The scars are too fresh, the mistakes too profound, the human tragedy too deep for anyone to gloat. But with free elections held in Palestinian territory and Iraq, the emergence of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian leader, and the whispers of support for democratic reform in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even plucky little Qatar, one begins to sense that freedom can prevail over terrorism—even in a difficult part of the world.
The task ahead is not easy. In the Middle East, for example, the familiar "final status" issues—borders, settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees—will continue to tax the moral courage of statesmen, angering constituents, frustrating allies. Cynical or simplistic voices will sometimes confound those of a more nuanced tone. The trowel and the plastic bomb, both wielded by extremists, may once again clash as instruments of national destiny.
In Iraq, the terrorists retain the ability to kill at random and in considerable numbers. Conflicting factional interests will require painstaking arbitration. Sunnis must join the government, leaving their Baathist or extreme Wahabbi identities at the door.
Still, it is worth noting the similar approach Israel and the United States took in countering terrorist challenges, both acting despite great domestic opposition, little international support, and mounting casualties.
The first imperative was to contain the physical threat. To prevent the suicide bomber pandemic from turning every bus ride, discotheque visit, or dinner out into a Russian-roulette-type experience, Ariel Sharon reoccupied areas on the West Bank and Gaza from which Israel had earlier withdrawn. President Bush courageously endorsed this action as well as Israel's refusal to deal with those "compromised by terror."
The United States was slow to build up its forces in Iraq or to provide the right kind of equipment, problems addressed only in recent months. As important, a coherent plan for training Iraqi forces is now in place.
Second, the operations of both countries exacted a price on populations supporting the terrorists. Israel established checkpoints throughout the most troublesome areas, inhibiting Palestinian commerce, agriculture, and travel. Israeli soldiers arrested thousands of suspects and began building a wall of separation. They reasoned—rightly—that when the burden of supporting terrorism became intolerable, most Palestinians would stop supporting it. From Sadr City in Baghdad to Falluja, to the Sunni "Triangle of Death," the United States began to apply the same lessons. Resident populations came to understand that the terrorists deliver neither freedom nor pride, only misery. Intelligence improved dramatically.
Third, Israel, the United States, and Iraqi democrats always held out the promise of better times for those choosing conventional politics over the gun. For Palestinians that promise is mobility, autonomy, and, eventually, statehood. For Iraq's Sunnis it means participation in political life.
Terrorism is, by definition, a political act. When it fails, its stars lose their luster. On Iraq's election day, Mocktada al-Sadr, the once formidable mullah, was figuratively trampled by followers marching past him to the polls. Abu Musab al-Zaqarwi—with his terrorist lieutenants in custody and his name an embarrassment on the Arab street that once cheered him—cursed democracy and its adherents from his hiding place de jour. Nobody seemed to listen.