Electing Terrorists

Developments in the Middle East over the past year raise serious questions about the Bush doctrine of protecting America's security by promoting democracy abroad.

"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," President Bush said a little over a year ago in his second Inaugural Address. That is the Bush Doctrine: The best way to protect America's security is to promote democracy abroad, particularly in the Middle East.

But developments in the Middle East over the past year raise serious questions about that doctrine. The Iranians have elected a radical president whose commitment to a nuclear weapons program threatens the security of the United States and the rest of the world. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement made gains in Lebanon's parliamentary vote. The radical Muslim Brotherhood showed electoral strength in Egypt. Elections in Iraq produced a government controlled by Shiite religious parties with armed militias and close ties to Iran.

What would happen if Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were to hold free elections? Would they elect governments less threatening to U.S. security—or more threatening?

At his January 26 press conference, Bush responded to last week's Palestinian election by saying, "Democracy can open up the world's eyes to reality." The reality is that the Palestinians voted for a radical Islamist political movement that the United States, the European Union, and Israel have labeled a terrorist organization. How does that promote peace and security?

Bush tried to argue that Palestinians were not actually voting for terrorism. He said that they were just voting for change. "Obviously, people were not happy with the status quo," he said. "If there is corruption, I'm not surprised that people say, 'Let's get rid of corruption.' If government hasn't been responsive, I'm not the least bit surprised if people say, 'I want government to be responsive.' "

Americans are familiar with anti-incumbent voting. So are Canadians. Two days before the Palestinian election, they threw the Liberal Party out of power after 12 years and elected a Conservative government led by pro-American Stephen Harper. "A Harper victory will put a smile on George W. Bush's face," a Liberal television ad warned.

Did Harper win because he is pro-American and friendly to Bush, or despite those things? "It was definitely in spite of," Canadian political analyst Dan Dunsky said. "The reason for the Conservative victory had as much to do with Liberal corruption and Liberal Party scandals as it did with the Conservative Party and the specifics of their platform." The winner acknowledged as much. "Our great country has voted for change," Harper said on Election Night. "And Canadians have asked our party to take the lead in delivering that change."

That is precisely the argument that Bush made about the Palestinian vote. Americans vote against the status quo all the time. Apparently, so do Palestinians. "A Hamas government should, first of all, put an end to unemployment," a Palestinian voter said on CNN, "and then do something about the high prices of food and fuel."

But electing radical terrorists makes a far bigger statement than simply expressing a desire for change. Are Palestinians really willing to destroy the peace process and provoke the United States in order to get better government services?

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu differs with Bush over the meaning of the Palestinian vote. "What really put [Hamas] over the top," Netanyahu said in a television interview, "was the perception in the Palestinian street that they're the ones who, using terror, drove Israel out. Israel to them showed weakness. Terror works. Therefore let's reward the forces of terror." For Netanyahu as for Bush, there is a motive behind the interpretation. Netanyahu opposed Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and is running for prime minister again in his country's March 28 election.

Now, Bush insists, Hamas must renounce extremism. "I made it very clear," Bush said, "that the United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally Israel, and that [Hamas] must renounce that part of their platform."

For the Bush Doctrine to work, holding an election isn't enough. The winners must accept the rules of democracy and abandon extremism. That's true for the Palestinian Authority, and for Iraq as well.