More on Hamas victory and democracy promotion

The Nixon Center and the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy co-hosted on Wednesday an afternoon roundtable on the Hamas victory and its implications for U.S. foreign policy and especially the Bush Administration's democracy agenda in the Middle East. Alexis Debat, a French terrorism expert and I gave short presentations and Nikolas Gvosdev, the editor of The National Interest and Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Nixon Center moderated the discussion that followed which was off-the-record. Let me also draw your attention to the new February 27, 2006, issue of The American Conservative in which I have a cover story that deals with the U.S. global democracy crusade. The new issue is not yet available on the internet but can be purchased in bookstores.
Also, for those who are interetsed, here are the brief talking points for the presentation today:

•The policy issue we are discussing today – the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary election and its effect on Israeli-Palestinian relations and on the U.S. interests in the Middle East – is highlighting two major elements in long-term American foreign policy -- and the way they have been integrated into the Bush Administration’s agenda. In fact, the outcome of the election is a direct result of the way this administration has dealt with these two components of U.S. foreign policy.

•The first element in U.S. foreign policy that is relevant here: To what extent should the promotion of democracy be regarded as a core U.S. national interest? I don’t want to spend too much time focusing on this issue which has been examined in the pages of National Interest in the last two issues and by yours truly in the latest issue of the American Conservative magazine. I don’t share the administration view that that there is universal definition of democracy, that electoral democracy should be equated with liberal democracy or with liberty, that democracies -- states where free elections take place – rarely go to war against each other (Democratic Peace Theory), and --- most important --- that the United States has the obligation based on moral considerations and national interests to spread democracy, including by using military force in wars of choice. My view is that the best way to promote liberty is through example and diplomatic and economic engagement. In any case, the insistence by the Bush Administration that the Palestinian election take place -- under the current conditions and despite the danger of a Hamas victory – explain why they happened when they happened -- since both the Israeli and the Palestinian leadership were opposed to that move at that time.

•The second element in U.S. foreign policy that we are discussing here: What are exactly U.S. interests in the Middle East and how do we secure them? Since the end of the Cold War the consensus in the foreign policy establishment is that the United States needs to maintain strategic hegemony in the Middle East in order to protect access to oil and the security of Israel. The debate has been over the means to achieve that goal: Hegemony-Lite (First Bush and Clinton)achieved mostly through off-shore balancing and Hegemony vs. Empire (second Bush) through direct U.S. military intervention and control. Both camps agree on the need to try resolve Arab-Israeli conflict as a way of reducing the costs of U.S. involvement that includes juggling Israeli interests and Arab (Saudi) interests. I challenge the entire U.S. Middle East paradigm in my book, Sandstorm:Policy Failure in the Middle East by stressing the need for an oligopoly involving other great powers to deal with instability and conflicts in the Middle East and encourage the creation of regional balance-of-power systems. But for the sake of this debate I’m adopting the consensus in Washington that we need to secure an American hegemony in the Middle East,to be the Big Boss, the Man, if you will.

•Now… here is the problem: Promoting democracy and free election in the Middle East weakens American hegemony. My reading of modern history is that Nationalism – and not democracy -- is the most powerful political force and the main reason for civil and international wars. Democracy is the most reliable ally of nationalism -- and by definition they both help release the forces that challenge the existing hegemon. Experience of other empires, Austro-Hungarian, is that there are no half-abortion. And my advice to policymakers in Washington, when it comes to the Middle East -- if you want to be the Man -- don’t stick it to yourself by promoting free elections.

•By promoting democracy in the Middle East and igniting the forces of nationalism, ethnicity, religion, tribes, or mix of all of these – in Iraq and in Palestine – policymakers haven’t followed my advice. They made the Middle East Safe for nationalism, and radical ethnic and religious identity. Mixing Hegemony and Democracy is producing explosions. Specifically, in Palestine/Israel, U.S. and Israeli policies help create the conditions for the election of Hamas. First, the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000 and the start of the second Intifadah demonstrated the limits to U.S. influence even under Hegemon-Lite in terms of bridging between the minimum demands on both sides. Secondly, the Bush Administration decided not to pursue an activist diplomatic role and to sideline Yasser Arafat. Instead, contract Sharon to impose order in the Holy Land and support Israeli unilateral withdrawal --- not as part of a “peace process” --- there was no “peace process” -- but as a way to help Israel advance its interests. Three, the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza helped Hamas by suggesting that terrorism works. So… the result is the Palestinians people that feel disposed, marginalized, angry, radicalized perceived the Israelis and the American supporters as responsible for their problems, and concluded that their leadership is weak and ineffective. And by weakening Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis and the Americans only contributed to that conclusion. So… is it surprising that under these conditions the Palestinians elect the political movement that responded to their concern?

•I think it’s a waste of time -- if not silly -- to debate whether the Palestinians votes for Hamas because of corruption, economic conditions, or Israel. Electing a candidate is like falling in love. You don’t fall in love or elect someone because of X or Y. It’s the entire package. I’m not talking about local elections where candidates with charisma of insurance salesmen debate whether to change zoning laws. In national elections especially at time of crisis and war – you look for someone that will provide you with a sense of identity, security, national pride, protect you against the “other.” In that context we have to consider the Hamas victory and explain why they won even in more secular Ramallah and East Jerusalem. They provided all of that – and they demonstrated that they could Stick it to the Man.

• There are all these attempts to find a silver lining in the Hamas victory. If you are a believer – it’s the Lord is working in mysterious ways. Or it’s this dialectical thinking run amok: It’s good that Hamas won because they’ll fail and the Palestinians will then get rid of them and the good guys will win. Or Hamas unlike Fatah could deliver a peace agreement. It’s like saying that it’s good that the Japanese attacked the U.S. in Peal Harbor since at they ended up as global economic power. It all made sense.

•So it’s bad news for all concerned. Rabin who had launched the negotiations with the PLO stressed that the Israelis needed to reach a deal with Arafat so as to prevent Hamas from coming to power. So this is major strategic setback to Israel -- a failure and not a reason to rejoice and score propaganda points because “we unmasked the Palestinians.” For the Americans it makes it almost impossible to reactivate the peace process that didn’t exist anyway. The best-case-scenario involves ad-hoc agreements that would prevent major bloodshed. Hamas Hoodona/cease-fire and continued Israeli unilateral withdrawal. We will probably recall Camp David as the last U.S.-sponsored Arab-Israeli peace conference. Long term for U.S. and region – the first victory of the Moslem brotherhood that would provide momentum to militant Islamists in Egypt and other countries that are bound to challenge U.S. hegemony.


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