‘Healthy’ and ‘Interesting’

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Who Says Things Are Going Awry?

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

I was watching US President George W Bush during a live televised press conference as he was trying to give his interpretation of the victory of the radical Hamas movement in the Palestinian elections. And I was feeling kind of embarrassed for my president as he was making an effort to communicate to the world the "talking points" his spinners had provided him.

To be honest, I almost felt like hiding under my bed as Bush in a series of incoherent statements was attempting to turn another major US foreign policy disaster that has brought into power anti-American forces in Palestine into a showcase in "spreading democracy."

Here was the highlight in the president’s remarks: "And so the elections should open the eyes of the old guard there in the Palestinian territories. I like the competition of ideas. I like people who have to go out and say, ‘vote for me, and here’s what I’m going to do.’ There’s something healthy about a system that does that. And so the elections yesterday were very interesting."

Now let’s see. Is that the "old guard" that included Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah movement to which the Bush administration, according to the Washington Post, had provided US$2 million so as to increase the popularity of the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the eve of crucial elections in which the governing party was facing a serious challenge from the radical Hamas?

So should Americans be satisfied that the "old guard" they supported lost the election? Competition of ideas? Well, the "ideas" represented by Hamas include in addition to the destruction of Israel also proposals that could erode the rights of women and non-Christians.

What exactly is so "healthy" and so "interesting" in a process that could lead to final collapse of the little that remains of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and that could hurt US interests and certainly won’t promote Western liberal values in the region?

It’s important to recall that both Israeli and Palestinian officials frantically lobbied the Bush administration in the weeks leading to the election for the postponement of the parliamentary vote in the West Bank and Gaza, noting that polls pointed to the rising power of Hamas.

Why not wait a few months and try to improve the economic conditions in the territories and perhaps restart the peace process before holding the election?

But Condoleezza Rice, America’s top cheerleader for the Democracy Crusade in the Middle East, was dismissive of those Middle Eastern naysayers.

"Holding free and fair Palestinian Legislative Council elections on Jan 25 represents a key step in the process of building a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state," Rice said in a Jan 11 statement. "Development of a Palestinian democracy based on tolerance and liberty is a key element of the Roadmap," she insisted.

You have to believe that if you build a democracy, they will come. And on Jan 24 they, the Hamas, did come.

Rice’s comments as well as other statements by US officials on the eve of the election suggest that the Bushies were quite confident that Hamas would not win the election. The worst-case scenario that they had drawn predicted a possible increase in power by the Islamists but assumed that Fatah would form the next Palestinian government.

Indeed, Bush’s comments and body language in his post-election press conference indicate that he and his aides were indeed surprised, if not shocked, that Hamas had won such an impressive victory, including in a secular urban center like Ramallah.

These how-did-that-happen reactions by US officials point to the first intelligence failure — "intelligence," like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — of the Bush administration. Recall that during investigations of the intelligence failures that preceded 9/11 and the Iraq WMD fiasco, US officials defended themselves by arguing that there was not enough "human intelligence" or "humnit" on Al Qaeda and Iraq.

You know, it was so difficult to penetrate those tribal areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan or to get into Saddam’s "inner circle." But what about the West Bank, Gaza and Israel? We are talking here about the most "penetrated" piece of land on this earth.

Hundreds of media organizations, NGOs, diplomatic services, businessmen, religious institutions, and, yes, spooks roam the Holy Land where an American passport and US dollars can buy you almost anything.

In fact, it’s not a secret that some of the top Palestinian officials were receiving stipends from the CIA, not to mention the fact that some of the research institutes, polling companies and other outlets in the Palestinian territories were getting funding from the United States and the European Union.

Any Arab-American working for the US intelligence services could settle in the West Bank and Gaza, where the population is multilingual and where everyone likes to talk with foreigners.

So what exactly was the problem? Why couldn’t the Americans figure out the electoral trends among the Palestinians and reach the conclusion that Fatah was finished and that Hamas was going to win? Perhaps another Congressional investigation committee will figure that out and recommend the creation of a new federal agency that would be able to get things right in the next Palestinian election.

The second "intelligence" failure is even more serious and has to do with the wisdom of the Bush administration’s crusade to spread democracy and freedom in the Middle East — by which it means, it seems, the holding of elections.

The Bush administration has already celebrated the carrying out of elections in Iraq that brought to power a coalition of Arab-Shiite clerics with ties to Iran (where, let’s not forget, Iranians elected a radical Islamist as president), and strengthened the power of Kurdish secessionists while radicalizing the Arab-Shiite community.

Is that an outcome that one could expect from a "healthy" and "interesting" process? At the same time, American pressure on Egypt forced its government to hold free (well, sort of) elections that strengthened the power of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, the ideological allies of Hamas, while the recent election in Lebanon increased the influence of the anti-American radical Hizbollah.

And now there is talk about the need to "democratize" and hold elections in Syria.

To put it differently, the policy of promoting free elections in the Middle East has been tested in several places and seemed to have produced results that run contrary to core US interests and values. Isn’t it time to reassess this policy?

The conclusion shouldn’t be that Washington shouldn’t encourage the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Instead, US policymakers should consider the proposition that before holding free elections in these countries, the US and its allies should help accelerate the process of economic development and the creation of institutions of civil society, such as an independent judiciary.

That could create the conditions for a "healthy" exchange of ideas. Indeed, what the Middle East needs are not "interesting" elections but a viable and intelligent system that will help stir the region towards long-term structural economic and political reforms.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit his blog.

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