Michael Barnett: What democracy hath wrought

The Bush administration’s effort to sustain support for the occupation of Iraq was dealt one of its biggest blows last week by the residents of Hebron, Ramallah and Gaza City, who gave an overwhelming victory in Palestinian legislative elections to Hamas.

To the Western world, the terrorist group’s victory drove home the messy truth that democracy has negative externalities, among them the possibility that the rise of terrorists, thugs and fascists is often abetted by free and fair elections. Samuel Huntington, the Harvard scholar who popularized the notion of democratic peace – in which democratic countries supposedly don’t fight one another – will be eating his words in a few months when the democratically elected Palestinian legislature sanctions bombings in Israeli cities.

The countries that sponsored the road map for peace between Israel and its occupied territories called several years ago for elections and greater participation in government among ordinary Palestinians. Well, they got what they asked for. What they didn’t gamble on was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ gamble to draw Hamas into the political arena. Instead of becoming one of many insignificant factions in the Palestinian parliament, Hamas has more than enough seats to oversee the legislature without coalition partners.

The absence of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorists’ infiltration of Iraq meant that spreading democracy was the only thing the Bush administration could point to as a legitimate reason for continuing to occupy Iraq. Hamas’ victory turned that justification on its head.

Iraq is a kind of democracy now, yes, but we won’t recognize it in a few years when it is ruled by majority-backed Shiite clerics espousing anti-American rhetoric. Will the American people continue to tolerate the deaths of troops propping up a democratic government that in a few years will become virulently anti-American like its Palestinian counterpart? The answer – no – shows why the Bush administration resorted to its spreading democracy justification only when its other reasons for invasion were thoroughly debunked.

The Bush administration can’t hide behind its well-worn defense that it couldn’t have seen this one coming. Since at least the end of World War I, American policymakers have known that democracies sometimes bear strange fruit; that’s partly why we propped up dictatorships against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Adolf Hitler in Germany and, more recently, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia are great examples of what sometimes happens when you let people pick their own leaders.

Some argue that inclusion into democratic governments has a mitigating effect on violent groups and extremist ideologues. Members of the Irish Republican Army, for instance, pledged in the late 1990s to cease operations against Great Britain in exchange for, among other things, parliamentary representation. But organizations such as the IRA and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are part of their countries’ respective governments – not the government, as Hamas will soon effectively be in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

To be fair, the Palestinians, the majority of whom support a two-state solution with Israel, didn’t install Hamas in office to scuttle the peace process. Hamas is more than a terrorist organization, providing social services – such as clinics and schools – that cater far more to Palestinians’ needs than anything the displaced ruling party Fatah has set up in its 40-plus years of corrupt existence.

Iraqis, too, will vote not with the sole aim of antagonizing the United States. In future elections they will put into office anti-American, anti-Israel Shiite candidates who can deliver the basic services – reliable electricity, schools, hospitals – that the Bush administration and their Iraqi proxies have largely failed to set up since the March 2003 invasion

Maybe the American people will realize that they would do well to take a page out of the book of the newly freedom-loving Palestinians and Iraqis and kick out of office the self-serving U.S. politicians who have willfully neglected them and endangered their families these past few years.

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is Hatchet editor in chief. This is his first and last opinion piece on Middle East affairs.

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