Would the war in Gaza still be happening if we'd listened to George Bush? The Daily Beast's Reza Aslan on why Bush has every right to say "I told you so" when it comes to the Middle East.
The devastating war in Gaza between Hamas militants and the mighty Israeli army has once again raised a chorus of criticism about the foolishness of George W. Bush’s democracy agenda in the Middle East. “Another pillar in his crusade to spread democracy” is how Margaret Carlson, writing for Bloomberg, describes the rise of Hamas. But the truth is that whatever violence or instability may have resulted from the push to promote democracy in the Middle East, the solution to lasting peace, prosperity, and sociopolitical reform throughout the region, and especially in Palestine, is more democracy, not less.
It was four years ago that a bumptious George W. Bush, fresh from his stunning re-election, took the podium on a cold January morning in Washington, D.C., and laid out an audacious—some would say foolhardy—vision for his second term as president.
Had Hamas been given the opportunity to govern and fail (as it no doubt would have), would it still enjoy the popular support it receives from Palestinians?
“It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” he declared, in what was arguably his most eloquent moment as president. “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” This was not the first time an American president had pledged to support democracy around the world. It was not even the first time this president had done so. But what made this speech different was that Bush appeared to be announcing a radical transformation in American foreign policy, wherein the promotion of democracy would form the foundation on which relations between the US and the rest of the world, particularly the Middle East, would henceforth be based.
Perhaps for that very reason, Bush was fiercely ridiculed for the speech, both at home and abroad. Critics claimed his florid talk of democracy was nothing more than a means of legitimizing the invasion of Iraq—an excuse to wage unending war in the Middle East under the pretext of spreading “freedom” and “liberty.” His promise to stand with democratic reformers “facing repression, prison, or exile” was widely viewed as inauthentic and hypocritical, especially considering that these reformers were facing their trials at the hands of America’s dictatorial allies—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco—all of whom had spent decades convincing the Western powers that even the slightest weakening of their regimes would result in the immediate takeover of their countries by radical Islamists. (The United Nations has dubbed this specious argument “the legitimacy of blackmail.”)
Yet what few of Bush’s critics seemed to notice is that the peoples of the Middle East—those who “live in tyranny and hopelessness”—actually took the president at his word. In fact, despite widespread apprehension toward the US in general, and deep hatred for Bush in particular, large majorities throughout the region told pollsters they believed the US truly wanted to see the Muslim world move toward greater democracy. A few months after the president’s second inaugural speech, Gallup International found that 78 percent of people in the Middle East considered democracy “the best form of government.” One year later, in 2006, a Pew poll found that while the majority of the Western public thought democracy was “a Western way of doing things that would not work in most Muslim countries,” pluralities or majorities in every single Muslim country surveyed flatly rejected that argument and called for democracy in their own countries. Indeed, a wave of democratic fervor in Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia followed Bush’s speech. A renewed sense of hope and opportunity brought scores of people who had spent their lives in autocratic societies to the polls to choose, even if in the most limited of ways, their political destinies. The results were astounding, if a bit unexpected in Washington.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah picked up an impressive 14 seats in Parliament, an electoral result far more consistent with the percentage of Shiites in that country. In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, an Islamist party dedicated to democratic reform, won 15 percent of the seats in Parliament. In Egypt, despite violent repression from the state security forces, who stood near polling places shooting at voters, members of the Muslim Brotherhood gained an astonishing 88 of the 444 seats in Egypt’s Parliament, essentially becoming the country’s first legitimate opposition party. And of course, Hamas candidates, running on a surprisingly united platform that, by the way, barely made mention of Israel but focused instead on the incompetence and corruption of the ruling Fatah Party, swept parliamentary elections in Palestine. (This was smart politicking, as 63 percent of Palestinians who voted for Hamas rejected the group’s extreme position regarding the destruction of Israel and believed that Hamas should recognize Israel’s right to exist.) For a moment, it seemed that the political sands might be shifting across the Middle East.
The moment would not last. Under pressure both from its political allies at home and its dictatorial allies in the Arab world, the Bush administration publicly backed away from its pledge to respect the will of the electorate and more or less shut down the democracy promotion project altogether.
No one doubts the potential danger in allowing Islamist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, whose goals and aspirations do not align with America’s interests in the region, to take part in free elections. But the real danger lies in stifling the political ambitions of such groups. That is because whenever moderate Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, popular support for more extremist groups has diminished (it should be noted that Hamas is actually the more moderate of the Islamist groups in Gaza, particularly when compared to its rivals in Islamic Jihad).
Consider the case of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP), which went from being a banned opposition group into the most democratic political force the country has seen, and whose success has sapped Turkey’s more radical religious groups of their popular support. Conversely, when Islamist opposition has been suppressed, militant groups and religious extremists have gained favor. The Algerian civil war, which ravaged that country for nearly a decade in the 1990s and left an estimated 200,000 dead, is a strong case in point: The rise of the ultra-violent militant organization the Armed Algerian Group (GIA) was the direct result of the Algerian military’s decision to ban political participation by the more moderate and accommodating Islamists of Front Islamique de Salut (FIS).
The fact is that President Bush was right: Only through genuine democratic reform can the appeal of extremist groups be undermined and the tide of Muslim militancy stemmed. History has shown repeatedly that allowing such groups to participate more fully in the political process often forces them to moderate their radical ideologies (see: Likud). Thus far, predictions that electoral victories by Islamist parties would inevitably result in the demise of democracy have proved false. Indeed, the opposite is true.
Let us imagine for a moment what would have happened had Hamas been allowed to take its rightful place, albeit with certain restrictions and limitations, as the freely elected government in Palestine. Let us imagine the State Department had not financed and supervised the political campaign of Fatah, “down to the choice of backdrop color for the podium where Mr. Abbas was to proclaim victory,” as a recent column in the Christian Science Monitor claims.
Let us imagine that the United States and Israel had not banned together to blockade Gaza in an attempt to “starve the [new] Palestinian Authority of money and international connections,” as Steven Erlanger of The New York Times reported, “[so] that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement.” Is it inconceivable that Hamas would have undergone a transformation similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the AKP in Turkey, or, for that matter, Fatah itself, which was designated a terrorist entity until it became an internationally recognized political entity (and ally to the U.S. and Israel) ? Had Hamas been given the opportunity to govern and fail (as it probably would have), would it still enjoy the popular support it receives from Palestinians? Or would the people have turned against it in favor of a less ideological, more accommodating, and more effective political party—say, Fatah—much as Fatah’s egregious failures turned the Palestinian people toward Hamas? It is often said that elections do not a democracy make. True enough. However, two consecutive elections, particularly in a place like Palestine, would have been a pretty good start.
The simple fact is that democracy cannot take root in the Middle East without the participation of parties like Hamas and Hezbollah. So rather than making it impossible for the peoples of the Middle East to elect such groups into power, perhaps we should try giving them a reason not to.
Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Best, is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at University of California, Riverside and Senior Fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the international bestseller, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and the forthcoming How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.