For President Bush, it was one of the biggest gambles of his presidency. The doubters said it was crazy to hold an election in the middle of a war zone. The skeptics feared a massive wave of violence. Bush ignored them and insisted on going forward.
The payoff, his aides said, was perhaps one of the best days of his administration. Whatever happens next, the pictures of Iraqi voters streaming to the polls and holding up ink-stained fingers to show they had cast their ballots will go down as one of the defining images of his ambitious project to introduce democracy to the Middle East.
"It was a big, climactic moment in history, which this clearly was because it had a lot of dramatic consequences and will be unfolding for many years," said historian Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Certainly at this point, you have to say that the Bush administration's critics have made as many mistakes as the Bush administration in assessing Iraq."
Whether it will prove to be the turning point for the troubled venture in Iraq or merely a transitory moment of hope in an otherwise bleak experience will depend on events in the weeks and months to come. As they celebrated the apparent success of the elections Sunday in Iraq, Bush and his aides were careful to acknowledge that hard work remains and that violence will not end overnight.
But mostly they saw validation of the dangerous course they chose and an opportunity to take advantage both at home and abroad. Bush woke up yesterday morning and promptly called leaders in France and Germany and at the United Nations who have resisted his efforts in Iraq, while his advisers spoke of a new chance to engage more help from estranged allies. Bush will head tomorrow into his State of the Union address with a jolt of political momentum and the prospect that the Iraqi vote will give him breathing room after months of sliding public support for the war.
"It ought to give heart to the American people that the effort we've made to help the Iraqi people get to this day was well worth it -- that the Iraqi people have justified the faith we put in them," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said in an interview with several reporters.
Particularly heartening, he added, was the performance of Iraqi security forces, who still need to prove their effectiveness before U.S. troops can withdraw. "By and large, they performed exceedingly well," Hadley said.
The path to the Iraqi elections illustrates how Bush often deals with key moments in his presidency. As with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the appointment of the commission to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration initially resisted setting early elections in Iraq. But after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Shiite Muslims in Iraq, forced the administration's hand, Bush reversed course, embraced the decision and refused to waver in the face of criticism.
Even some of his aides were surprised that it seemed to work, at least for now. "It's one of those things where you say something a lot, and you believe it, but it's still good to see it actually happening," said a senior official who did not want to be named in order to speak more candidly.
Bush plans to address the future of the Iraq effort in his address to Congress tomorrow, aides said. They said he will highlight it as the latest in three successive elections in a part of the world where democracy had never before taken root, following votes in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.
As Bush rehearsed the speech in the White House family theater yesterday, another senior official familiar with the text -- now in its 13th draft -- said the president will outline the challenges ahead for the new Iraqi government as well as address what needs to be done before U.S. troops can be withdrawn. "He will talk a bit about the way forward on Iraq," the official said, declining to give more details.
The elections presumably will provide a bounce for a president who has enjoyed no real second-term honeymoon in the polls after his reelection in November. Amid the relentless violence in Iraq, with U.S. military fatalities passing 1,400, support for the war among the American public has continued to fall. Just 48 percent of those surveyed in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said they thought the war is going well.
"The public has heard nothing but bad news out of Iraq for a long time," said Andrew Kohut, the center's executive director. The Iraqi vote, followed by the State of the Union, could change short-term perceptions, he added: "It's a good one-two punch. But in the end, fewer American deaths, more stability, more Iraq seeming to be on its feet -- that's what's really going to turn it around for Bush."
Democrats in Congress demonstrated yesterday that they were willing to give Bush only modest credit for the Iraqi elections. While hailing the vote as a milestone for democracy, several leading Democrats said that Bush still must develop a more realistic policy for wrapping up the nation's involvement in Iraq.
"Yesterday's elections were a milestone," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), "but on Wednesday night, the president needs to spell out a real and understandable plan for the unfinished work ahead: Defeat the growing insurgency, rebuild Iraq, increase political participation by all parties, especially Iraq's moderates, and increase international involvement. Most of all, we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there."
The sense of relief in the administration was tempered by the recognition of the remaining pitfalls. "There are many minefields in the road ahead," said Geoffrey Kemp, a former Reagan administration national security council official. Among them: How much representation will the minority Sunni Muslims receive in the new government? How much influence will the Shiite-led Iranian government have with the new government in Baghdad? How determined will insurgents be to undermine the apparent success of the elections?
"A week or so from now, we'll be in a position to determine whether this is a turning point," Kemp said. "We have learned from experience that we can be mightily disappointed."