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Democracies and delusions

By W. James Antle III
web posted January 30, 2006

In the Middle East, we are told, it's a choice between democracy and terror.

What then are we to make of Hamas' upset victory in the Palestinian Authority last week? In an election that saw 78 percent turnout, Hamas won at least 74 of 132 seats in the Legislative Council. President Mahmoud Abbas asked the Islamists to form the next government.

That would be the same Hamas that has engaged in terrorism, deliberately targeting civilians and carrying out nearly 60 suicide bombings in Israel since 2000. After a free and fair democratic vote, the Palestinians will be governed by a faction officially committed to the destruction of Israel and reportedly considering the inclusion of militants in a standing army.

Nor is the Palestinian Authority an outlier. In December, when elections were held in Iraq, Islamists and parties linked to Tehran outpaced secular rivals. In Egypt, the banned Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the most important opposition bloc, winning a fifth of the seats in parliament, while liberal, secular reformers lost ground. In Lebanon, Syria's withdrawal was followed by the voters bringing Hezbollah into the government.

Islamists have flourished at the ballot box in Iran, where President Mahmood Ahmadinejad was democratically elected, and also in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Throughout the Muslim world, deeply flawed but relatively pro-Western regimes are facing increased Islamist competition. Instead of undermining the adherents of militant Islam, elections are empowering them.

Announcing that freedom is on the march each time the polls close won't do. American policymakers need to confront the reality that democracy isn't sufficient for freedom and that free elections don't guarantee the rule of law, political pluralism or peace. Despite Washington's wishes and pre-election projections, the record has repeatedly shown that there are electorates willing to vote for unabashedly anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Israel candidates. The fact that such candidates wouldn't appeal to us is irrelevant.

The elections in Iraq and Afghanistan took place under American supervision. The elections in the Palestinian Authority -- and the participation of Hamas -- took place under U.S. pressure. The democracy-promotion project won't aid the war on terror where the masses seek confrontation with the West and sharia law.

The question remains whether the democratists who hold power in Washington will see this. President Bush claims, "The terrorists know that democracy is their enemy." In a press conference Thursday, he tried to put a happy spin on the Hamas win. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that our government for too long "pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region" and announced "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

But if we are concerned primarily with our own national interests, we ought to first ask what those aspirations are. If we have to choose between supporting democracy and opposing Islamists, which do we choose?

The failure to think about this question is at the root of our foreign-policy contradictions. It has led us to try to strike a blow against radical Islam by invading one of the more secular countries in the Middle East. It has caused us to try to spread liberty through elections that vote in illiberal candidates. And it may deceive us into believing that democratic process abroad can provide security at home.

It can't. A terror-supporting regime is no better from our perspective because it has been supported by a popular vote. It does us little good to lecture the shah when it gives us the ayatollahs.

Perhaps the responsibilities of governing will moderate extremist election winners. And maybe democratic traditions will yet take root. But the effort to democratize the Islamic world is a considerably larger undertaking than some of our leaders are willing to admit. It doesn't look like the most rational basis for our foreign policy in an age of terror.

The Hamas election win should serve as a wake-up call. Let's hope that it does. We've slept through too many of them already.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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