When George W. Bush spoke to the nation last week -- the first of several weekly addresses promised up through June 30, when U.S.-led forces will turn over authority to an interim Iraq government -- most polls showed Americans split about evenly between him and John Kerry. This, despite more than two months during which the adversarial media have overplayed stories that seemed likely to hurt Bush -- the Richard Clarke testimony and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse -- and underplayed stories that seemed likely to help him -- the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, the presence of the nerve gas sarin in an attack on U.S. troops in northern Iraq, the murder of Nicholas Berg.
But even fair coverage would convey at least some impression of turmoil in Iraq. Although most of the country is peaceful and the economy is surging, armed attacks against Americans and Iraqis are still frequent; oil pipelines are still subject to sabotage.
This, clearly, is not how we wanted the occupation to look at this point. But it is also no time for panic. If things could be better, they could also be very much worse. Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say some in a position to know, are regarding events calmly. They have seen worse.
Nearly 30 years ago, they held high offices in Gerald Ford's White House, when Americans were forced to evacuate South Vietnam by helicopter, when inflation and unemployment were higher than today, when the president's job-approval ratings were far lower than George W. Bush's, and when Democrats held overwhelming margins in both houses of Congress. Yet if Ford had won 18,490 more votes in Ohio and Hawaii in 1976, he would have stayed in the White House.
It seems clear that, however much the violence continues, power will be turned over to an Iraqi interim government June 30. Those who argue that that government won't have full authority so long as U.S. troops remain or that the United States will have very limited leverage forget the precedent of post-World War II Italy. There was a continuous Italian government then, under a king, until Italians chose a republic, in a 1946 referendum. But the Americans continued to exert influence there until the Italians chose the pro-democratic Christian Democrats over the pro-totalitarian Communists, in 1948.
The question in Iraq now is how U.S. influence is directed. Having U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi help choose the officers of the interim government puts a Muslim face on the choice but increases the risk of tilting toward a Baathist strongman. The raid on Ahmed Chalabi's office and confiscation of documents showing corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program are, at the least, shabby treatment of a steady advocate of democracy who, Gen. Richard Myers says, has provided useful intelligence.
But the solid support for democracy and civil society among the Kurds -- something almost no one predicted a dozen years ago -- is cause for hope. So is the rejection by most Shiites of Moqtada al-Sadr's call for rebellion and Sadr's retreat from Najaf. So is the cooperation the Marines have received from Iraqi troops in Fallujah.
Through all this runs the difficult issue of lustration -- how and whether to bar from power personnel of an ousted evil regime. On the one hand, you don't want to reward tyrants with power; on the other, you'd like to see the trains run on time. The formerly communist nations of Eastern Europe handled lustration in different ways; so did South Africa after apartheid and Chile after Pinochet; so did the United States in Germany and Japan after World War II. The lesson of all these very different approaches is that there is no entirely satisfactory way to handle lustration. You make mistakes and judgments that turn out badly. But you move forward and do the best you can.
That's the approach George W. Bush took in his May 24 speech and will presumably take again in the next few weeks. But it is not enough to try to put daily headlines into a larger perspective. Narrative is needed: story lines that show genuine progress. Bush needs to tell such stories and, to counter the awful pictures of Abu Ghraib, to present pictures of his own as the weeks go on. Americans will not falter because of casualties if they can see that progress is clearly being made. Bush needs to show them it is.