Democracy and democracy promotion have become dirty words when it comes to the Middle East. As Iraq continues to slide toward civil war and Israel fights Hamas and Hezbollah on two fronts, a growing chorus of analysts and observers places the blame squarely on Washington’s efforts to forge a more democratic and open Arab world. It is appropriate to debate the wisdom of the Bush administration’s approach to promoting political change in the Middle East, but the current fighting, particularly between Israelis and Arabs, has nothing to do with democracy in the Arab world. In fact, more democracy in Lebanon would have prevented the current crisis.
The temptation to suggest that democracy promotion is at the heart of the Middle Easts current turmoil is obvious. Hamas, which Israel is battling in the Gaza Strip, came to power through what international observers called the freest and fairest elections in the Arab world. Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s coalition government and secured 14 seats in the country’s parliament through elections. The result of democracy, according to the Bush administration’s critics, is the empowerment and legitimization of extremists and thus the current violence.
Upon close examination, however, this assertion does not stand up. First, participating in a free and fair election does not necessarily imply that an organization is democratic. While Hamas and Hezbollah may have embraced the procedures of democracy, there is no evidence that they have embraced the rule of law, the rights of women and minorities, political and religious tolerance, and alternation of power. Second, some historical perspective is badly needed. Hezbollah has sat as an elected party in the Lebanese parliament since 1992, more than a decade before the Bush administration set out its forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.
Moreover, both Hamas and Hezbollah, but particularly the latter, have long made a practice of abducting Israelis, either to provoke an Israeli military response or to draw Israel into negotiating prisoner exchanges. Thus it seems clear that whether the Bush administration had pursued a policy of democracy promotion in the Middle East or not, Hamas and Hezbollah would have snatched Israeli soldiers, provoking a violent response from the Israel Defense Forces. Finally, recent election results in Palestine and Lebanon suggest that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah enjoys the support of majorities of the Palestinian and Lebanese people. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s Shiite base of support constitutes approximately 35 to 40 percent of the population, and in Palestine, a defective electoral law allowed Hamas, which received roughly 44 percent of the vote in last January’s elections, to secure the most seats in the Palestinian legislature.
The real problem in Lebanon is not too much democracy but too little. Had Lebanon emerged from its spring 2005 independence uprising as a democracy, Hezbollah could not have continued to operate as an armed and thus autonomous faction. Lost in almost all of the commentary about the fighting in Lebanon is the fact that many Lebanese who do not support Hezbollah wish that the organization could be disarmed. Thus the best way of dealing with the Hezbollah problem is not by Israeli arms but by Lebanese public opinion.
Here is where criticism of the Bush administration is warranted. Had Washington not turned its attention away from Lebanon after the dramatic events there a little over a year ago, Lebanon’s fledgling democratic government could have leveraged public opinion to domesticate Hezbollah. Instead, the administration allowed Hezbollah and its Syrian patron to undermine the democratic and pro-Western government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
If, as the administration’s critics prefer, the United States returns to a policy of support for authoritarian stability in the Middle East, conflicts like the ones we are seeing unfold in Lebanon and Gaza are likely to continue. After all, only authoritarian leaders can inflict damage on their societies with confidence that they will not be held accountable. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas is democratic, and both rely on non-democratic governments in Damascus and Tehran to pursue objectives that majorities of the Palestinian and Lebanese populations do not necessarily support. If Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iran were truly democratic, it is unlikely that Hezbollah and Hamas could engage in irresponsible policies that bring only pain to their people.
To be sure, Washington needs to contend with the problem of what to do when people who do not share its interests are elected in the Middle East. But the current round of violence between Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah does not offer much insight, because the violence is not a result of the Bush administration’s push for a more open and democratic Arab world; it is a result of not pushing enough.
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