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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 6, 2006

White House blinded by wishful thinking

By Trudy Rubin

I still can't believe she said it.

Our highly intelligent secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, actually said the following about the Hamas victory that jolted U.S. policy in the Middle East: "I've asked why nobody saw it coming. It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."

Madame Secretary, many people foresaw a Hamas triumph in Palestinian elections. The fact that you missed the obvious is shocking. How can we beat terrorism and exit Iraq with honor when the administration lets ideology trump common knowledge and common sense?

The Bush infatuation with Mideast democracy seems to have blinded his team to the basic realities of the region. The president insists that establishing Arab democracies is key to fighting terrorism. He compares this struggle to Ronald Reagan's push for freedom in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

He echoes the thesis of Natan Sharansky, the Israeli political leader, whose book "The Case for Democracy" debunks those who say Arabs can't build democratic governments. Sharansky insists that promoting Mideast democracy is a matter of backing good vs. evil.

That certainly matches the Bush mind-set. The president has touted elections in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian territories. Yet the White House has been consistently startled by the results.

In each election, Islamic religious parties or candidates made powerful showings. In Iraq, Islamic parties won the largest share of votes, and the party of the one-time Pentagon favorite, liberal Ahmad Chalabi, won no seats at all. In Egypt, Muslim Brothers would have won had they been allowed to campaign freely, and got one-fifth of the seats even under pressure. In Lebanon, Hezbollah on the U.S. terrorist list did extremely well. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas also on the terrorist list won.

None of this was surprising to anyone familiar with the region. The Middle East can't replicate the East European model. Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc., had long cultural and religious ties to the West and some democratic experience. The region has almost none, nor does it have the civic institutions that make democracies work.

In the Middle East, liberal political parties appeal only to a narrow slice of the educated elite. Broad secular movements such as Arab socialism and communism, which drew their ideologies from the West, were popular from the '50s through the '70s. These secular ideologies have been discredited for failing to deliver better lives.

In recent years, Arabs have been drawn to the argument that Islamic parties offer a better answer. Religious parties are able to organize underground, despite repressive rulers.

Islamic parties provide vital charity to the poor, as Hamas did in Gaza and the West Bank. In contrast to the Palestinian Fatah party, they have the reputation of being clean.

All this should have been known to anyone in an administration not blinded by wishful thinking. Yet the Pentagon was convinced that the secular Chalabi would be welcomed back by Iraqis to lead his country. The White House was stunned by the triumph of Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brothers.

And Rice didn't foresee the likely outcome of Palestinian elections, even though U.S. policy practically guaranteed that Hamas would do well. The Bush administration fully backed the decision of Ariel Sharon to pull out unilaterally from Gaza. Most Palestinians believed this pullout was meant to solidify Israel's hold on the West Bank, and to avoid any return to negotiations on forming a Palestinian state.

Had the White House wanted to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and undercut Hamas, it would have urged Israel to give Abbas some credit for the pullout. Palestinians would have voted for Abbas' Fatah party had they thought talks would restart.

Instead, the White House remained passive. President Bush insisted, against all logic, that the pullout would create an opportunity "for democracy to emerge" in impoverished, lawless Gaza. Palestinians knew better. Absent talks, they voted for Hamas because Fatah was corrupt and inept.

Back in July, I wrote that "a unilateral Gaza pullout would only help Hamas." It didn't take a rocket scientist to foresee that. Promoting Mideast democracy for the long term is vital, but not if the White House romanticizes benefits and ignores the risks.

The problem isn't with the administration's pulse, it's with its brain.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach her at trubin@phillynews.com.