regional solution from Afghanistan to Israel similar to the successful approach the United States took in Central America two decades ago.
After Sunday's successful elections, there is a new reality in Iraq. Iraq is free to determine for itself what the American presence, if any, will consist of going forward. The United States toppled the Iraqi dictatorship, for which the vast majority of Iraqis are grateful. The question the new Iraqi government must answer for itself is, will the continued presence of the American military provide security and political stability or will it lead to more violence and threaten the stability of the newly elected government? I believe the answer is a priori self-evident: The U.S. military is necessary to help pacify the Sunni Triangle and continue training Iraqi security forces.
Realistically, there will be a period of violence and terrorism in the coming days and weeks once the U.S. military's election day lockdown of the country is eased. The challenge is to prevent the violence from exploding into outright civil war. The question, which only Iraq can answer, is will it be easier for the new popularly elected Iraqi government to mediate among the various warring factions and avoid civil war with or without continued American military presence?
The United States cannot answer these questions for the Iraqis, and America has no interest in remaining in Iraq beyond the time the people of Iraq desire us to be there. We cannot create democracy in Iraq; we can only encourage the Iraqi people to create democratic institutions. The Iraqi people demonstrated by their courageous trek to the polls through the gauntlet of terrorism that they are up to choosing for themselves.
Regardless of the Iraqis' decision on the continued presence of American troops, we have an obligation to provide the country with ongoing economic assistance to help Iraq rebuild its infrastructure and to get its economy up and running again. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputy-designate, former U.S. Trade Representative Bob Zoelick, have a golden opportunity to direct U.S. attention to what comes after America's military leaves Iraq. They are in the position to concentrate on the creation of something like a 21st-century Marshall aid plan that could provide the policy framework for financial assistance, trade and investment, not only for Iraq but also the entire region, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Palestine, to build market economies and to undergird fledging democracies, one of which was born last weekend.