January 27, 2006
The sweeping victory by the terrorist organization Hamas in the parliamentary elections in Palestine has caused great angst in Washington. What went wrong?? The axiomatic notion that democracies are more peaceful is one of the few broad points of agreement between Washington policy circles and academia. Even the Bush administration and its neoconservative policy advisers parrot this line, hardly ever bothering to distinguish between liberal democracies like ours, and illiberal democracies such as Venezuela. In the latter case, there are few if any constitutional constraints on government power, so whoever wins the election can run roughshod over his opponents. The process of insitutionalizing liberal constitutional norms takes decades or even centuries. U.Va.'s Prof. John Owen (author of Liberal War, Liberal Peace) is one of those who does make a clear distinction in this regard, emphasizing that liberal regimes tend not to fight one another, even though they may be quite prone to attacking illiberal regimes. That is different than saying they themselves are inherently more peaceful; it would be more accurate to say that liberal communities of nations (Western Europe, North America) are more peaceful.
Today's lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal wisely points out that the Hamas victory "may even have the long-run benefit of educating Palestinians about the terrible cost of their political choices." It also reminds us of the real reason for the collapse of the peace process: "Ever since its return to the Palestinian territories in the mid-1990s following the Oslo 'peace' accords, Fatah has fed Palestinians on a diet of extremist, anti-Semitic propaganda." In other words, the Palestine Liberation Organization and its political wing Fatah were the embodiment of Islamofascism par excellence. (And to think Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize.) Given the choice between corrupt, cynical, inconsistent terrorists versus grimly determined terrorists, it's not hard to understand the result.
Before we start bewailing the failure of embryonic democratization to bring instantaneous peace, let us remember why democracies are generally associated with successful development, over the long run: First, they institutionalize uncertainty, which implies (among other things) that the incentives for businessmen to bribe government officials are greatly reduced, because you can't be sure if Bureaucrat X will still be in office next year. Second, they create a built-in steering mechanism that allows for periodic shifts in policy in response to changed circumstances, encouraging innovative practices, while punishing elected leaders who consistently fail to deliver on their promises. (Indeed, the Latin root word gubernare means "to steer," as in a ship.) Dictatorships tend to rot over time because differences of opinion are systematically repressed. For the Palestinians, the experience of having their nascent country be "steered" by fanatical mass murderers will be a rude awakening that will teach them a dear lesson. As the WSJ suggested, it may be just the jolt they need to get a genuine liberal-minded reform party started.