George W. Bush has staked his presidential legacy (and a whole lot more) on a bid to create democracy in Iraq, the centerpiece of his "freedom agenda." But he has made two crucial mistakes. He has raised unreasonably high expectations among Americans for the success of this monumentally complex undertaking, and he has failed to level with the American people about the true cost in blood and resources that such an effort would require. More than three-and-one-half years into the conflict, the president has lost most of the public confidence he enjoyed in 2003.
American presidents have made similar mistakes before-and not so long ago. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Clinton Administration officials embarked on a plan to help shepherd the new Russia through "shock therapy" and a series of open elections toward free-market democracy. Expectations for success were high. But a considered long-term U.S. commitment to Russian democratization simply did not exist. Troops were not needed as they are in Iraq. But substantial political and financial support were required-and not forthcoming.
So many of the early visuals were (deceptively) encouraging. Exuberant crowds toppled Saddam's statues and American tanks rolled seemingly unimpeded through the streets of Saddam's capital. And then there were the ink-stained fingers of Iraqis who had braved a variety of threats to exercise their newly acquired right to vote.
But democracy and the open society needed to nourish it requires more than the ouster of the dictator and the holding of peaceful elections. It demands the steady, long-term development of governing institutions that are independent of one another, which trump the power of the country's dominant political personalities and which earn the faith of its citizens.