Just as terrorist insurgents failed to stop Iraq’s elections, the election is unlikely to stop the insurgency. But the massive turnout for the polls establishes decisively that the insurgents do not speak for the overwhelming majority of Iraq’s Muslims. Now, if the United States acts sensibly, the terrorist minority can be isolated from the broad mass of people.

Once before, in Vietnam in 1967, the US and its local allies squandered an opportunity to build upon the holding of successful elections. Then, the Viet Cong failed to prevent a high turnout in presidential polls in South Vietnam. But unlike Iraq where the transitional national assembly will comprise of popular clerics, trial chiefs and local politicians, South Vietnam’s elected president and vice-president/ premier were American-backed Generals. Nguyen Van Thieu and General Nguyen Cao Ky did not address the issues of concern to their people. The corrupt Vietnamese security apparatus became addicted to US aid and President Lyndon Johnson’s desire for decisive victory sucked America deeper into Vietnam’s quagmire.

Hopefully, wiser from the lessons of its earlier interventions elsewhere in the world, the US would not make similar mistakes in Iraq. Instead of imposing a strongman of its choice, the US should allow the elected Iraqi assembly to throw up leaders on its own. The normal give and take of politics, negotiated by Iraqis, should determine Iraq’s future leadership. The US should work out an exit strategy for its troops after training Iraq’s security forces. The hardcore terrorists would have to be defeated militarily but US military withdrawal might deprive extremists from new recruits to their cause.

Despite the success of Iraq’s elections, there is much that can go wrong there. The new (and old) breed of Iraqi politicians could pursue ethnic, sectarian and communal interests at the expense of consensus and accommodation.This could lead to a deadlock in Constitution-making. The demands for security could be used by Americans or Iraqis to curtail Iraq’s relatively new freedoms. What must be avoided is the temptation to prefer Generals and technocrats over popular politicians — a phenomenon that has resulted in the poor record of democracy in the region from Morocco to Pakistan.

The Iraqi people’s enthusiasm for elections should put to rest the myth perpetuated for years by monarchs and ruling Generals that Muslim nations are not ready for democracy. The Iraqi polls come on the heels of similarly successful elections in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. The US encouraged each of these elections and must be given due credit for doing so. But must exercises in democracy in Muslim lands come only on the heels of American military intervention?

US military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq destroyed the security apparatus of authoritarianism and created a security vacuum filled by foreign forces. The Palestinians have had no significant security apparatus of their own. Elected politicians, and technocrats willing to work alongside politicians, have emerged as the leaders of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinians. But in countries where an army built up during colonial time still exists, the security apparatus, rather than elected or electable politicians, continues to be seen as the guarantee of stability.

For democracy to take root, elected officials would have to be given a chance to complete their terms and the electorate would have to be given the opportunity to vote incompetent and corrupt leaders out of office. Despite the goodwill currently being expressed about Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories there is no doubt that their elected leaderships will make some mistakes. Voters will occasionally vote for demagogues. Religious leaders will try to mix religion with politics. Politicians will sometimes be corrupt. There will be heated arguments, with legislative debates degenerating into fisticuffs. The powerful will try to intimidate the media and the judiciary. And every now and then there will be an election, the results of which are not fully accepted by the losers. Every democracy in the world has gone through such ups and downs.

In several Muslim countries, however, Westernised elite comprising military officers, corporate executives, civil servants and international bankers has used the normal rough patches of evolving democracy as justification for semi-authoritarianism. In Iran, the oil policies of the elected Mossadegh government were labelled as creeping Communism and led to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that gave absolute power to the Shah until Iran’s 1979 revolution. In Algeria, the first round victory of Islamists in the 1991 parliamentary polls was used to argue that the country would be better off under brutal military rule than fall to theocracy. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak refuses to allow democracy on strategic grounds. Pakistan’s Generals have periodically intervened ostensibly to save their nation from the corruption and ineptitude of elected politicians. Pakistani technocrats, often influential because of their ties to the international financial institutions, provide justification for military intervention by exaggerating the corruption and alleged mismanagement of civilian politicians.

President Bush would have to find a way to match his promises of democratising the Muslim world with facts. He might begin by refusing to allow America’s Muslim allies to redefine freedom and democracy with cosmetic changes. It is widely understood that exigencies of international relations occasionally require temporary alliances with autocrats. But a friendly dictator should be called just that, a friendly dictator, and not described as the builder of a future democracy. The Bush administration invites charges of hypocrisy when it describes actions such as the creation of rubber-stamp Parliaments and fixed elections as first steps towards democracy. Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, for example, claims that it has been engaged in a gradual transition to democracy for over two decades.

Another practical step could be active American engagement with Opposition leaders and parties. Since the days of Iran’s Shah, authoritarian Muslim rulers have demanded that the US shun their opposition as part of the price of their alliance and the US has obliged them. Changing this policy would entail the occasional exchange of hot words between the regimes and American diplomats. But it is unlikely that regimes such as those of Mubarak and Musharraf would withhold cooperation with the US (and forego the benefits in economic and military aid) because of increased US engagement with their Opposition. By embracing alternative leaders, the US would deprive authoritarian regimes of the ‘‘there is no alternative’’ argument that has forced the US to befriend unsavory regimes in the first place.

The writer is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Associate Professor of International Relations at Boston University. He served as adviser to Pakistani prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and as Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka