THE BEST ARGUMENT in favor of trying to hold elections in Iraq next month may have come from the streets of Kiev. The Ukrainian vote was terribly flawed -- brazenly unfair, in fact -- yet it was the very mechanism of the election that gave the Orange revolutionaries something concrete to protest.
There was a clear-cut process, and it didn't work, and that spurred the Ukrainian opposition to turn out to seek specific redress. The election results provided a forum for their dissent, and that dissent, moreover, was within the larger system -- and was itself legal.
Imagine election results in Iraq giving rise to a peaceful tent city in the streets of Baghdad, at the gates of the Green Zone. Imagine the fury in Iraq being channeled into banners and chants and a determination not to allow violence to rule the day. Imagine a sea of protesters -- of ordinary people -- demanding that the occupation be drawn to a close and that insurgent attacks against Iraqis cease.
Granted, this may be beyond the realm of realistic imagining. Iraq is far different from Ukraine, in many very serious ways. But the holding of elections nonetheless establishes a framework -- an Iraqi framework -- upon which something larger and better eventually can be built. Even if they fail, as they did in Ukraine, the process of elections can provide an outlet for the expression of popular will.
President Bush last week warned Iran and Syria against meddling in Iraq's elections. It's not imaginable that either of those countries would choose to remain totally above the fray in Iraq; at the same time, the administration has provided little evidence of actual interference. Insurgents and supplies are evidently crossing the border from Syria, but it's difficult to pin down involvement by the Syrian government. There's been nothing as blatant, for instance, as the Russian role in Ukraine.
The vote in Iraq is likely to escalate tensions. That's what happened in Ukraine -- though Ukraine appears now to be headed for a nonviolent resolution, and the same can hardly be predicted of Iraq. And yet trying to suppress tension will only make the eventual blow-up worse when it happens.
In one crucial respect, Iraq and Ukraine are likely to diverge. Even if the most anti-American Sunnis stay away from the polls, Iraqis are still likely to choose candidates who will be prepared to show the United States the door.
A religious state that is not tolerant of certain Western democratic notions -- concerning the treatment of women, for instance -- is probable. This is what anyone could have foreseen when the decision to topple Saddam Hussein was made. An election will make clear what the United States cannot forestall.