The Heterodox Liberal

Monday, January 30, 2006

Lessons from the Hamas victory

Part of the job of being the loyal opposition is to occasionally offer advice to the ruling party when they've screwed up royally, in the hopes that they won't do it again and bring the whole country down with them. In this vein, I offer a few thoughts to our Republican friends on what the recent election in Palestine means for the U.S. and for the world.

1. One man's terrorist really is another man's freedom fighter. Duh.

So you know how George W. Bush says that the normal people in the Middle East feel the same way that we in the west do about the terrorists? Just last year, in fact, he proudly declared that "[t]he people of the Palestinian Territories cast their ballots against violence and corruption of the past."

Nope.

There is no question that Hamas is a violent group of terrorists, from the perspective of the west -- a perspective we all certainly share. However, we've seen now that they also have a staggering base of support in the ordinary, non-terrorist populace. What does this mean? Does it mean that the people of Palestine (and by extension all Arabs) are unabashedly pro-terrorist and need to be exterminated in some kind of post-industrial Crusades? Or does it mean that we need to take a deeper look at the situation?

I'm not sure what the short-term answer is. It's clear that the general public in the region does not have the same view of terrorist groups as do we. It is, however, more clear what the long-term answer is:

2. Stop oppressing them. I'm serious this time. Stop oppressing them, damnit! Just stop! NOW!

If groups like Hamas have such widespread support that they can actually win elections in a country that was previously staggering fairly steadily toward peace and some semblance of freedom, we can not kill all the terrorists. Ain't happening.

There's always been two basic approaches to the whole "war on terror." For simplicity, we can call them the "kill the bastards" option and the "rainbows and ponies" option.

The "kill the bastards" option is premised on the notions (which you can find in just about any Bush speech) that the terrorists are in league with or protected by various oppressors (Saddam, the Taliban, the mullahs running Iran, etc.), and basically amount to a parasite on the body politic of the nations that they come from. On this theory, military action can be used to topple the oppressive governments that shelter them (cf. the Taliban), kill the few people who are active terrorists, and then leave the people to be free. Read generously, that was the Plan in Afghanistan, and Bush claimed that plan for Iraq too (albeit falsely).

The "rainbows and ponies" option takes as its first premise the notion that terrorism is a popular movement in the countries that produce terrorists -- that, because of the sufferings that the people of those countries have experienced (plus a good dose of religious fanaticism), there is a widespread desire to strike back against more fortunate or oppressive countries, and support for those who do so. Under the "rainbows and ponies" theory, there is nothing worse than using military force to attack nations that shelter or sponsor terrorism, because that will just increase the perception of oppression by the people, and that in turn will widen the spigot of angry, disaffected fanatics to the terror movement.

On all dimensions but one, the "kill the bastards" policy seems greatly superior to "rainbows and ponies." "Kill the bastards" has the collatteral advantage of toppling dictators, it can be used as an instrument of economic policy, and it permits fairly unrestrained exercise of the national self-interest. By contrast, "rainbows and ponies" has none of these advantages, and has the serious detriment that, well, it's a bit vague on actual policy suggestions. What on earth are we to actually do to make the people stop feeling oppressed? Send them flowers, what?

Here's the problem. The premises of the "kill the bastards" approach are false. As if the situation in Iraq didn't prove that already, the Hamas election makes it conclusive. The terrorists have popular support. We can't hope to shoot them all, and the more we shoot, the more we make. "Rainbows and ponies" is the only option.

So now what?


3. Crisis = Risk + Opportunity.

And here's what we need to do right now: don't cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority. Support them. Show that we respect the judgment of the people of Palestine. Show that we still understand democracy. Show that we can work with the people of Palestine to make a world where they need not see terror as necessary. Use this election as an opportunity to demonstrate to the people of Palestine, and by extension the whole Arab world, that we can meet them on their terms, cast aside revenge, and work to help them build the kind of free society that they want, not the kind that we want. (Consistent with protecting Israel, of course.)

Can we rise to the challenge?

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