The Magazine

Peace in Theory

What does Hamas's victory mean?

Feb 13, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 21 • By TOD LINDBERG
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WITH HAMAS'S SMASHING VICTORY IN free and fair elections in Palestine, the case for democracy-promotion that George W. Bush outlined a year ago in his second inaugural address has been taking on water. Do we really want a political process that results in victory and legitimacy for terrorists? As Palestine goes, so might a democratic Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., given the opportunity. All of a sudden, stability--in the form of dictatorial repression keeping a lid on something worse--maybe doesn't look so bad.

Which makes the Hamas victory an "I told you so" moment for those who have been warning about the dangers of democracy promotion from the beginning--more or less since the end of the Cold War, but especially in relation to the Arab Middle East and in response to the Bush administration's post-9/11 enthusiasm for democracy promotion there. Given the rise of Islamic radicalism in the late 20th century, the secular dictators of the region and the stability their authoritarian rule provides look like a preferable alternative, runs the critique. Let people vote, and they will vote the radicals in. Such was the sense of danger in Algeria in 1991, when the army intervened to cancel further elections after the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front ran strong in the first round of balloting.

The potential danger of democracy has, of course, long been an argument from the "realist" camp (or "neorealist," as international relations scholars prefer). Perhaps the best-known investigation of the risk of popular elections in certain conditions is Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (2003), which warns against too-blithe assumptions about what people will choose at the polls when they lack well-cultivated habits of self-governance. If "realism" has a public face these days, it is that of Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush, who has been outspoken in opposition to a democratic shakeup of what he characterized in an interview with the New Yorker as "fifty years of peace" in the Middle East.

Obviously, there is a certain hard-nosed quality to the realist perspective, otherwise it wouldn't be possible to subsume the 1.5 million casualties of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, for example, under the category of "peace." Perhaps Scowcroft's point was that the United States hasn't had to fight there--well, not much, anyway--and the oil (our "vital interest") has kept flowing. In any case, realists do not seek praise for their humanitarianism, nor are they bothered by any sense of contradiction in the view that liberal democracy works reasonably well for the societies in which they live, whereas others should be left to work their political arrangements out for themselves (or left to the arrangements already worked out for them, as the case may be).

So Hamas is exactly what realists would, and in some cases did, expect to follow from free Palestinian elections. Not so the Bush administration, which seems to have been caught flat-footed by the results. The expectation or hope was that Palestinians would vote for Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah, the supposedly nonradical alternative that would bolster hopes for a peace settlement with Israel. Instead, we have democratic legitimation for an organization sworn to destroy Israel and committed to terror attacks against Israeli civilians as a means to that end. This is not what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had in mind when she announced, a week before the Hamas victory, the new U.S. commitment to "transformational diplomacy."

Some of those who support the administration's democracy-promotion initiative have turned to the consolations of theory. One argument is that the vote for Hamas was actually a vote against the longstanding corruption of Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah; we should accordingly avoid leaping to the conclusion that most Hamas supporters seek the destruction of Israel. Another argument is that Hamas's victory came as a surprise and perhaps a disappointment to Hamas itself: The organization had and has no real desire to assume the burdens of governing; it wanted an opposition role from which to snipe at the Palestinian leadership. Instead, Hamas will soon find itself overwhelmed by the demands of running the Palestinian Authority. It will accordingly have less time and opportunity to plot its radical agenda against Israel.

Yet another argument from theory is that radicalism needs to burn itself out electorally, as the radicals fail to deliver either good governance or the success of their grand ambitions, in this case the demise of Israel. Such failure will create the conditions in which moderate leadership will emerge and receive popular backing. Further, Hamas itself might change in such a fashion as to avoid all the above pitfalls--in the interest of maintaining its electoral viability, on the assumption that January 25, 2006, was not the last free election of democratic Palestine. And if more elections are indeed forthcoming, we have one more thing going for us: the "democratic peace." Democracies don't go to war with each other: Such is the conclusion scholars have drawn from the evidence of the past hundred years.

The bottom line of many of the democracy-promoters, therefore, is that one way or another, things will change. The democratic process itself channels those participating in it in the direction of liberal outcomes, for the simple reason that office-seekers in democracies are rational actors seeking votes and voters are likewise rational in pursuit of their interests.

ODDLY ENOUGH, it's not just the democracy-promoters who have a theoretical stake in a change in the stripes of Hamas. Although they won't be talking about it during a season in which they are busy scoring points against the starry-eyed Wilsonian folly of the Bush administration, so do the realists.

Their assumption, after all, is that states operating in the usual conditions of international anarchy--no rules to protect them--will act rationally in pursuit of security through self-help, the only means available. Now, as it happens, if you attack your neighbor, whether by conventional or unconventional means, and that neighbor is strong enough to do something about it, there is an entirely predictable outcome: war. If your neighbor is so strong that such a war would pose an existential peril to you, for example because your neighbor has nuclear weapons, then you are going to be deterred from waging aggressive war. Israel has the conventional capacity to take down the government of the Palestinian Authority if necessary, not to mention nuclear weapons. Ergo, the Hamas government is deterred from acting in ways that will provoke such retaliation.

Precisely such theoretical calculations led neorealist scholars to the conclusion that Saddam Hussein had long been effectively deterred from using his weapons of mass destruction against the West. (Yes, the neorealists, like everyone else, accepted that he had them; their position was that his possession of them posed no special danger.) Nor would he pass them on to terrorist organizations. The risk to Saddam himself would be too great. The United States could safely pursue its policy of containment indefinitely. The only real risk of his use of weapons of mass destruction, some said, would come from a U.S. attack on him in which he realized his survival was at stake.

Meanwhile, from the neorealist perspective, you can readily empathize with Iran's apparent determination to build nuclear weapons: Look at all the talk about U.S. or Israeli airstrikes against its nuclear facilities or even a U.S. regime-change operation. What Iran wants, in this view, is security, and that requires a deterrent capability. And given the neighborhood, it's not obvious why even a democratic, secular, Western-leaning Iran wouldn't want a nuclear deterrent--or why its neighbors should feel unduly threatened by the prospect, since any Iranian ruler would know that waging aggressive war with nuclear weapons or passing them on to terrorists would call forth nuclear retaliation in return.

Jacques Chirac, in an illustration of the dominant French strategic culture of realism, recently visited a French nuclear submarine base to warn: "The leaders of states who would use terrorist means against us, as well as those who would consider using in one way or another weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would lay themselves open to a firm and adapted response on our part. This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind."

By this reasoning, if the Hamas government of Palestine were, say, to acquire a nuclear weapon, it would be an entirely different problem from a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group. Sovereignty fixes accountability; such a weapon would deter Israeli aggression, but it could never be used, because it would bring forth nuclear retaliation from Israel in response.

Does anybody really find this line of reasoning all that reassuring? Any more so, or even as much as, the promise of the possible moderation of Hamas in power as a result of democratic electoral pressure? I'm afraid I don't. In fact, the arguments are one and the same; they merely shift the unit of analysis: The neorealist finds in "the state" and the structure of the state system the same inducement to rational behavior that many analysts of the "democratic peace" attribute to political actors operating in democratic societies. Someone or something, somewhere, is a rational calculator of self-interest, which includes preeminently self-preservation, and that's that. Do you feel safe now? Should Israelis?

IN GENERAL, no doubt, an interest in self-preservation predicts a great deal about the behavior of states and of individuals. But it is not a basis from which to deduce behavior. I hope the Palestinian Authority of Hamas turns out to be moderate, leading to a state of Palestine that is exemplary with regard to the democratic peace; I would welcome the subsequent debate over whether that outcome is best explained by the characteristics of the state as such in the system of states or the beneficial behavioral effects promoters attribute to democracy.

But such hope does fall a bit short of an expectation. Hamas with the resources of a state at its disposal might very well turn out to be (with apologies to P.J. O'Rourke) the equivalent of teenage boys with a bottle of Jack Daniel's and the keys to the old man's car: a very poor calculator of self-interest and self-preservation. That's on the further assumption that self-preservation in a culture that celebrates suicide bombing means the same thing we think it does. If ridding the Middle East of the Zionist entity is a matter of your going up in the inferno, too--well, the rewards of Paradise are great, and those outside the Zone of Total Destruction who share your beliefs will praise you for the greatest martyrdom operation of all time.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Palestine is not yet a state, let alone a nuclear power, and though it has had a free election and the results do indeed reflect the will of Palestinian voters, it is hardly a stable democracy, either. Perhaps the existing deficiencies in sovereignty and democratic maturity will cause our respective theorists to step back from their predictions to allow for other possibilities, such as the one in the preceding paragraph. That would be good, because the outcome is uncertain, and the challenge for policymakers is great.

But what has not changed with the Hamas victory, and does not change, is that if the habit of living peacefully in a democratic society takes root and spreads to include the idea that one should live peacefully with other such societies, then the people of those societies are better off. I am here including a propensity for peace as part of my assumption, not presenting it as a deduction or prediction. The question, then, is how to get to conditions in which that assumption is valid. This may turn out to be difficult not only in ways we can predict but also in ways we cannot.

Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe, as the Bush vision sometimes seems to, that politics based on freedom, democracy, and peaceability among those who share those values will solve the problem of terrorism, which is also a matter of cells of individuals acting from within otherwise peaceful societies. Terrorism is the separate problem of getting in individual cases to the same assumption about peace that we want to get to with societies as a whole. Same problem, different unit of analysis. In his second inaugural address, Bush said, "Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul." If that's true, then the forms the "call" takes are various, and to achieve the results Bush wants from freedom will require disciplining that "call" into something that recognizes the equal freedom of others and seeks peace with them.

But getting to conditions in which an assumption about the desire for peace is valid is the political task of those who want peace, as Bush has rightly said. The leading alternative framework is a set of assumptions that can lead you to the moral monstrosity of surveying the past fifty years of Middle East history and calling that peace.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.