Underestimating Iraqi Will

Wow – do I stand corrected.

As I watched news reports of the jubilant and incredibly brave voters going to the polls in Iraq on Sunday, I confess I was stunned.

I told a public audience not too long ago that I had huge questions about the upcoming election in Iraq and whether Iraqis were even interested in democracy – that maybe we in the United States were trying to push onto them something they couldn’t, perhaps didn’t even want to handle.

I thought the war in Iraq was, regrettably, something that had to be done. I was less compelled by the argument about the danger of weapons of mass destruction (though of course I believed reports of their existence) than I was by the need to enforce the surrender terms of the first Gulf War. I thought the principle of letting those go un-enforced for so long was a dangerous show of weakness on the part of the United States.

In any event, I was never compelled by arguments for the democratization of Iraq. It’s not that I didn’t think it would be great if it happened – I just thought it was sort of pie-in-the-sky thinking to hope it would happen. I figured that the best-case scenario would probably be some sort of stable, relatively Western-friendly regime there.

I was, well, cynical.

I believed tyranny to be the natural state of man, and democracy to be a really unusual aberration. I thought the terrorists would “win” and scare people away from the polls. People who, I thought, probably weren’t that interested in voting anyway.

Bottom line – I also believed the press reports out of Iraq that suggested exactly that.

And then I watched the news reports of all those jubilant Iraqis, risking their lives in overwhelming numbers to vote. Giving their names to the poll watchers, knowing that could put a big bull’s-eye on them for the terrorists. There they were, standing in front of television news cameras, showing us their proud faces. Exhibiting their ink-stained forefingers to show they had cast a ballot.

Talk about being “marked.”

I heard news stories of women in their veils, standing in line to vote, listening to bombs going off down the street, praying that it wouldn’t happen to them – but still patiently waiting to cast ballots. Would I be so brave? Um, no.

The Iraqi people showed such incredible guts in what they did and such happiness and thankfulness in doing it. They proved the world wrong.

They proved me wrong.

I know, I know. Iraq is not a secure democracy yet. But after seeing the bravery and the joy in freedom of so many of its people, even if Iraqi democracy doesn’t look exactly like Western democracies, can we now doubt it’s going to happen there?

On Sunday the Iraqi people gave America the biggest “thank you” in the best way we could have hoped for.

I still think that tyranny is the “natural” state of man in a fallen world. That’s certainly the lesson of history. But I also think that democracy, and the hope of freedom, is more powerful in the human spirit than I ever realized _ sort of like even a small ray of light is more powerful than the depth of darkness around it, and cuts through it with its brightness.

American so-called leaders like John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, who immediately and publicly undermined the importance of what the Iraqi people had done, should be ashamed of themselves. The election in Iraq should have been a cause of national celebration in the United States, too _ even for liberal Democrats. (Some Democrats, like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, rightly spoke proudly about what the Iraqis had done.)

In the process, we also have to celebrate President Bush for this triumph, whatever one might think of his military objectives in Iraq. For while people like me pooh-poohed his democratic agenda there, he had the vision to see it through, to give the Iraqis a chance. When the whole world was encouraging Bush to reschedule elections because of terrorist activity _ which would have handed the terrorists a huge win _ Bush said no, the best way to beat the terrorists was to hold the elections. He was so right.

(Dozens of brave Iraqis did die in terrorist attacks on Election Day. They are patriots. And for the many American soldiers who have fallen there, our gratitude can never match what they did.)

But once again, Bush was “misunderestimated.”

So were the Iraqi people and so was democracy by so many people _ including me. I am delighted to stand so corrected.

(Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by e-mail at mailtohart(at)aol.com.)