Who Says Things Are Going Awry?

I was watching U.S. 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 attempted to turn another major U.S. foreign policy disaster that has brought into power anti-American forces in Palestine into a showcase for "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 $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, 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 the final collapse of what little remains of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, hurt U.S. 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 up 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. 25 they, Hamas, did come.

Rice’s comments, as well as other statements by U.S. 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 U.S. officials point to the first intelligence failure – "intelligence," as in 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, U.S. officials defended themselves by arguing that there was not enough "human intelligence," or "humint," 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 earth.

Hundreds of media organizations, NGOs, diplomatic services, businessmen, religious institutions, and, yes, spooks roam the Holy Land, where an American passport and U.S. 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 U.S. intelligence services could settle in the West Bank and Gaza, where the population is multilingual and 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 Hamas was going to win? Perhaps another congressional investigative committee will figure that out and recommend the creation of a new federal agency that’s 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 Shi’ite 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 Sunni community.

Is that an outcome one would 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, the ideological allies of Hamas, while the recent election in Lebanon increased the influence of the anti-American, radical Hezbollah.

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 seems to have produced results that run contrary to core U.S. 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, U.S. policymakers should consider the proposition that before holding free elections in these countries, the U.S. and its allies should help accelerate the process of economic development and the creation of civil society institutions, 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 spur the region toward long-term, structural economic and political reforms.

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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