Are we headed in the right direction? Is the global war on terrorism and a grand strategy based on the spread of freedom producing desirable results? Is all this talk about democracy doing anyone any good anyway?
Judging from the annual survey of freedom in the world by Freedom House, the answer is a qualified "yes."
The latest analysis of global political trends by the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocate for international democracy and freedom "suggests that the past year was one of the most successful for freedom since Freedom House began measuring world freedom in 1972."
Twenty-seven countries and one territory registered gains for freedom during 2005 while only nine countries suffered setbacks. Three countries joined the ranks of electoral democracies, raising their total number to 122. That marks 64 percent of world governments, the highest percentage in the survey's history.
Freedom House now categorizes 89 countries as being "free," in which broad political competition, respect for civil rights, independent civic life and independent media prevail. Those 89 countries represent roughly 46 percent of the global population nearly 3 billion people.
Another 18 percent of the world's population 1.1 billion people lives in 58 countries ranked as "partly free," with limited respect for political rights and civil liberties.
Forty-five countries with 2.3 billion people representing 36 percent of the global population are still classified as "not free," where corruption is rampant and the rule of law, civil liberties and political pluralism are largely absent. The worst of the worst are eight nations and two territories that earned Freedom House's lowest scores: Cuba, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Burma, Tibet and Chechnya.
Progress in Ukraine, Indonesia and Trinidad and Tobago caused those societies to advance from partly free to free status. Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Mauritania and the Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, moved from the ranks of the not free to the partly free.
Despite terrorist attacks and the efforts of religious and secular extremists, the Middle East registered its best regional performance in survey history. Only one of the nine nations that experienced declines in freedom during 2005 can be found in the broader region Uzbekistan.
Iraq and Saudi Arabia notched gains that while not significant enough to change their overall status as in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority still reflect important progress in a regional context.
Traditionally, these two nations have fallen at the very bottom of Freedom House rankings. Before 2005, Saudi Arabia had earned the lowest possible score for political rights and civil liberties in every year of the survey.
These are modest gains to be sure: slight improvements in the media environment and academic freedom in Saudi Arabia, partially competitive elections in Egypt or the extension of suffrage to women in Kuwait. Or in the case of two historic elections and a referendum in Iraq, the gains are fragile, prone to be wiped out by civil conflict.
Yet in countries ruled by religious and secular regimes alike, they demonstrate it is the political culture of the region rather than its dominant religion that is the principal impediment to the growth of freedom.
"The administration of George W. Bush," the Freedom House report notes, "building on policies initiated by his predecessors, has pushed forward an agenda in which the advancement of freedom plays a tangible role.
"While the precise impact of democracy promotion policies is often difficult to measure, it is by now clear that the efforts by the established democracies to expand freedom's reach are paying dividends."
Those dividends are being paid on an investment made chiefly in American treasure the lives and limbs of its military men and women.
In 2006, may their sacrifice lead to an even greater issue of freedom. And may cynics of all political stripes and motivations take greater notice of freedom's success.