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Peace in Theory

What does Hamas's victory mean?

Feb 13, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 21 • By TOD LINDBERG
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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.