With the war in Iraq virtually over, with Saddam Hussein either on the lam or reduced to a swab of DNA, "now comes the hard part" has become the cliche of the moment. Given the looting of Baghdad, its government ministries, its museums and even its hospitals, who can argue? But I have something else to add: Now comes the best part.

That best part will be to show the best part of America. I doff my hat to the once-scorned Clinton military (Whose Army do you think this is?), which the Bush administration used with dash. But I expected nothing less. Iraq was never supposed to be a formidable foe. It turned out to be even less so. Surprisingly, it fought the daughter of all battles.

The real surprise to the rest of the world -- particularly the Arab world -- will come when the United States establishes some sort of democracy in Iraq. Whether it will be a democracy based on our own traditions or some power-sharing mishmash remains to be seen. But if something approximating a civil society emerges in Iraq, this -- much more than our military might -- will threaten regimes throughout the region. Nothing will menace the despots of the region more than their own people noticing that there is a better way.

If, as it is said, liberals underestimate the utility of power, then conservatives get just plain high on it. With the collapse of Hussein's regime came immediate whoops from the right that all sorts of wonderful things were happening. Foremost among them, it was said, was the "sudden" willingness of the totally mad North Korean regime to talk with the United States and others about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. The critical words are "and others," because North Korea long insisted it would talk only with Washington, and Washington long said -- and I am paraphrasing here -- no dice. The mighty victory over Iraq supposedly changed North Korea's mind.

Not really. In fact, it was the Chinese who got the North Koreans to the bargaining table. They did that by closing down their oil pipeline to North Korea for three days last month. North Korea produces as much oil as it does hip-hop groups, and so the message was not lost. It would, "suddenly," talk.

Yet the so-called "demonstration effect" that conservatives see is not to be dismissed entirely. Surely, Syria has noticed that U.S. troops are next door. But in the long run, Syria has more to fear from the U.S. fulfilling its promise to transform Iraq -- a demonstration effect of lasting, momentous, consequences -- than it does from any military moves on Washington's part. Syria is not in multiple violation of U.N. resolutions. There is no legal cause for war.

Frankly, I have no idea if what the United States is attempting in Iraq has a chance of succeeding. All I know is that we have to try -- and try and try. Iraq has some of the elements conducive to democracy -- an educated populace, a middle class and, of course, vast oil wealth. But it is a nation by virtue of colonialist design and consists of ethnic groups who share only a mutual enmity -- toward each other.

Whatever the case, we cannot hit and run as we have mostly done in Afghanistan, which is returning to its old ways. We cannot do as we did in Beirut or Somalia. We must do as we did in Germany, Japan and South Korea -- which means sticking it out for a long time. We might, in fact, have to persist in making terrorism the functional equivalent of communism -- a mortal threat that justifies enormous sacrifice. The truth of that proposition has yet to be seen.

The war, not to mention Sept. 11, tested the mettle of George Bush -- and he passed. But in a way, the peace will be even harder. Peace will be expensive -- maybe back-breakingly so if the U.S. economy continues to be lethargic. More important, peace will break our hearts. Iraq will lurch out of control, then back in again. Periodic acts of terrorism will occur. More Americans might die -- and many Americans surely will ask why.

The answer this time cannot be about presumed weapons of mass destruction or fictive links to al Qaeda or the vile nature of the regime. It will instead be about freedom and democracy at the end of the road. The future of Iraq, not the conquering of it, will be the true demonstration effect of the war -- for it and for America, too.