Saturday, January 28, 2006

Honest Dialogue

I guess it's predictable, but I'm somewhat irked by all of the coverage of the Palestinian elections suggesting that this result somehow signals defeat for the US's policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. I'm critical of the naivete of that policy for other reasons (primarily the fact that staging elections does not, by itself, make for a stable democratic government). But I don't see that criticism at play here. To the extent that we can successfully create democracy in the Middle East, I'm all for it. It's the implementation that I object to, not the objective. This was an exceptionally clean election, and one that signaled the importance of honest governance to the Palestinian people. Fatah symbolized the sort of corrupt and autocratic government that undermines democracy. Palestinians cleaned house on them, and now reports say that they are cleaning out their leadership. Palestine going forward will have two legitimate political parties, both of whom understand the importance of responsive, uncorrupt government to their voters, rather than deeply corrupt single-party rule. This is huge step forward for democracy in Palestine.

Moreover, I'm troubled by the assertion that because parties are elected in Middle Eastern nations that disfavor American policy (not just in Palestine; Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and Saudi Arabia as well), this means democracy is bad. I've long thought that the dynamic that the US and Israel have tried to foster in Palestine is absurd. They have rejected talks with Hamas, with Arafat and Fatah, basically with anyone who could legitimately claim to represent the Palestinian people. Instead they would rather hand-pick a representative for Palestine (Abbas) and speak only with him. Indeed, they would frequently grow upset with Abbas for failing to bring the other Palestinians to heel. But how could he? He had no power over them, no democratic legitimacy. Fatah didn't respect him, Hamas didn't respect him, and I doubt the Palestinian people did either. How could he purport to speak on their behalf? How is it supposed to work that an agent in a negotiation is hand-picked by the adversaries of his principals? Under what theory of agency is this legitimate? It's absurd. Even if Israel had reached an agreement with Abbas, it could hardly have been expected to meaningfully bind the Palestinians.

The US and Israel may not like the actual positions of Palestinians, but they cannot hope to produce progress if they refuse to even address them. The important thing in these various elections is not that the party who favors American policy should win, but that the party who accurately represents the views of the voters should win. It's the voters we need to worry about and be engaged with, not politicians. Engaging in dialogue with politicians is important only to the extent that they are effective representatives of their constituents. If the general populace of the Middle East dislikes American policy, that is not a fact that can be swept under the rug based on models of governance. We have had many US-friendly dictators around the Middle East, and it has not solved our problems. In fact it has made them worse by allowing us to ignore legitimate complaints of the general populace. There needs to be honest dialogue, and that can only happen when there are political leaders who can truly represent the interests of their people. To the extent that elections like the one in Palestine produce that, we are all better off.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

Agreed, and very well said. I too was shocked by how negatively the Hamas political win was portrayed. I really do see this as a significant win for US policy. Why? As I hinted at in a previous comment, engaging an organization such as Hamas in the political process is probably the most effective way to neutralize their militancy. More importantly, the Palestinian people (hopefully) now have the sense that they are in control of their own destiny. They had a successful election, they have multiple parties to choose from, and they can change things if necessary. As long as Israel and the US don't get in the way (providing a wonderful scapegoat), then the Palestinian government, including Hamas, will finally be subject to the scrutiny of its people.