By David Gregory Chief White House correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/31/2005 7:32:05 PM ET 2005-02-01T00:32:05

War and the first spark of democracy in Iraq represent the great gamble of George W. Bush’s presidency.

"I believe that when we succeed in Iraq, that America will be more secure,” said the president on the campaign trail in September 2004.

Success, the administration argues, would be much bigger than one country's transformation.

“I also know that a free Iraq will send a clear message to the part of the world that is desperate for freedom," said Bush in the same speech.

A democratic Iraq, argues one supporter of the war, would make Osama bin Laden and his disciples less popular.

"It undercuts the whole poisonous lie of jihad terrorism, which is, that it is the killers who represent the aspirations of the people of the region," says former Bush speechwriter David Frum, now with the American Enterprise Institute.

With stakes so high, even on a day filled with so much hope for the future, many Americans are also forced to confront another possibility: What if the U.S. fails?

"The consequences would be grave for the Iraqis themselves," says Frum. "They would face civil war."

Radicals throughout the region would be emboldened; terrorists would find new havens; and America's image as a strong power would be undermined.

"U.S. deterrence will be undermined," says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland. "People will say this is the biggest country, but it couldn't get this done."

Telhami also says there is another fear: That most Arabs will not be inspired by a democratic Iraq.

"What they see in Iraq, most of them don't interpret as real democracy, and what they see in Iraq is the violence and anarchy which they fear," he says.

Still, some analysts argue that in the end the U.S. could lose Iraq and still win the region with stability in Afghanistan, a de-nuclearized Iran or a breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Yet for now, it's Iraq that looms the largest for President Bush — who has wagered that success there means security here.

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