Now, they tell us that recent stirrings of democracy elsewhere in the Middle East are a direct consequence of our invasion of Iraq, that the neoconservative vision of contagious democracy has been realized. Given the administration’s track record, we would be wise to greet this latest assertion with suspicion.

It’s understandable that the administration would want to make this claim. After all, by any honest accounting, the Iraq operation has been a mess. The U.S. military has performed brilliantly for the most part. But we invaded the country for the express purpose of removing weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. That effort has cost $200 billion and more than 1,500 American lives. It has strained our alliances, damaged America’s reputation in the world, pushed the all-volunteer military to the breaking point, and left our troops exposed in a hostile country with an open-ended exit strategy. It would be convenient to be able to say that the intent all along was just to bring democracy to the region and that this was simply the necessary price. Convenient, but not true.

Certainly, the sight of Iraqis voting on January 30 was welcome, and a tremendous credit to the U.S. military efforts to provide security (though it was the Iraqis themselves who were most determined to hold the elections then, rather than delay the vote). The image of those purple Iraqi fingers was a powerful reminder that democracy knows no ethnic, religious, or geographic boundaries, and that freedom-loving hearts beat just as soundly under Arab robes as they do under grey suits.

At the same time, the demonstration effect of those elections has to be weighed against the immense damage our invasion has done in the region. Intensification of anti-Americanism and the ability of regional leaders to point to the chaos in Iraq as a reason to maintain the stability of current regimes are just some of the negative consequences of our invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Anyone who has traveled regularly to the Middle East over the years, as I have, knows that the recent hopeful democratic moves in Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories have causal roots that long predate our arrival in Iraq, or that are otherwise unconnected to the war. American groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and numerous international organizations have been working with and strengthening reform-minded elements in these countries for years, and to some extent we are now seeing the fruits of that quiet involvement. But it is a mistake to believe that everything that is happening in the region–whether positive or negative–is a result of American military actions or rhetoric from Washington.

In Iran, for instance, the hopeful movement toward democracy went into remission after we invaded neighboring Iraq. Did our invasion cause democratic reform to falter in Iran? Not necessarily. There are many reasons–most of them internal–for why reform movements within a country wax and wane. But it is hard to claim that the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was responsible for pro-democratic reactions in some Middle Eastern countries, but not for anti-democratic reactions in others.

Each of the positive developments that are currently bringing hope to the Middle East was more directly the result of a catalyzing local event than the consequence of American foreign policy. The death of Yasser Arafat made possible the democratic breakthrough within the Palestinian Authority and the progress we’re now seeing between the PA and Israel. In Lebanon, it took the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri and the outrage, both internal and international, that followed to spur Syrian withdrawal. And across the region, leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have recognized the need to seek greater legitimacy by opening the door for democracy in order to stave off mounting threats from Islamic fundamentalists.

The administration has generally responded to these openings by adding to the pressure, calling for withdrawal of Syrian forces and for democracy. But like the rooster who thinks his crowing caused the dawn, those who rule Washington today have a habit of taking credit for events of which they were in fact not the primary movers. Many of them have insisted, for instance, that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was largely the consequence of President Reagan’s military policies. As a military officer at the time, and a Reagan supporter, I would be happy to give the Gipper that credit. In truth, however, our military posture was only one factor. As in the Middle East today, individuals who labored for freedom within these countries performed the bulk of the work. Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and other contemporaries looked at America as an ideal, not as the muscle, on every street corner. Other, truly transformative agents of Western influence, such as Pope John Paul II, the labor union movement, international commercial institutions, and the influences of next-door neighbors like the Federal Republic of Germany were at work.

Today, American democratic values are admired in the Middle East, but our policies have generated popular resentment. Although it may come as a surprise to those of us here, there is a passionate resistance to the U.S. “imposing” its style of democracy to suit American purposes. Democratic reformers in the Middle East don’t want to have their own hopes and dreams subordinated to the political agenda of the United States. It’s for this reason that the administration shouldn’t try to take too much credit for the coming changes. Or be too boastful about our own institutions. Or too loud in proclaiming that we’re thrilled about Middle Eastern democracy–mostly because it makes us feel safer. A little humility is likely to prove far more useful than chest-thumping.

As we work to help establish the conditions for democracy in Iraq, our most useful role elsewhere is surely behind the scenes. For example, the situation in Lebanon creates a power vacuum which could lead to the same kind of instability that ignited civil war there 30 years ago. We can, and should, be working diplomatically to provide the support, balance, and reassurances necessary for the revival of independent democracy in Lebanon. We should engage Syria to encourage cooperation in Iraq and liberalize its politics at home. At the very least, we should be helping to craft what comes next before we tighten the noose further on an already-shaky Assad. In our eagerness to help, we’d do well to heed the motto of my Navy friends in the submarine service: “Run silent-run deep.”

Democracy can’t be imposed–it has to be homegrown. In the Middle East, democracy has begun to capture the imagination of the people. For Washington to take credit is not only to disparage courageous leaders throughout the region, but also to undercut their influence at the time it most needs to be augmented. Let’s give credit where credit is due–and leave the political spin at the water’s edge.

Gen. Wesley Clark

Gen. Wesley Clark, U.S.A. (Ret.), Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, from 1997-2000, is the author of Waging Modern War.