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Brumberg: U.S. Should Avoid 'Shooting Ourselves in Foot' Trying to Isolate Hamas

Interviewee: Daniel Brumberg
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 22, 2006

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Daniel Brumberg, an expert on democratic movements in the Middle East, says Hamas's victory in the recent parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority underscores the political vacuum in the Middle East between the Islamist parties, like Hamas, and discredited ruling parties, in this case Fatah. "You have a really troubling problem here, and it is in part a consequence of a problem that is more general to the region, and that is the discrediting of ruling parties, the absence of an organization to represent what is a disorganized third alternative, third voice, that exists between ruling parties and Islamist oppositionists."

He says he does not believe the Bush administration has yet decided how to handle the problem of foreign aid to the next Palestinian government, which will be dominated by Hamas. "This requires hard thinking, it requires nuance and balance, it requires swallowing some medicine we'd prefer not to swallow, but the notion that the situation can be addressed by essentially making life impossible for Hamas and then bringing it down would completely discredit the notion that the United States is a serious democracy-promoter." Brumberg, who is an associate professor of comparative government at Georgetown University and a special adviser to the United States Institute of Peace, says he is certain that if Western aid is cut off, Iran would step in quickly.

"You can bet that if the U.S. and Western powers cut off all funds, then Iran will be the first one to jump in there and write a blank check for Hamas. That's another important reason to reconsider shooting ourselves in the foot," he says.

Everyone is still very interested in what happens in the Palestinian areas. Hamas won a great majority of the seats in the new parliament, even though the popular vote [it won] was less than that of Fatah. What does this tell us about democracy in the Arab world, if anything?

Well, what it tells us is Islamists win not because they necessarily represent the majority, not because there is a majority of Palestinians or Moroccans who want an Islamic state, or who raise the social-religious agenda of Islamist parties, but because Islamist parties are far more organized and disciplined than the discredited, increasingly fragmented parties that are linked to government, which of course themselves are discredited. I think it's the absence of effective competition and the widespread social and economic unhappiness with the prevailing parties, as well as poor choices in terms of electoral management, that produces results in which you have the group that doesn't necessarily have majority support winning a majority of seats.

The problem there is, of course, that if Hamas would decide to implement a religious agenda and be true to its own platform, it would find itself alienating, perhaps not a majority, but a very significant plurality of Palestinians who do not accept this platform. And that's quite apart from the question of how to deal with Israel.

When you factor in the issue of militias—Hamas has its own militia, and Fatah has its own militia—you have possibility of a real conflict, a Lebanization of Palestine, if indeed Fatah and Hamas do not have a political way of resolving their conflicts. Every time in the last year or so the two parties have come to political loggerheads, it has been reflected in the standoff on the ground between the militias. So I think you have a really troubling problem here. And it is in part a consequence of a problem that is more general to the region, and that is the discrediting of ruling parties, the absence of an organization to represent what is a disorganized third alternative, third voice, that exists between ruling parties and Islamist oppositionists. There's a substantial body of opinion in Egypt that does not want an Islamist solution. But the problem there is, this plurality doesn't have political party representation, and that creates a standoff between discredited regimes and Islamist oppositions, and in this kind of standoff Islamist oppositions win.

When we talked last in November of 2003, President Bush had just given a speech on democracy and freedom in the Middle East. He repeated that in his second inaugural speech. Some people, right after Hamas won, took this as a big setback to Bush. How do you interpret all this?

Well, although I'm not a keen supporter of the Bush policy, I think it would be a mistake to argue that the Palestinian elections in themselves demonstrate the fallacy of trying to promote democracy in the Middle East. First of all, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is a physically unique conflict that has its own dynamics, and definitely created a propensity, because of the failure of the peace process, to vote for Hamas, which wouldn't have been so great in the presence of a successful peace process. And moreover, the consequences of arguing that the democracy-promotion is a failure is, in effect, either to argue for the status quo, or more dangerously, in the question of Palestine, possibly for arguing to overturn an election, which would only discredit the possibility of any legitimate government for many, many decades.

So I think it's both unfair and also potentially dangerous to argue that the results of the Palestinian election speak of the illegitimacy of the entire notion of promoting democracy. The conditions have been bad in the Palestinian context. I think a proportional system would have been preferable to a system in which you have the multi-candidate districts that lead Hamas to seize control of many districts without a majority. And of course, we have this whole question of promoting non-Islamist political parties. NDI's budget, to give you an example...

That's the National Democratic...

National Democratic Institute. Only 20 percent of the budget is devoted to the formation and promotion of effective political parties. This is a disaster. We do not have in the Arab world, aside from Islamists, effective political parties, even though Islamists do not command a majority. There's some sort of basic contradiction here, and the gap has to be filled with effective party formation [and] promotion. And we haven't been doing this. So I would argue that it's not the notion, in principle, of democracy-promotion, but a whole series of factors including several poor public policy choices, which have tended to produce results that we would have preferred not to have.

U.S. policy at the moment is, I guess, to hope Hamas will change its policy toward Israel. That doesn't seem like much of a starter, does it?

Well, I think what we're getting from Washington now are a lot of different voices, not an unusual phenomenon for this city. There are different signals. There are different constituencies here: [Department of] State, Congress, White House, factions within State. It's not clear, exactly. They're groping for policy in a very difficult situation, and I don't think we have, yet, something that could be called a coherent policy.

My own personal view would be that Hamas should be encouraged to accept Israel and to accept the decisions of the previous Palestinian Authority, and to remain loyal to those previous decisions. But by encouraging Hamas to do so, we shouldn't take away the ways that make it possible to provide the basic social services, because that would only make the situation far worse, and would play into the hands of Hamas itself.

So this requires hard thinking, it requires nuance and balance, it requires swallowing some medicine we'd prefer not to swallow, but the notion that the situation can be addressed by essentially making life impossible for Hamas and then bringing it down would completely discredit the notion that the United States is a serious democracy-promoter. And I don't think that's going to be the policy choice of the Bush administration, although I could be wrong.

But the question at the moment, I suppose, is the foreign aid question. Israel has cut off its monthly transfer of money, but I suppose that's caught up in Israeli politics right now.

They're having their elections [March 28].

And [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice is over in the Arab world right now, I guess trying to persuade Egypt and Saudi Arabia not to give any money to Hamas until it changes its policies, right?

Yes. The Egyptians actually may be sympathetic to that, because their public position is that Hamas should recognize and be loyal to the previous positions and commitments of the previously elected Palestinian government. But I think that if we try to do this in a very public and blunt kind of way, a lot of our Arab friends in the region will not be very favorable to this. I think it's going to require some fancy footwork in diplomacy to find a way to channel funds to institutions that doesn't represent Hamas, maintaining the reality that Hamas is still in government and that's the elected government.

I'm not sure how you square this particular circle, but I am sure that if you try to create an instrument as blunt as some people in this town would support, that will probably backfire.

Let's jump a little to Iran, which you've written a lot about. Do you think any deal is going to be possible with the Iranians on the nuclear question?

I doubt it. I think the Iranians are committed to [their nuclear program] it. I think it's an issue of national pride, and it becomes very hard for the Iranians to see they're going down a road that's not necessarily one they have to take. I find it incredible, in the literal sense of the word, that Iran would argue its nuclear energy program is for peaceful purposes only. This is something no professional expert on the subject would find credible. The Iranians seem to be committed to going down that path, and the problem for the West is that sanctions would not necessarily produce the outcome we're looking for, and particularly if it meant stopping the Iranian exports of oil, which is not something the international market would tolerate right now, anyway. And a military campaign—while it might slow down the project—wouldn't stop it, because there are all kinds of facilities that we don't know anything about, probably.

So I think the long-range reality is that we may have to live with an Iran, which, while it hasn't formally passed the threshold to nuclear, offensive weapons, has the capacity to move from A to B fairly quickly and will maintain the ambiguity. And we'll just have to learn to live with that ambiguity, as the time and opportunity to prevent this program from moving across the threshold, or near the threshold, has probably already passed.

Now Ms. Rice announced to some fanfare the other day, a kind of cultural exchange program with the Iranians. Except there's no indication the Iranian government is interested in this.

Well I think Rice's announcement of $75 million is very interesting. It indicates one important fact, which perhaps had not been noticed, for understandable reasons, in Tehran. That is that the advocates of regime change in Washington have basically lost. The content of the program advocated by Rice is a long-term democratization strategy; it's not a regime-change strategy. Promotion of exchanges is kind of a détente policy.

It reminds me of the early Soviet days.

And whether we agree with her or not, engagement, exchanges, and funneling support for party work amounts to a long-term process of integrating a certain social and political sector, so when the day comes it will be able to fight politically and on the ground in ways that are more effective. This sector might be effective in the context of Iran's own ground rules, which after all allow for elections -- up to a point, of course. So I think that the regime-change argument is lost. Rice's policy reflects the emergence of a kind of neo-realism that's ascendant and even quite robust, even in terms of dealing with Iran and the nuclear issue, and our efforts to build a consensus with Europe. It's quite a different strategy from the old days. And I think she's proposing it from the vantage point of mainstream organizations like the National Democratic Institute and others within the framework of promoting democratization. If not a sea-change in U.S. policy, it's a different approach to Iran.

In my youth, I was a member of an early exchange of youth delegation with the Soviet Union. But that was within a government-to-government agreement.

It leads you to a contradiction. In order to have détente, you have to have relations. You can't remove tension from a relationship unless you have some minimal basis on which to start that relationship. And here, the Iranian response invokes the problem, which is, we say this is a long-term democratization strategy. Why should they facilitate it by sending large numbers of students to study at Harvard or Yale or Georgetown University?

So even though Rice's announcement represents the readiness of Washington to take a more incrementalist democratization approach to Iran, we don't have the basic infrastructure to make that work now, unless we're willing to recognize Iran and establish relations—and that possibility existed under the previous Iranian government, not this one.

You don't think [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad would be interested?

No sir. This man is a committed fundamentalist. He represents the old, [Ayatollah] Khomeini approach to the United States. There is a pragmatic wing of the conservatives that would have liked to negotiate with the United States and take credit for any negotiations that would have allowed Iran to reestablish relations on terms reasonably acceptable to the Iranian political foreign policy intelligentsia elite. But that's not the elite that's in power anymore. Ahmadinejad has put a lot of his people in the cabinet. About twelve members of the cabinet are people who are loyal to him and loyal to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and his ideology. He's changing the foreign ministry, not completely, but he's already engaged in a sort of purging of the foreign ministry. I think the fact that his policies coincide with others in the Iranian government now means the chances of some sort of real engagement has probably slipped by us, for the time being.

Do you expect he's going to try to really boost Hamas?

You can bet that if the U.S. and Western powers cut off all funds, then Iran will be the first one to jump in there and write a blank check for Hamas. That's another important reason to reconsider shooting ourselves in the foot.

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