If Al-Qaeda renounced terrorism, would the U.S. government welcome its running candidates in American elections? Had the Nazis denounced violence, would Hitler have become an acceptable chancellor for Germany? Not likely, because the tactics of Al-Qaeda and the Nazis matter less than their goals.
Similarly, Hezbollah and Hamas are unacceptable because of their goals. These organizations are important elements of the Islamist movement that seeks to create a global totalitarian order along the lines of what has already been created in Iran, Sudan, and in Afghanistan under the Taliban. They see themselves as part of a cosmic clash between Muslims and the West in which the victor dominates the world.
Washington, trying to be consistent in its push for democracy, prefers to ignore these goals and instead endorses involvement by Hezbollah and Hamas in the political process, pending their making some small changes.
These signals began last week when President Bush stated that although Hezbollah, a Lebanese group, is "a terrorist organization," he hopes it will change that designation "by laying down arms and not threatening peace." White House spokesman Scott McClellan then elaborated on this comment by specifying the two alternatives: "Organizations like Hezbollah have to choose, either you're a terrorist organization or you're a political organization."
Bush himself explained further what he meant a day later, presenting elections as a method to shed the terrorist designation:
I like the idea of people running for office. There's a positive effect when you run for office. Maybe some will run for office and say, vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America. I don't know, I don't know if that will be their platform or not. But I don't think so. I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, I'm looking forward to fixing your potholes, or making sure you got bread on the table.
Hamas a Palestinian organization, Secretary of State Rice then noted, could also evolve in the right direction once it enters the democratic process:
When people start getting elected and have to start worrying about constituencies and have to start worrying not about whether their fire-breathing rhetoric against Israel is being heard, but about whether or not that person's child down the street is able to go to a good school or that road has been fixed or life is getting better, that things start to change.
The theory implied here is that running for office – with its emphasis on such mundane matters as fixing potholes and providing good schools – will temper Hezbollah and Hamas.
Count me skeptical.
The historical record does not support such optimism. When politically adept totalitarians win power democratically, they do fix potholes and improve schools – but only as a means to transform their countries in accordance with their utopian visions. This generalization applies most clearly to the historical cases (Adolf Hitler in Germany after 1933, Salvador Allende in Chile after 1970) but it also appears valid for the current ones (Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh since 2001, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey since 2002).
Then there is the matter of their undemocratic intentions. Josef Goebbels explained in 1935 that the Nazis used democratic methods "only in order" to gain power. Looking at Islamists, then-assistant secretary of state for the Middle East Edward Djerejian explained in 1992, "While we believe in the principle of 'one person, one vote,' we do not support 'one person, one vote, one time'." Khomeini's Iran indicates that Islamists do manipulate elections to stay in power.
Washington should take a principled stand that excludes from the democratic process not just terrorists but also totalitarians using the system to get into power and stay there. It is not enough for Islamist organizations to renounce violence; being irredeemably autocratic, they must be excluded from elections.
In a famed Supreme Court dissent in 1949, the eminent justice Robert H. Jackson argued for the arrest of a neo-Nazi rabble-rouser in Chicago on the grounds that not doing so "will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact." The same imperative for self-protection applies also to international politics.
Even if Hezbollah and Hamas promise a change in tactics, America – or for that matter, Israel and other Western states – should not accept them as legitimate political parties.
Sep. 5, 2005 update: I provide further confirmation for doubting the Bush administration's outlook at "Does Fixing Potholes Tame Terrorists?"
Jan. 25, 2006 update: I published a brief article in USA Today on the day of Hamas's electoral success, arguing against the "pothole theory."