“Congratulations, Mr. President.”  With those words from US Chief Justice John Roberts, Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States.  Under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, this orderly transfer of power happened at 12 noon on January 20 — no sooner and no later. 

George W. Bush — who minutes earlier had been the most powerful man on earth — shook hands with Obama, received a final military salute and boarded a helicopter to begin his trip home to Texas.  Wherever you live, whatever your political views, there is a lesson in this American tradition.

Switch on the television news this evening and you will see President Obama, reported as if he had been in office for years.  Appropriately, Bush has not uttered a political word since Inauguration Day, and Laura Bush told ABC News that she “forgot totally” to watch Obama’s first major address to the nation on February 24.

That speech revealed that the new president’s priorities are almost all domestic — only 9% of the speech was about foreign policy.  Obama has delegated most foreign policy matters to Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  However, he did discuss Iraq in a February 27 speech at Camp Lejeune, a US Marine base in the State of North Carolina.

“By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”  Obama told the Marines that “transitional forces” of 35,000 to 50,000 troops will stay until December 2011.  “We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned.”

Some wanted faster withdrawal.  Days before Obama’s Camp Lejeune speech, for example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized the proposed size of the transitional force.  “I don’t know what the justification is for the 50,000 troops in Iraq,” she said on MSNBC.

The transitional forces will train and advise Iraqi security forces, hunt terrorist cells and protect American civilian and military personnel.  They will leave by the end of 2011, in accordance with a US-Iraqi agreement negotiated by Bush.

There is another reason to eschew a precipitous US withdrawal from Iraq, write Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution in the February 26 New York Times.  “Young democracies are fragile entities.  Political scientists generally agree that achieving a peaceful and credible second round of elections is critical in putting a new democracy on a path toward stability, because such elections test whether the country can accomplish a nonviolent transfer of power.”

Iraq held parliamentary elections on December 15, 2005 and provincial elections last January 31.  New parliamentary elections are scheduled for December this year.

The 2005 elections were a big breakthrough for Iraq, and the orderly conduct of the provincial polls a few weeks ago is a promising sign.  However, only the parliamentary elections later this year will tell if democracy has taken root in Iraq.

Many people believe that this is a test of government in a newly democratic country and to some extent it is.  Does the elected government govern well and wisely?

A greater question is whether the civic culture required to sustain democracy has taken root in society.  “Democracy,” wrote English statesman and geographer Halford Mackinder in 1919, is “the highest but the most difficult of all modes of government, since it demands most of the average citizen.”

In a country like Iraq, the first demand is that ordinary people must turn away from gun-toting militias.  The second is that they must turn away from outside powers, not play into their hands, and decide what is best for their own country.

However, there is still more to democracy.

People must respect the outcome of elections, letting the government govern until the next constitutionally appointed election.  During the interval, citizens have a right to express themselves, even to show their strength and ardor in orderly public demonstrations.  Moreover, they should build the institutions of democracy—effective political parties, alternative programs, meaningful local elections and articulate non-governmental organizations. However, democratic culture must distinguish between freedom of expression and the political immaturity of street action purportedly in the country’s interest, but simply aimed at toppling the elected government.

Absent this distinction, democracy will degenerate into a continuum of street demonstrations punctuated by attempts to govern, and the country will descend into chaos.  Foreigners will conclude that such a society is unready for democracy.

And remember that Iraq has a powerful eastern neighbor that could take advantage of chaos or western loss of interest.

This is Iraq’s democratic challenge and Obama is right to leave there a sufficient American force to assure security while its people chart their political future.  As they do, they would do well to recall the image of that Bush-Obama handshake last January 20.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.  This column originally appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.