After Palestinian Vote, U.S. Democracy Campaign Questioned

The United States, declared President Bush in his 2005 inaugural address, seeks to "support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Later this month the State Department will release it annual report on U.S. efforts to support human rights and democracy.

This is the first in a series of occasional posts on media reaction to American democracy-building in different countries.

The Bush administration's campaign for democracy in the Arab world has hit a bumpy road in the Palestinian territories in and around Israel.

After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament in January in an election that observers certified as free and fair, the U.S. push for democracy lost some energy, as The Washington Post put it. Demanding that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel, the Bush administration is now seeking to curtail the Palestinian government's access to tax revenues and international aid.

The Bush administration, reported the New York Times (payment required), wants to force Hamas from power. U.S. officials haven't officially stated any such intention, but continue to shun the Palestinians' elected leaders. The London-based Al Quds Al Arabi (in Arabic) reported yesterday that U.S. officials cautioned independent Palestinians such as Finance Minister Salam Fayyad not to join a Hamas-led government.

At the same time, U.S. continues to support democracy building efforts in Palestinian areas. In recent years, the State Department has helped write Palestinian election laws, modernize the judicial system and fund scores of civil society organizations promoting human rights and the rule of law.

When Scott Carpenter, a deputy assistant secretary of state, answered questions on Islam Online, readers hammered him with questions about the reality of the U.S. commitment to supporting Palestinian democracy. Islam Online is a news and opinion site based in the United Arab Emirates and overseen by Yusuf Qaradawi, a Muslim scholar and Aljazeera TV talk show host who presents himself as a link between traditionalists and modernizers in the Muslim world.

"The United States is not really interested in democracy - just in controlling the leaders in a place where there is a lot of oil," said Asif, a software engineer, in the online chat with Carpenter.

One leading Arabic daily also questioned the coherence of Washington's democracy policy.

"If democracy is expressed through the ballot boxes," asked As Safir, an independent Arabic daily in Beirut, "is it permissible to describe the resisting Palestinian factions as terrorists even though they have asserted their credibility and the people's support for them by gaining the votes of the Palestinian masses?

"The truth is that the Western countries' position is greatly contradictory."

On the Israeli right, Zalman Shoval, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, rejected the notion that promoting democracy in the Middle East advances U.S. or Israeli interests.

"Washington is so imbued with the conviction that democratic elections will remove all the obstacles from the path of freedom and peace everywhere that it sometimes loses sight not only of realities in certain parts of the world but also of history," he wrote for a conservative Israeli think tank.

Palestinian voters, he warns, "may have to pay the price for giving Hamas victory in the recent elections, knowing full well for whom they were voting."

In Europe, Il Giornale (in Italian), a conservative newspaper owned by the family of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, says the West must learn to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic party popular in many countries, of which Hamas in an offshoot. The Brotherhood is too popular to be ignored, they say. "Excluding them from the elections means very simply abandoning democracy in the Arab world."

Furthermore, U.S. demands for democratic behavior are inconsistent, according to two journalists of Palestinian descent who run the Electronic Intifada Web site.

Ali Abunimah and Arjan El Fassed say Israel has not been asked to renounce violence or recognize a Palestinian government. In any case, they say democracy cannot take root under Israeli occupation. Israel's recent raid on a Jericho jail to capture Palestinians accused of involvement in a political assassination "demonstrates once again the fiction that there is a functioning Palestinian 'government' in the occupied territories," they write. Palestinians continue to live "under full Israeli military dictatorship."

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist who describes himself as an "enthusiastic" supporter of Bush's democracy mission, says U.S. officials lost their zeal for democracy when the results did not please them.

"The US has shown that it is unable to deal with the democratic game," he writes. "Attempts to economically blackmail Palestinians into refraining from electing Hamas have badly backfired leaving the Bush administration and its democracy theme in major trouble."

Not so, said the State Department's Carpenter. "We praise the election process but do not have to live with the resultant policies just because Hamas was elected, Carpenter said. "Elections, like all the choices we make, have consequences."

Those consequences, media commentators throughout the Middle East note, have called into question the U.S. commitment to building democracy in Palestinian society.

Recent Post Coverage of the democracy building campaign:


Push for "Democracy Loses Some Energy" (Feb. 25, 2006)
U.S. Policy "Seen as Big Loser In Palestinian Vote" (Jan. 28, 2006)


The Post's editor on ""The Case for Democracy""
Jackson Diehl: ""Caught Between Bullets and Ballots""
EJ Dionne: "Two Elections and a Lesson"


David Ignatius talks to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah


Tom Carothers of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "The Backlash Against Democracy Promotion."

By Jefferson Morley |  March 17, 2006; 9:23 AM ET  | Category:  Democracy , Mideast
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What the president is doing is not a push for Democracy. It's like one of two things. It falls along the lines of the conservative stance on abortion, no you cannot have one but once you bring the kid into this world don't ask us for help. They give people a reason for democracy based on their beliefs of the term and once the transformation has happened they are left to fend for themselves with no help for transformation.

Secondly, paraphrasing the Jurist Grotius, the spread of democracy is always the justification for unjust wars. The administration has hijacked, yet again, a meaningful concept and institution to advance its foreign policy agenda. If it's in the name of democracy then it must be right. The Cold War is over. We are not fighting for control of countries we are now fighting for the minds of individuals to deny the evils of radical ideology. Pre-emtive wars and invasions are no way to win this new war.

I'm sure that if the reasons for "the spread of democracy" failed that this administration would come up with some other justification. Just like it is continuing to do with Iraq.

Posted by: BigB | March 17, 2006 11:04 AM

One piece of anti-conventional wisdom that I think needs to be emphasized is that democracy CAN be imposed. I mean we just did it in two countries. However, of course there is a difference between democracy (the selection of leaders by popular ballot) on one hand and things such as civil society, rule of law, and individual freedoms on the other (this is what I mean by liberalism). Liberalism is not the same thing as democracy.

I know this is all a bit pedantic, and maybe most people mean 'liberal democracy', when they say 'democracy', but it is important to distinguish between these two concepts. Why? Well for one thing it is the advance of liberalism that will do much to take the wind out of (what's the right word) totalitarian Islam. Of course the advance of liberalism is to some degree what totalitarian Islam sees as its greatest threat. Will the advance of democracy have the same effect? As we are seeing, not necessarily; especially in the short term.

Well should be abandon democracy? No. This is because there is one thing that democracy (liberal or otherwise) does fairly well (especially compared to the alternatives): Establish a government that is viewed as legitimate. (Of course imposing it lessens this advantage a great deal). This is important because it a government is going to be making compromises or working towards reconciliation it is critical that the people of that country view their leaders as legitimate. I mean do people really think that PLO and Fatah, without Arafat, had enough legitimacy to broker any kind of real compromise that would stick? Of course Hamas isn't about to make serious compromises, but at least the Palestinian government now more accurately portrays the views of the Palestinian people, and when the time comes -- when there is an opportunity for reconciliation -- that future government's signature will actually mean something to its people.

So, of course supporting liberalism (at home and abroad) is extremely important. However democracy, even without liberalism, is a also an important ideal to support.

Posted by: David George Ferguson | March 17, 2006 11:19 AM




Posted by: JOEB | March 17, 2006 11:28 AM

The Arab world should recognize that democracy is not an end in itself. The US has a legitimate interest in affecting the policies of other nations, democracies or not. When a democratic nation has policies that are not in the US interest, the US is obligated to counter those policies. Just as we fought Hitler (Who came to power in democratic Germany) we will do the same today.

Posted by: Andy Baivier | March 17, 2006 12:02 PM

David is right. When Americans use the term "democracy," we generally mean liberal democracy--where not only do you have the right to express yourself politically through the right to vote, but numerous other individual rights are protected. Democracy without liberalism is not meaningful democracy. It's rather doubtful that Hamas will embrace liberalism.

It should come as no surpise, then, that the US Government is disappointed with (and does not fully accept) the results of some of the democratic elections in the Middle East. Of course, many would argue (probably correctly) that the results themselves should come as no surprise.

Posted by: LWP | March 17, 2006 01:29 PM

It is tiresome to read or hear diatribes against groups of people or religions.There is nothing wrong with Muslims, Christians, and Jews in general. However, in any group or religion, there are zealots capable of the most horrendous crimes. I have traveled a bit and have found many people to admire in every country I have visited. I have also found a few people who I couldn't stand.
As to President Bush, he wouldn't know democracy if it jumped up and bit him. He routinely seeks to circumvent the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For him democracy means allowing private enterprise the freedom to rape the globe. If our elected representatives in Congress had any respect for democracy, he would have been impeached years ago. The Bush administration, as a whole, is a collection of incompetent idiots with a bumbling foreign policy that is likely to get us all killed.

Posted by: P. J. Casey | March 17, 2006 02:18 PM

In essence, democracy is the rule of the people, by the people, for the people. It is none of the next door neighbour's business, let alone that of any bully from the other end of the world or from outer space.

Posted by: Robert Rose | March 17, 2006 02:24 PM

I am having a difficult time why do people think that Islam is to blame for the actions of Talibans or Fanatics who associate themselves with Islam.

There are Jerry Fallwell's in every religion. Attacking Soverign countries on false pretext, Is that a Christian value or Democratic value?

Posted by: Go-GWU | March 17, 2006 03:32 PM

To Go-GWU...
People think that Islam is to blame because the Taliban & fanatics make their attacks in the name of Islam.

Jerry Fallwell (whom I don't particularly care for) has not kidnapped or beheaded anyone in the name of Christianity.

Attacking Soverign countries who have a history of attacking other nations (remember Kuwait?) and may have weapons of mass destruction (oops, bad intelligence) is neither Christian or Democratic. It's just common sense. Disarm them and end the threat.

Posted by: Just Joe | March 17, 2006 07:06 PM

To Just Joe:
My ancestors used to attack Kingdoms all the time in the name of the Christian diety and beheadings were some of the least of their services rendered unto God. Just because it hasn't happened in the last 30 days doesn't mean it has never happened.

As for your comment about Kuwait; until a former colonial power started drawing lines in the sand in that part of the world, what we now call Kuwait was once part of Iraq.

Now your last paragraph I find very interesting. The one where you say it is common sense to disarm soverign countries possessing weapons of mass destruction that have a history of attacking other nations. Tell me, which country do you propose disarm the United States?

Posted by: Wilhelm | March 17, 2006 08:14 PM

It is unfortunate that there is not a working definition of "democracy" that binds all commentators. Without that, most people here are just talking past each other, using their personal idea of "democracy" as the basis for their arguments.
Personally, to me "democracy" is a procedural system for the selection of successive government officers by popular election. In and of itself, the word does not address substantive rights of citizens. A democratically chosen government can adopt official programs that are genocidal US-Native Americans, Germany-Jews and others) and inhumane (US-slavery and Black Codes, South Africa-apartheid, Israel-excessive militarism) - but such programs do not change the character of the government as democratically chosen.
The terms "liberal" "illiberal" etc. as descriptive of the degree of substantive rights a government allows to its citizens are useless because no-one knows what these words imply. Germany and Austria restrict freedom of expression - are they "liberal" democracies? Israel officially practices discrimination with regard to government benefits and programs, against its non-Jewish citizens - is it a "liberal" democracy?
Some citizen rights are fundamental - and they may be present in non-democracies, such as freedom of expression, religious freedom, equality under the laws, etc. So, can we have a "liberal" monarchy? Or even a "liberal" dictatorship?
To the point, the Palestinian people have fairly and freely chosen their government. The joint US/Israeli program of military occupation must either discontinue occupation (entirely) or fully support the Palestinian democracy chosen under occupation. The occupiers may not legitimately continue the occupation and at the same time destroy the government chosen by the occupied people on the pretext that "Now the Palestinians must go it alone if they want Hamas". If they must go it alone, then quit their land and let them "go it alone".

Posted by: Timothy L | March 17, 2006 08:32 PM

Lets not assume colonialism is an exclusive Western invention. Islamic Arabs had a vast empire that reached from Spain to India for about a 1000 years. The radical Jihadists are not fighting against "Colonialism", just "Western colonialism". They are not fighting for freedom, pluralism and self determination. They are fighting to create a new worldwide Caliphate empire were the Koran is the final authority, not the will of the people or some jeffersonian constitution. We have to convince the moderate Muslims that there is an alternative to the Jihadists' agenda, or God help us.

Posted by: J.M. | March 17, 2006 09:03 PM


A few responses to your points.

1. The Crusades were hundreds of years ago. While Christianity is still, in my opinion, a bizarre (though beautiful in its own way) religion, it has evolved enough to exist reasonably well within modern liberal democracy (yes, Timothy, in educated circles people do know what it means to modify the term democracy with liberal, and in all Western countries it essentially means the same thing). The problem is Islam--or, more precisely, most of its adherents--has not evolved so well.

I'm not suggesting that's necessarily intrinsic to Islam. I don't know the answer to that issue. Certainly historical forces--e.g., colonialism and imperialism--had some role. Whatever the causes, though, it appears to be a religion in which a critical mass of its adherents are not very well adjusted to the modern world.

2. Are you suggesting that Iraq had a historical and, therefore, legitimate claim to Kuwait? Hmm...just how far are you willing to extend that principle?

3. Though I suppose your question was rhetorical, it's quite obvious that no country could disarm the United States. What's more, despite the U.S.'s occasional bad acts and blunders, it would not be in the interests of most of the rest of the world--most importantly, the world's liberal democracies--to see it disarmed.

If you think the world would be just one big beautiful love-in if only the U.S. were disarmed, ask yourself how much you would like the prospect of a world order dominated by China and Russia.

If you're sitting somewhere comfortably in Western Europe or Canada and can't really conceive of that as a problem (because, perhaps, after 60 years you've become so accustomed to enjoying the protection of America's security umbrella that you've forgotten that it exists), ask yourself what the people in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Republics, India, Japan, South Korea, the Phillipines, Taiwan, and Mongolia might think of such a world. I doubt they would relish it as much as you might.

Posted by: LWP | March 17, 2006 10:09 PM

It's so ludicrous to think that the U.S., of all nations, would have the gall to try to "impose" "democracy" on other countries when it is so sorely lacking in democracy itself. A country with pathetic turnout at elections, a cheerleading, jingoistic news media that largely toes the government line, an ill-educated electorate that chose to re-elect a proven liar to its presidency... no, this is hardly the country we should look to when seeking to disseminate democratic principles around the world. George Soros got it right: if there is any nation in the world that is sorely in need of democracy right now, it is the United States of America. Please, solve your own problems before you come overseas and impose your half-baked solutions on the rest of us.

Posted by: Gustav | March 18, 2006 11:15 PM

On this third anniversary of the war on Iraq; at a time when the impetus of the war is globally debated, reexamined, and protested, I am somehow reminded of a story I read around the first couple of months after the invasion. The story was about a grieving old man who lost his son and grandchildren in the bombing of Baghdad...who was quoted saying something to this effect: "O' God, I don't ask You to unleash Your Wrath on them, for there are good people among them. I only ask you to expose their hypocrisy and ill intention"!

Jefferson Morley’ piece illustrates how the credibility of a nation that only a few years earlier was known as a champion for freedom, democracy, and human rights is now shattered….

Can the US credibility be repaired?

The apparent answer is: not without paradigm shift!

Abukar Arman

Posted by: abukar arman | March 19, 2006 10:55 PM

"Now your last paragraph I find very interesting. The one where you say it is common sense to disarm soverign countries possessing weapons of mass destruction that have a history of attacking other nations. Tell me, which country do you propose disarm the United States?"

Well said Wilhelm!

Posted by: Zain | March 20, 2006 07:36 AM


"We have to convince the moderate Muslims that there is an alternative to the Jihadists' agenda, or God help us."

You do not have to convince moderate Muslims of the danger and evil of fundamentalist Islam. You have to convince your governments to consult moderate Muslims and consider their opinions and ideas to counter this threat, instead of barging ahead with whatever ‘fixes’ your culture considers appropriate. What works in the West will not necessarily work in the Muslim world (At least in the short term).

Posted by: Zain | March 20, 2006 07:46 AM


"If you think the world would be just one big beautiful love-in if only the U.S. were disarmed, ask yourself how much you would like the prospect of a world order dominated by China and Russia."

This particular argument touting the United States past exploits, inevitably comes up any time its current role and actions are questioned. Past actions should not be a ‘get out of jail free’ card or provide carte blanch for future policy. In the current geopolitical situation it is perfectly legitimate and necessary to question U.S policy and intentions. A world order dominated by Russia and China may not have been the rosiest outlook for the world, but lets not allow one set of bullies be replaced by another.
This anathema to criticism that the Bush administration, Republicans and other supporters of U.S policy have is akin to the intolerance shown by certain dictators in the developing world.

Posted by: Zain | March 20, 2006 08:08 AM

if you want peace in the middle east,you are going to have to move jerusalem to some island in the middle of the ocean some where far far away.since that is impossible,well we see the results.

Posted by: robert | March 20, 2006 07:25 PM

American pro-democracy campaign? Isn't that an oxymoron?
Just ask the Nicaraguans, Chileans, Dominicans, Iranians or citizens of any of the many other nations whose democratically elected governments were overthrown and had vicious dictatorships imposed on them by the United States of America.
No, we have no lessons to learn about democracy from the United States of America.

Posted by: Juan | March 21, 2006 09:14 PM

I find it curious Americans are cheering on the Bush Administration and the GOP controlled Senate and Congress as they spend billions of their hard earned dollars "spreading democracy" in other parts of the world. There is a festering time-bomb that's only now starting to catch up to some - the fact that those billions of dollars now being poured into the military-industrial establishment are supposed to be America's retirement funds. That was the “social contract” the founding fathers made with their constituents – not one of international military intervention. But alas, by the time most wake up to the startling revelation that America has been subjected to the biggest bank heist in history, the perpetrators will be long gone - along with your money.

By the time the dust settles, the Great Depression will be like a walk in the garden compared to what’s coming.

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