Condi: The dog ate my homework
From the January 30, 2006 New York Times "(Rice Admits U.S. Underestimated Hamas Strength" By STEVEN R. WEISMAN)
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged Sunday that the United States had failed to understand the depth of hostility among Palestinians toward their longtime leaders. The hostility led to an election victory by the militant group Hamas that has reduced to tatters crucial assumptions underlying American policies and hopes in the Middle East.
"I've asked why nobody saw it coming," Ms. Rice said, speaking of her own staff. "It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."
Immediately after the election, Bush administration officials said the results reflected a Palestinian desire for change and not necessarily an embrace of Hamas, which the United States, Israel and the European Union consider a terrorist organization sworn to Israel's destruction. But Ms. Rice's comments seemed to reflect a certain second-guessing over how the administration had failed to foresee, or factor into its thinking, the possibility of a Hamas victory.
Indeed, Hamas's victory has set off a debate whether the administration was so wedded to its belief in democracy that it could not see the dangers of holding elections in regions where Islamist groups were strong and democratic institutions weak.
"There is a lot of blame to go around," said Martin Indyk, a top Middle East negotiator in the Clinton administration, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and his Fatah party. "But on the American side, the conceptual failure that contributed to disaster was the president's belief that democracy and elections solve everything."
Ms. Rice pointed out that the election results surprised just about everyone. "I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas's strong showing," she said on her way to London for meetings on the Middle East, Iran and other matters. "Some say that Hamas itself was caught off guard by its strong showing."
With increasing vehemence in the last few days, administration officials have defended their decision to back Mr. Abbas with American aid and to rebuff Israel when it warned that the election should not be held as long as Hamas participated while refusing to lay down its arms. Those officials continue to lay most of the blame on Mr. Abbas for not offering a positive alternative to Hamas.
American officials say they were never comfortable with Mr. Abbas's decision that the elections be held without the disarmament of Hamas, but they went along with it because there was no alternative. One official recounted how President Bush had personally but unsuccessfully appealed to Mr. Abbas at the White House last October to disarm Hamas before the elections.
"The fact is, Abu Mazen wouldn't do it," said the official, referring to Mr. Abbas. "He said he wouldn't do it, because he said he couldn't do it."
What Mr. Abbas instead offered at the White House was a plan to avoid a civil war among Palestinians by winning the election and only then disarming Hamas and folding it into the mainstream. The administration resolved, in turn, to support Mr. Abbas's political party with whatever diplomacy or resources it could.
Even while acknowledging the failure to foresee a Hamas victory, Ms. Rice said the American decisions were basically correct. Contrary to some reports that even Mr. Abbas wanted the elections delayed, she said a postponement was neither possible nor desirable.
"Our constant discussions with Abu Mazen suggested that he wanted to go ahead with the elections and go ahead with them on time," Ms. Rice said. "We had to support that. I just don't understand the argument that somehow it would have gotten better the longer it went on."
At another point, she said: "You ask yourself, Are you going to support a policy of denying the Palestinians elections that had been promised to them at a certain point in time because people were fearful of the outcome?"
Others noted that the Palestinian elections had been postponed once already, from last summer to January, to give Mr. Abbas and Fatah time to capitalize on the pullout of Israeli settlers from Gaza in August.
To help Mr. Abbas, the United States and its European partners mobilized hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for the Palestinians to meet their payrolls, field their security forces, make welfare payments and build infrastructure.
The total outside assistance to the Palestinians runs to more than $1 billion a year. Now Ms. Rice will meet in London on Monday with top officials of Europe, the United Nations and Russia to call on Hamas to abandon its vow to destroy Israel and to disarm and negotiate a two-state solution in the Middle East, or risk having this aid cut off.
"You've got to hedge against the risk that elections are going to lead to precisely this result," said Mr. Indyk, the former Middle East negotiator. "The hedge is to build civil society and democratic institutions first. But this administration doesn't listen to that."
Many experts blame the Palestinians for most of their problems, particularly the corruption and mismanagement in Mr. Abbas's Fatah organization. Hamas, by contrast, capitalized on its image of integrity and its record of delivering services.
Mr. Abbas is widely described as bitter that he failed to strengthen his hand by getting American help in persuading Israel to curb settlement growth, release prisoners and lift the checkpoints and roadblocks choking off livelihoods in the West Bank. By all accounts, Mr. Abbas's frustration with the administration on this score was met with frustration on the American side that he was not doing enough to crack down on violence and root out corruption.
The administration was also under pressure from Europeans to try to coax Hamas into the mainstream, and it did not want to rebuff their advice at a time when it was trying to work closely with the Europeans on isolating Iran.
Administration officials said that even in the analysis of Israelis, Hamas's behavior in accepting a period of "calm" in the last year — ceasing its attacks on Israeli civilians — meant that it was willing to break with other groups like Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israeli and American officials felt that such a trend was to be encouraged.
As for Mr. Abbas's position on disarming Hamas after the elections, an administration official said: "Our sense was that there was a certain logic to his presentation, and we did not see that we could force an alternative on him. But we were also skeptical."
The administration then immediately began working with European and other allies to set up "normative standards" for any group participating in the political process. Those standards are to be the focus of the talks in London, with the financing cutoff an implicit threat to Hamas. But a cutoff could force Hamas to turn to other sources, like Iran, for help.
Ms. Rice told reporters that she was convinced of the wisdom of instilling democracy in the Middle East. Elections have brought into office anti-American Islamic radicals in Egypt, Lebanon and Iran, but Ms. Rice said the alternative was trying to bottle up seething anger in the region that could lead to more terrorist attacks in the West.
"There is a huge transition going on in the Middle East, as a whole and in its parts," she said. "The outcomes that we're seeing in any number of places, I will be the first to say, have a sense of unpredictability about them. That's the nature of big historic change. It's simply the way it is."
Forget the presidency. She'll make a lousy footbal commissioner...