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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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.