We have learned that Iraqi society is guided by traditions our society can barely fathom, and governed by forces far more powerful than rational self-interest or abstractions about democracy. It is a place where a cleric can snap his fingers and the next day summon 10,000 people into the streets. We did not, or could not, anticipate how difficult establishing liberal order would be in what remains a tribal society, and worse, one brutalized by decades of Saddam’s tyranny. If there is anything totalitarianism accomplishes, it is the pulverization of the bonds that hold a healthy society together.

We assumed that gratitude for deposing Saddam would have purchased us more eager cooperation. But gratitude is never forthcoming, even from countries like Kuwait or South Korea that owe their very existence to U.S. arms. We can point out to Iraqis that we are spending billions of dollars building their schools and sewers, paying their doctors and teachers, training their policemen and judges, and still, we can expect few thanks. We are not there to steal their oil or colonize them, and we have already stated our plans to depart. This is why it is disheartening to see some Iraqis behave in such violent ways, shooting, for instance, at an American fixing their phone lines or delivering food aid.

Don’t Iraqis understand that if they screw this up, it is they, not us, who will live with the consequences? But to ask this question is to miss the point. “It is a denial of the experience of our century,” the legendary French intellectual Raymond Aron wrote, “to suppose that men will sacrifice their passions to their interests.” The rebels embody a nationalist reaction to a foreign occupier, which has nothing to do with reasonableness. It is in Iraqi interests to work with us, but many will not, because the flip side of dependence is resentment.

Iraqis are often polled these days – the first time in decades, by the way, that anyone has asked Iraqis what they think – but it is hard to identify the lesson to be learned. Iraqis demand that American soldiers protect them from insecurity and banditry, then in the same breath insist that American soldiers go home. Some Iraqi leaders decry our supposedly undemocratic governance, calling it “worse than Saddam,” but we have yet to hear any of them call for the release and restoration of Saddam and his sons. The undeniable anti-U.S. sentiment means that our time there is limited.

Americans in Iraq are genuinely trying to help Iraqis build a better country, while the resistance is a conspiracy of nihilists who bomb schoolchildren in Basra, behead foreign aid workers, beat tank-top-wearing women at universities, and consider humanism corrosive. We can only hope that Iraqis take the time to envision how their country might look if the U.S. rebuilds it, compared to how their country might look if al Qaeda rebuilds it. This undertaking was never going to be easy, and no one ever said it was. The Bush administration has underestimated the magnitude of this Herculean task, leading to a deficit of troops, lethargic distribution of reconstruction money and a lack of allies. But considering where we started from, we continue to make remarkable progress.

Our task now, after having removed the most destabilizing threat in the most destabilized region on earth, is to leave in place a consensual and stable government that respects basic rights. We must remember that our success hinges upon the willingness of Iraqis themselves to cooperate with us, because it is their country, not ours, and because democracy can only be built, never imposed. As others have said, “We should do what we can to give Iraqis a chance at a better future, then pray that they take it.” It will be decades before we can look at our sacrifice in Iraq and declare that we did the right thing, or lament our delusions. We will do our best for Iraqis, others will do their worst and history will judge.

Joey Tartakovsky is a Daily Nexus columnist.