The most interesting aspect of the joint press conference between President Bush and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, held in Jordan on Nov. 30, wasn’t the same tired lines we heard about “finishing the job” and “fighting terrorists.” It also wasn’t the way they side-stepped questions about timetables and Iran’s involvement in any dialogue regarding Iraq’s future. No, the most interesting part of this middle-of-the-night press conference was the question and answer sessions afterward.

The questions were predictable, and the answers were hardly revealing. But what was revealing was the eagerness of Bush to take questions, and the apparent bristling of al-Maliki when asked to explain himself. He came across as a sincere, competent leader, but also someone who isn’t used to the scrutiny of a skeptical press corps.

Bush didn’t suddenly become eloquent, either. But he seemed eager to take questions, and even played traffic cop when journalists were stumbling over each other’s queries. He even coaxed al-Maliki to take a couple of extra questions than had been agreed upon earlier.

And in those moments, the world saw the difference between a young democracy and an established one. Bush is used to scrutiny by the press. He expects it, and occasionally seems to welcome it. Iraq’s government, on the other hand, is having enough of a time keeping itself together. Facing tough questions doesn’t seem like a welcome deviation from its urgent business.

But democracies are accountable to the people, and answering questions is urgent business. Press conferences, difficult questions and even challenges to policy are sobering reminders to leaders that they are not dictators. They are, and will always be, accountable to the people. Of the many lessons the United States is teaching Iraq about democracy, this is a particularly valuable one.    

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