It was not supposed to be like this. For the past two years, America has pursued the idea that democracy is the answer to Islamist terrorism. Now the Palestinian people have spoken clearly – and they have voted for the terrorists.
It’s true that the US has encouraged the spread of democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere. But it’s a major oversimplification to imagine that America–or, for that matter, those dread neocons–think democracy by itself is any sort of answer to anything at all, except a way to give Jimmy Carter some more business in his old age.
To anyone who may have misunderstood, I declare here and now that democracy, by itself, is not “the answer.” It is, however, part of the answer.
A more complete “answer” would go something like this: it’s democracy, coupled with protection of human and civil rights (including those of minorities and woman), and widespread education that avoids indoctrination in mindless hatred. The goal is liberal democracy. The spread of what might be called “illiberal democracy” (see this lengthy article by Fareed Zakaria) is not the same as the spread of liberal democracy.
We all know that illiberal democracy is possible in the Middle East. The question is how to implement liberal democracy, whether it is realistic to think it can happen, and which elements have to be in place before a democracy can be considered to be liberal.
This is a complex subject for a longer post, to be sure. I don’t have time to tackle it properly today. Suffice to say that democracy cannot mean only “one person, one vote, one time.” That is why we have spent so much effort working with the Iraqis on a constitution that protects human rights and the democratic process itself, even before the popular elections of representatives to a legislative body. Because without these guarantees, it all is close to meaningless.
The PLO has worked hard ever since Oslo to prevent anything that might be considered civil or human rights, or liberty, from taking root in the territory under its sway. In addition to corruption and terror (both internal and external), the PLO dedicated the Palestinian educational system to the preaching of a hatred so deep that it has tainted and warped an entire generation, perhaps beyond repair. Now, Hamas has reaped the benefits of the PLO’s hard work.
So, what has democracy wrought for the Palestinians? Time will tell.
But it is difficult to be the least bit optimistic. The terrible reality is that, for quite a while, there have been no good alternatives in the region. A tyrant such as Arafat put in place a system in which people of good will tended to be murdered or silenced, and corruption was rampant and fanned the fires of rage–which were also carefully stoked by the educational system and the media. A benevolent despot was not going to take power; and the alternative, democracy, was destined to be of the very illiberal sort.
Democracy by itself is not the solution. But it is a beginning, even for the Palestinians, because they now have the responsibility for their own fate. If there are ever to be solutions in the Middle East (and for a long time now I have despaired that there will be any that are not destructive), the path must start with an end to the idea that the Palestinians are passive victims of others. As the Telegraph article states:
If Islamists want to take part in democratic life, then they must learn to live by its rules. The question is not whether Muslim radicals should be elected to power, but what they do in office and whether they can be voted out.
Political Islam has thrived as a protest movement of the disgruntled and dispossessed, attracted by the simple message that “Islam is the answer”. In power, however, Islamists have to find real answers to real problems of jobs, poverty, health and illiteracy….
With Arafat, or even his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, there has always been a debate over whether the Palestinian Authority was unable, or merely unwilling, to stop the violence. Palestinian leaders have turned weakness into a diplomatic art-form, telling Israel and the West they needed more concessions in order to have the authority to take on Hamas. With the terrorists in office, there should be no such ambiguity. When the suicide bombs go off, the address for protests will be obvious: the office of the Palestinian prime minister.
In theory, an agreement with Hamas should be more durable. But can Hamas, like Fatah before it, give up the idea of destroying Israel?
I make a prediction here, and I hope I am wrong: the answer is “no.”
We do live in “interesting” times indeed, and this election has been more “interesting” than most.