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Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Hamas Victory

In "Elections and Democracy" on December 3, I suggested that elections can heighten civil conflict as well as moderate it. That has now happened not only in Iraq, but also in Palestine, where the militant, fundamentalist organization Hamas has won a remarkable victory in elections, leaving the Administration's policy of "democratic peace" looking increasingly shakey, to say the least.

We must not focus, however, on the Administration's discomfiture. While our leadership has been forming its vision of the Middle East nearly out of whole cloth, Hamas's victory, combined with developments in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere, is really the next step in a process that has been going on for about thirty years and is nowhere near its climax. And not only the Administration, but the entire western world, seems unable to grasp it or to cope with it.

The Middle East since the Second World War has been ruled by a mixture of regimes. The Egyptian Republic, the intermittent democracy in Lebanon, and Kingdom of Jordan and the Ba'athist regimes that eventually seized power in Syria and Iraq were relatively secular and westernized--if one is honest enough to acknowledge totalitarianism, as represented by the Ba'ath party, as a western invention. They initially benefitted from the glow of independence. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states remained traditional monarchies, and Iran passed from a relatively western state with a functioning parliament to a western-oriented monarchy as a result of an Anglo-American coup in 1953. All these regimes were authoritarian. Egypt, Syria and Iraq became Soviet clients at various times, but Egypt became pro-western in the 1970s. None of them, except Lebanon, developed functioning democracies, and Lebanon's died in a bloody civil war in the 1970s. (It has revived recently.)

Most of these states have either disappeared or weakened. Iran, of course, fell to the first great Islamic revolution in 1979, and has sponsored the growth of fundamentalism, as well as terrorism, ever since. Fundamentalists assassinated Anwar Sadat in Egypt in 1981, but his successor Hosni Mubarak has successfully, if brutally, coped with the terrorist movement at home. The Muslim brotherhood, however, scored impressive gains in recent elections there. The American invasion destroyed Saddam's regime in Iraq, which now seems likely to fragment into a Kurdish north, a Sunni center, and a Shi'ite south closely allied to Iran. The Saudi monarchy has remained the chief sponsor of Sunni fundamentalism--the Wahabist movement--while remaining, in theory at least, an American ally.

As states decline, new movements emerge to challenge them, just as nationalist, liberal and socialist movements challenged the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires a century ago. To me--and I have no training as a Middle Eastern scholar--it appears that the major emerging movements all over the region are fundamentalist and terrorist, including the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood, the Sunni movement Hamas (founded in 1988), and the Shi'ite movement Hizbollah, which now has members in the Lebanese candidate after doing well in recent Lebanese elections. The latter two movements are particularly interesting, from what I can make out, because in addition to carrying out terrorist acts, they have spent a great deal of time and money organizaing and providing educational and social services to the people whom they hope to recruit. They have, in short, been winning hearts and minds.

The current US government seems conviced that a silent majority of Muslims wants to live in secular, modern states. Paul Wolfowitz, in a notorious quote, assumed that no Muslim woman would want to live under theocracy, and that some of the men wouldn't either. Recent events, including the elections in Iraq and Palestine, have not revealed any pro-western political movement that remotely compares in strength to our fundamentalist adversaries. The trends are running in their favor.

It behooves us to ask why. Certainly the corruption, repression, and immutability of existing governments is one major reason. A second is the belief, among many sincere Islamic believers, that western influence corrupts their faith. (This should not surprise us, since millions of fundamentalist Americans believe the same thing, and their political strength has been increasing as well.) And a third is the inability of Arab governments to prevent the continuing spread of Israel which, rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of Arabs deeply resent. That, of course, is why western governments, including the EU and the United States, have tried so hard to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians with the help of cooperative Palestinian leadership.

This has, in turn, created further problems. The United States and the EU have handsomely subsidized their Arab clients, including the Egyptians, who have received $2-3 billion in aid annually since making peace with Israel in 1978, and the Palestinian authority. After the Oslo agreements Washington and the Europeans assumed that Yasir Arafat might become a responsible partner for peace, but in 2000 he either would not or could not accept the best deal he was ever likely to get, and he resumed armed struggle. This led President Bush to decide to abandon him in 2002-3, and after Arafat's death Washington adopted his long-time colleague Abu Mazen. He, too, continued receiving large European and American subsidies, but he could not persuade Israel to halt settlement expansion or release prisoners.

In early 2005 President Bush repeatedly said that a new book, The Case of Democracy, by Russian refusenik-turned-Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, summed up his own thinking about international politics. Sharansky's basic points are straightforward: the trouble in the world comes from "fear-based" regimes, which oppress their people and cause trouble abroad to distract them. Only the unreserved support of liberty for all peoples can be the foundation of real peace. Sharansky criticized the President's father for having tried to hold the Soviet Union together during his Administration (and the current President was reportedly surprised to learn that Sharansky was still in contact with his father more recently.) Sharansky blamed continuing Palestinian resistance on Yasir Arafat's corrupt and authoritarian rule, and lauded President Bush for cutting him loose in 2002 and calling on the Palestinians to elect new leadership committed to peace. (Sharansky left the Israeli government last summer in disagreement over the decision to pull out from Gaza.)

Given Sharansky's influence, it behooves us to look at what he actually proposed both directly to the Bush Administration and in his book. His proposal, he says, "called for the establishment of an interim Palestinian Administration which would be chosen by a coordinating body headed by the United States. The interim administration, which would not include those who were directly or indirectly responsible for terror, would be responsible for running the lives of the Palesinians in the areas underits control (only external security would remain in Israel's hands) and would work over a transition period of at least three years to develop the Palestinians' civil society and democratic institutions. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of political, social and religious organization would be guaranteed and educational programs encouraging terror would be replaced by programs that promote peace. Economic assistance would be made conditional on maintaining these freedoms and changing the educational programs. . . After three years, free elections would be held and the government of Israel and the elected representatives of the Palestinians would negotiate a permanent peace."

To Sharanksy's regret, the Administration didn't go nearly that far--it simply adopted Abu Mazen as its new client and placed its hopes upon him and upon Palestinian elections. Abu Mazen became the new President partly because the most popular alternative candidate, Marwan Bargouti--now in jail in Israel for life--was dissuaded from taking part. Now, however, even after the Israeli withdrawal fromt he Gaza strip, Abu Mazen and his whole Fatah party have been decisively defeated by Hamas.

Sharansky's own proposal makes me scratch my head, since it assumes that the Palestinian people, who have seen themselves as refugees for nearly 60 years and have been occupied for nearly 40, are simply malleable clay that can be remolded into good citizens in just a few years by leaders chosen by the US. Unfortunately, the whole Administration project of democratizing the region is essentially the same plan on an enormous scale. What the Palestinian and Iraqi elections suggest to me, however, is that no leader seen as an American client can win widespread popular following in the current Middle East, and that the American policies of the last five years have made the situation worse, not better. "Moral clarity" is a two-edged sword, and I suspect that the Palestinian majority that elected Hamas felt that they were voting for "moral clarity" as well. Gush Enumin, the militant Israeli settlers who regard it as disobedience to the Lord to withdraw from one inch of Biblical Israel also believe in moral clarity. The victory of Hamas seems to leave both the US and the EU without much of a policy for settling the Arab-Israeli dispute. We shall see its impact upon Israeli politics in the months to come.

The first sign of the impact of democracy in the Middle East emerged in 1992, when fundamentalist parties won a majority in Algeria. The Algerian military, backed by both France and the US, staged a coup to prevent them taking power and another ciivl war began. Now the Administration and the Europeans are talking about cutting off funding to any Hamas government that does not change its positions and accept Israel's right to exist. I do not see how such episodes can do anything but persuade the Middle East that the US sees democracy as a means of rewarding those peoples willing to do our bidding, rather than an attempt for Arab peoples to make their actual beliefs known.

While Americans--including most of our leadership class--have only taken the growth of Islamic fundamentalism seriously since 2001, it has been going on for at least four decades. We may actually have accelerated the disintegration of the old order, but it was probably doomed. What we now face, as we did in the 1930s and again in the late 1940s, is the spread of a hostile ideology. This ideology, unlike those, does not directly threaten the heart of western civilization--which in my opinion is where our focus should once again return. We can survive some triumphs on its part as we survivived nearly 75 years of Communism. But the United States is not yet intellectually equipped to do so; from one end of the political spectrum to the other we seem to believe in a short-term happy ending in the Middle East. I fear we may only make things even worse until we can accept the limitations upon our power and prepare to secure, rather than expand, the frontiers of our civilization. This is no betrayal of democracy of our heritage, merely a recognition that the spread of our principles will be an intermittent and always impartial process, combined, perhaps, with the reflection that American democracy has generally been truer to its self when it has alternative outcomes against which it can be measured.

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