February 16, 2006
Democracy as a Weapon
Recently there has been a fair bit of handwringing over both the Hamas victory in the Palestinian territories and the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong showing in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. US policymakers are likely not pleased by the fact that Islamist MPs outnumber secular ones by nearly two to one in Iraq, and that early hopefuls such as Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress bloc failed to secure a single seat in recent elections.
In this context, it is mildly disturbing to see Farhat Asaad, a Hamas spokesman, point out this uncomfortable truth:
"First, I thank the United States that they have given us this weapon of democracy. But there is no way to retreat now. It's not possible for the U.S. and the world to turn its back on an elected democracy."
As I pointed out in a comment on an earlier entry, Islamist parties acknowledging the value of democratic discourse and the power of voting, as opposed to underground movements and violence, is not necessarily a bad thing. What is bad (or at least unpredictable) in the short term are Islamist parties getting elected because of strongly anti-American platforms. US propaganda (public relations, psy ops, whatever) efforts in the region are no match for the clever rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalists and extremists, who in spite of raving psychopaths such as Zarqawi, manage to drum up sympathy by maximizing the damage potential of issues such as the Abu Ghraib scandal and the Danish cartoon controversy. Bungled direct interventions as well as continued material support for repressive and corrupt Mideast regimes haven’t been particularly helpful for America's image either.
In the case of Iraq, the US had no choice but to step back and watch as Iran-friendly Shia coalitions dominated the fledgling government. To try and back any other horse would have completely delegitimized the American “liberation and democracy” project, the only justification for invasion left after the WMD allegation fell through. In Egypt, the overt state-orchestrated violence during the parliamentary elections won only gentle chiding from the US State Department, leaving Mubarak with the impression that he could delay municipal elections without consequence. With regard to Hamas and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the US entertained rather unsubtle discussions to topple the new government even though it had significant popular support.
In short, the US has effectively painted itself into a corner by ostensibly shunning realpolitik in favour of promoting democratic values. At the same time, it has been rather clumsy in dealing with the “surprise” (note sarcasm) results of elections in the Middle East. However, there are a number of potential silver linings, particularly when taking the long view.
Moving Islamists from the fringes into the political mainstream will force them to come to terms with the realities of governance, balancing interests and internal corruption. While it is extremely easy to spout ideologically resonant but operationally empty rhetoric from the sidelines, voters will expect tangible results from their elected leaders, especially if they were elected as a result of dissatisfaction with the status quo. The Economist has a similar view in the context of Palestinian politics:
Having to keep voters sweet may instead force [Hamas] to pay less heed to its ideology of destroying Israel and more to the Palestinians' real needs and achievable goals. If it does not change it can be cajoled and punished accordingly.
Gilles Kepel, our favourite Frenchman, has written extensively on the ideology of political Islam and its many flaws (the recent violence in his view is symbolic of the movement’s death, not its resurgence). Continuing this line of thinking, it’s likely that establishing functional, procedural democracies will largely result in Islamist “backlash” governments in the short term because Islam is an easy political rallying point for citizens who yearn for just rulers and an end to oppression. However, if platform promises fail to manifest in reality, disillusioned voters will begin to look elsewhere. As Matthew Hogan has already pointed out, becoming comfortable with the process may drive change more than the ideals behind an initial push for action. Of course, in the meantime, how does one manage the short-term unpredictability and volatility arising from the expression of popular will?
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By comforting oneself with the idea that it will be extremely short-term?
You could, after all, get the Polish situation, as it were, where, once freedom came in, the Catholic Church, the only viable opposition to the communists during the Soviet occupation, gradually began to lose influence.
In an analogous way, perhaps the Islamists will begin to fade now that people are becoming more free to express themselves, and of course once they slowly wake up to the idea that the Islamists are as human as the rest of us and will make the same stupid mistakes anyone else would when they're in the government trying to lead a country.
This presupposes an economic revival to go along with the political one, of course, and in that regard the plotting to cut Hamas off at the knees, discussed earlier on this blog, looks even stupider.
Better to let the economic fruits of freedom ripen right along with the political ones. People with full stomachs have never, in the history of mankind, been particularly fanatical about religion, politics, or anything else but their own welfares and protecting what makes those stomachs full. By and large, of course.
Every once in a while you do get a Timothy Mcveigh, never mind a Pat Robertson, but their isolation is proof enough that the general proposition is true enough.
The Bush Admin may, just may, accomplish what it says it was after, despite itself.
Posted by: pantom at February 16, 2006 11:26 PM
The Bush Admin may, just may, accomplish what it says it was after, despite itself.
Just what I was thinking, inertia vs. actual clearheaded policy.
Of course, the sectarian/ethnic issue complicates things in some countries. Might be difficult to escape that paradigm, as with Lebanon.
Posted by: eerie at February 16, 2006 11:38 PM
how does one manage the short-term unpredictability and volatility arising from the expression of popular will?
By letting Islamists govern, and offering them some carrots and sticks as the situation requires. We have to judge them on their actions, not their rhetoric. We can offer the PA for example the carrot of a Free Trade Agreement if they renounce their pledge to drive Israel to the see, or preferred trade status if they at least promise to uphold the truce they've implemented so far. We need to get the economy moving, and per capita incomes rising. The richer you are, the more you have to loose in any conflict. As you said, if despite all that Hamas or other islamist groups fail to deliver, then Palestinians will deal with them. Until then, we have to let them rule as long as they don't decide to try to annihilate Israel or become a haven for al Qaeda, not much more we can do.
Posted by: nykrindc at February 17, 2006 05:26 PM
Agreed. Each side has been posturing for their respective domestic audiences. Hamas rejected negotiations under "current circumstances", which suggests some potential wiggle room. The US has a bit of egg on its face from the NYT article on ousting Hamas, but Condi has said that democracy is not about only electing candidates that are friendly to America. They may use PA funding as a potential carrot/stick, similar to what you described, or they may simply cut the PA off and force it to resort to shadier sources. Israel is discussing cutting off tax revenue, isolating Gaza and otherwse putting a squeeze on the PA. While it still expects to allow merchants into Israel, this will not compensate for the impact of the PA being unable to pay its employees. The EU is pleading for a 'wait and see' strategy.
Economic punishment will prevent Hamas from meeting its political commitments. It is a point of leverage for the US/Israel, just as Hamas' tight control over military/security operations is a point of leverage for them. Both sides have to set their initial "bids" far above what they might actually be willing to pay.
Posted by: eerie at February 18, 2006 10:57 AM
Of course democracy is a weapon.
The Republicans use it to show a mandate to do
what they want, the Democrats use it to show
a mandate for what they want, Sharon and Peres
and others in Israel jostle for their validation,
Blair jostles for his. Yes, Hamas won the elections,
and should be treated as the new leaders (just as
Aristide should have been). There's no reason to
treat Abbass any different - he was tenuously
leading a difficult populace before, and thinking
that because he listens to the US, the rest of
Palestine does too...well, that's foolish. Now,
withholding aid is a weapon as well, but so are
bombs and other terrorist acts. I would like to
see Hamas happy with the success of their new
found weapon, and see them give up the old ones
that didn't work very well and were extremely
barbaric. Take a tip from Northern Ireland -
nobody really loves the other side, nothing's been
completely resolved, but Northern Ireland is much
more liveable than it was 15 years ago. Looking
for the magic solution or the magic partner will
leave us rubbing the lamp for a long time. And
it's spiteful and poor sportsmanship and
counterproductive to deny a winner the right to
gloat a little. Hardly the way to pull them into
a constructive dialogue.
Posted by: Mashrout at February 22, 2006 06:59 AM