The Iraqi elections, imperfect as they were, convinced some American leaders that the Iraqi people had reached a point of no return -- quite literally turning a corner in the direction of democracy.
"That has to cause a tipping of support for the government, whoever's elected, because of the confidence that all of those people have to feel as a result of seeing so many others of the same view," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said.
But the continuing chaos in parts of Iraq has others worried that the country could still tip either way -- toward democracy or disintegration.
That very notion that specific events, violent or peaceful, can tip a neighborhood -- or an entire nation -- is at the very heart of Malcolm Gladwell's influential best seller, "The Tipping Point."
The author cites the example of a bottle of ketchup. Tap the bottle a few times and a few dribbles of ketchup come out. But at some precise point, the tipping point, those dribbles turn into a steady stream.
History's Tipping Points
Many years from now, when the outcome has been settled, historians may focus with blinding clarity on a particular moment or event and proclaim that is when the outcome of the war in Iraq was sealed.
If Iraq evolves into a thriving democracy, people might point to January's elections as the crucial breakthrough event. If the country breaks up in a bloody civil war, Washington's dissolution of the Iraqi army in the spring of 2003 may be identified as the critical mistake.
It takes time.
For example, it was seven years after the North Vietnamese launched their Tet offensive in January 1968 before the last American troops finally left Vietnam. Militarily, the North Vietnamese may have won nothing in 1968, but they did achieve a huge psychological victory by driving into the heart of Saigon and onto the very grounds of the U.S. Embassy. It's fair to say 1968 was the beginning of the end.
D-Day in June 1944 was clearly a major tipping point in World War II, despite the fact that the killing and the devastation ground on for almost another year before the Germans surrendered.
Often, though, the course of events is affected by very small changes. This idea of a tipping point comes from the study of epidemic disease.
"You could have one or two cases of colds in a class of youngsters, but they each might get better," said Mark Rosenberg, an epidemiologist. "But if you had seven or eight youngsters who are sick, then they might transmit it to the other people in the class. And when you had seven or eight sick with colds, there might be no effective way to prevent it from spreading. So, the tipping point is somewhere between two and seven or eight youngsters, when they become infected."
The question, by no means settled, is whether theories about the spread of germs in a classroom, for example, can also be applied to patterns of human behavior, including violence.
Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton is a believer. In the 1990s, when he led New York's police department, officers aggressively targeted even minor crimes, such as avoiding fares on the subway. In less than three years, violent crime rates dropped by double digits. In New York's most murderous precinct, known as "the Killing Fields," homicides fell by nearly two-thirds.
The reason, Bratton said, is because police had attacked the tipping points that had led to a crime epidemic.
"By paying attention to the guy drinking beer on the corner," Bratton said, "if you stop him early in the evening before he finally gets drunk and pulls a knife and stabs the guy next to him, you basically -- by dealing with the small problem -- you prevent the bigger problem from occurring later. It's much the same as inoculating a population against the flu."
Bratton pointed to the early failure in Iraq to stop the looting as a tipping point that he believes initially drove the country into chaos. And he's convinced that more troops and aggressive policing could tip the balance back.
"It worked in Boston, New York [and] could work in Los Angeles, if I had the resources," he said. "Over time -- because it's going to take a long time -- it could work in an area right now as tumultuous as Iraq. I truly do believe that."
'Worth Examining and Watching'
In fighting violence or establishing a democracy or battling disease, the theory is complicated by the possibility of numerous tipping points over a period of time. And perhaps it is only in looking back that we will be able to recognize exactly what they might have been.
"Of course, it's easiest to see these kinds of things in retrospect," Gladwell said. "But I think there are moments, and occasions, when it is obvious to us when we're going through one of these kind of cataclysmic shifts.
"We have a very, very strong suspicion that what's going on in Iraq right now with the election is such a shift," he added. "I think we can develop a strong suspicion that this is something worth examining and watching."
Tom Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a columnist for The New York Times, believes the prism of the elections has reframed the way people see the situation in Iraq.
"Before the election … the meta-story in Iraq was 'Iraqi insurgents, against American occupiers and their Iraqi lackeys.'" Friedman said. "After the election, the whole issue in Iraq has been reframed much more as a civil war between a tiny jihadist insurgency and Baathist insurgency, against what is clearly an overwhelming Iraqi majority that aspires to some form of constitutionalism and pluralism."
Combination of Factors
But often it takes more than a single factor to create a decisive tipping point, Gladwell said.
"There was a tipping point with rock music in the early 1960s, and that had to do with music but also technology -- portable radios, which had to do with … the development of special kinds of batteries and the transistor," Gladwell said. "There was a confluence of … cultural forces and technological forces that combined to create a tipping point in that area.
"I would like to see, if this [election] is to serve as a tipping point for Iraq, some similar combination of factors," he said. "It's not enough for this simply to be a political transformation. There has to be some other kind of transformation that joins forces with this to create some kind of lasting and permanent change. I'd like to see, for example, some sort of economic … tipping point. Or I would like to see some change on the religious front that permits the political change to have much more legs."
The number of tipping point elements surrounding Iraq may be building, Friedman said, but are not necessarily all in place yet for the last tipping point to the region's final outcome.
"If we put all the events in the Middle East together, we're seeing the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall there," Friedman said. "That is truly good news. The bad news is that [former Czech President] Vaclav Havel and the [politically active Polish] Solidarity trade movement are not on the other side.
"That is, the level of civil society that we saw in Eastern Europe, already there, ready to almost jump into the West, isn't there in the Middle East," Friedman said. "And that's why all of these tipping points, while necessary, are still not quite sufficient for the kind of decent progressive outcome that we all hope for. But they are necessary. And that's why they're hugely important."
Chris Bury and Ted Koppel originally reported this story on "Nightline" on Feb. 22, 2005.