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Is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- suspicious eyes, wary demeanor, brows furrowed by years living in the underground -- really the face of today's Iraq? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, and America helped make it that way.

Maliki's visit to Washington this week has been a time for taking stock of Iraq eight years after the U.S. invasion. What did America achieve in overthrowing Saddam Hussein and battling a stubborn insurgency? It brought a democracy, yes, but one shaped by the most basic and sometimes brutal facts of life -- allegiance to tribe, sect, clandestine organization.

Maliki is a figure of all these immutable forces, a man of the shadows more than the sunlight. He seems to trust only those closest to him, and his efforts to form broad coalitions have failed. The trust deficit is nowhere more evident than in the energy sector, which should make Iraq fantastically rich but is still hobbled by a lack of basic legislation that would foster investment.

A former Dawa Party operative, Maliki is the conspirator turned chief executive. And in that sense, he is a symbol of a larger phenomenon we are seeing across the region in the Arab Awakening. He illustrates what can happen when you knock the pegs out from under an authoritarian regime without a strong political culture underneath: People may dream of a democratic culture of tolerance. But those likely to triumph are instead the survivors, the back-room plotters, the people left standing when the regime-changers pack up their bags and go home.

Americans who have dealt extensively with Maliki feel a comradeship with him. They admire his gritty determination to keep going through the bloodiest years of the insurgency, when 50 or 100 dead and mutilated bodies were showing up at the Baghdad morgue every morning.

But you can't help thinking Iraq deserves better than Maliki, who practically advertises his disdain for the softer and more reflective side of life. It wasn't always so in Iraq. Even during the years when Saddam governed the country by torture, Iraq had some of the best scientists, artists and writers in the Arab world. It was a place were people read books and played music. Saddam's Iraq banned unauthorized importation of the typewriter; that's how much it respected the written word.

America's greatest mistake in Iraq wasn't toppling Saddam, but in detonating the infrastructure of the government, the army, and the educational and social institutions that made civilized life possible.

The decent Iraqis did what people always do in conditions of fear and uncertainty: They turned to ancient loyalties of sect, tribe, ethnicity, secret party. Shiites began moving out of Sunni neighborhoods, and vice versa; Kurds found solace in their own mini-state. Maliki became ever-more powerful because his Dawa Party had built such deep and durable roots. The politics of survival became entwined with the politics of democracy, producing a strange hybrid -- better than what came before, I guess, but brutal in its own ways.

If America and its friends aren't careful, this same process will repeat itself across the Arab world as the dictators are toppled and replaced by the underground men. The Muslim Brotherhood is powerful everywhere, from Egypt to Palestine to Syria -- because its members were recruited with an almost Leninist determination.

Iraq is free to be itself again. That's the upside of Maliki. If he performs poorly, leans too much toward Iran or squanders Iraq's wealth through corruption, then the people will vote him out. That's the hope.