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.