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Christians are observing Lent and the Bush administration is searching for redemption.

Amid hopeful signs that the status quo has been altered in the Middle East – a better than expected election in Iraq; an election and fragile ceasefire in the Palestinian territories after the fortuitous death of Yasser Arafat; at least a partial Syrian retreat from Lebanon following the tragic assassination of Rafik Hariri; largely symbolic but potentially significant parliamentary elections in Saudi Arabia (involving men, but not women); and a gesture towards competitive elections by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, vital details to follow – the unstated but unmistakable subtext of President Bush's speech at the National Defense University on Tuesday was that his decision to invade Iraq when we did, how we did and why we did was all worth it.

Not so fast. The Bush administration had nothing to do with the deaths of Arafat and Hariri, though plenty of conspiracy theorists in the region think otherwise. The president is also taking full credit for an election that was not part of Iraq Plan A or Plan B. Plan A, of course, was to invade Iraq, knock off Saddam, turn the keys over to an appointed exile leader like Ahmed Chalabi and leave. When the insurgency made that impossible, Plan B was the so-called November 15 agreement. It called for the formation of a governing council, transitional national assembly and constitutional convention through appointments and caucuses – not national elections. It was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who pushed for democracy in Iraq sooner, not later.

Yes, something is happening in the Middle East, though it is much too early to count any chickens or elections. And, yes, at least part of this hopeful dynamic, fraught with uncertainty and risk, is attributable to the Bush administration's decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But we are nowhere near the end and should not overlook the means – the exaggerated claims of imminent threat and links to terrorism; the lack of sufficient intelligence to support a strategy of preemption; the rush to invade Iraq without international support; the lack of effective planning for the post-conflict phase; and the consistent underestimation of the strength of the insurgency and cost and complexity of the task.

Much like the stereotypical man, President Bush has been driving down the road for the past two years, trusting his instincts, failing to ask for directions and making any number of wrong turns. Now, having ended up where he wants to be, he is telling the American people, "I knew what I was doing all along." As many a spouse would say: "Yeah, right!"

That said, President Bush's speech on Tuesday properly defined in more specific terms what the "advance of democracy" in the Middle East should look like: the right to form political parties; participation by women in the political process; free and fair elections; educational systems that promote tolerance; and independent media that don't incite violence. And, looking forward, there are promising if uncertain opportunities for truly revolutionary change, particularly outside Iraq.

The administration has Syrian President Bashar al-Asad on the defensive and should use this leverage to force a complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. Of course, this will still leave the potent and militant Hezbollah faction to confront over time. President Bush's understated rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding democratic retrenchment leaves open to question whether the administration will hold Egyptian President Mubarak's feet to the fire on genuinely competitive elections. The right test for Mubarak is the status of Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour, who has been in jail since January and should be released and allowed to campaign.

If parliamentary elections in Lebanon in May and presidential elections in Egypt in September are within shouting distance of free and fair, those will be significant accomplishments that may enable the administration some measure of atonement. Atonement in the Old Testament sense involves reparations for sins committed, which of course requires one to be appropriately penitent and admit errors, hardly a Bush strong suit. On the other hand, an Old World act of atonement usually involved a sacrificial offering, which produced the concept of a scapegoat, a Bush standby.

Americans have a notoriously short attention span, which tempts us to focus more on process than substance and confuse elections with real democracy. At a recent symposium on media coverage of the Iraq war, Hafez al-Mirazi, the Washington bureau chief for Al-Jazeera Television, cautioned that people in the Middle East tend to discount elections. They have a lot of experience with autocratic governments that employ the trappings of democracy. Rather, he said that Arab public opinion will be far more influenced by results, particularly if those results produce real change and responsible governments within transparent and open political systems.

We should continue to focus on results as well. In 1991, the United States expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait through a six-week air campaign and a four-day ground assault. The architects of that campaign, several of whom now serve in this administration, declared victory too quickly. Most troops came home to ticker tape parades, but the war never stopped, requiring a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf that was a catalyst for Osama bin Laden's fatwa against the United States.

Only when we reach the end will we be in a position to evaluate the means. The last thing we should do is once again declare victory too soon.

P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director of national defense and homeland security for the Center for American Progress. He is a retired Air Force colonel and served in high level positions at the Pentagon and White House during the Clinton administration.

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