Now that Hamas has apparently won the Palestinian elections, the West is hoist with its own petard.
On the one hand, Hamas is a terrorist group that unabashedly targets Israeli civilians and calls for the elimination of the Jewish state. On the other hand, it just won what observers deem to have been a reasonably fair election, and so enjoys the legitimacy that comes from the ballot box. Every foreign ministry now confronts a dilemma: Nudge it to moderation or give up on it as irredeemably extremist? Meet with Hamas members or avoid them? Continue to donate to the Palestinian Authority or starve it of funds?
This double bind is of our own making because, with Washington in the lead, virtually every Western government adopted a two-prong approach to solving the problems of the Middle East.
The negative prong consists of fighting terrorism. A "war on terror" is underway, involving military forces in the field, toughened financial laws, and an array of espionage tools.
The positive prong involves promoting democracy. The historical record shows that democratic countries almost never make war on each other, and tend to be prosperous. Therefore, elections appear to be what the doctor ordered for the maladies of the Middle East.
But that combination has failed this troubled region. The first functional election in the Palestinian Authority has thrown up Hamas. In December, 2005, the Egyptian electorate came out strongly for the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic party, and not for liberal elements. In Iraq, the post-Saddam electorate voted in a pro-Iranian Islamist as prime minister. In Lebanon, the voters celebrated the withdrawal of Syrian troops by voting Hezbollah into the government. Likewise, radical Islamic elements have prospered in elections in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
In brief, elections are bringing to power the most deadly enemies of the West. What went wrong? Why has a democratic prescription that's proven successful in Germany, Japan and other formerly bellicose nations not worked in the Middle East?
It's not Islam or some cultural factor that accounts for this difference; rather, it is the fact that ideological enemies in the Middle East have not yet been defeated. Democratization took place in Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union after their populations had endured the totalitarian crucible. By 1945 and 1991, they recognized what disasters fascism and communism had brought them, and were primed to try a different path.
That's not the case in the Middle East, where a totalitarian temptation remains powerfully in place. Muslims across the region – with the singular and important exception of Iran – are drawn to the Islamist program with its slogan that "Islam is the solution." That was the case from Iran in 1979 to Algeria in 1992 to Turkey in 2002 to the Palestinian Authority this week.
This pattern has several implications for Western governments:
- Slow down: Take heed that an impatience to move the Middle East to democracy is consistently backfiring by bringing our most deadly enemies to power.
- Settle in for the long run: However worthy the democratic goal, it will take decades to accomplish.
- Defeat radical Islam: Only when Muslims see that this is a route doomed to failure will they be open to alternatives.
- Appreciate stability: Stability must not be an end in itself, but its absence likely leads to anarchy and radicalization.
Returning to the dilemma posed by the Hamas victory, Western capitals need to show Palestinians that – like Germans electing Hitler in 1933 – they have made a decision gravely unacceptable to civilized opinion. The Hamas-led Palestinian Authority must be isolated and rejected at every turn, thereby encouraging Palestinians to see the error of their ways.