U.S. Underestimated Hamas’ Strength

Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian election is not surprising. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice answered her own question of "why nobody saw it coming" when she said we do "not have a good enough pulse." Professor Eytan Gilboa suggests the admitted underestimation misses the point. Professor Gilboa is right when he says the Hamas victory "reveals a major strategic deficiency in the American design for democracy in the Middle East." The bigger point, the underestimation, is how did Hamas become such an attractive alternative to the Palestinians? The validity and designs of Hamas is not the real issue but a manufactured consequence of inputs leading to the election.

Professor Gilboa, who was one of my professors, is correct when he wrote "democracy is much more than elections." They "encourage public participation in choosing leaders, but democracy is based on values, institutions and constitutions." The "values and institutions" are at the heart of the Hamas victory. The binary options available to the Palestinians were both inadequate. The "values and institutions" as created by the incumbent were dysfunctional and corrupt. Safety lacked, business suffered, and the international community was frustrated with pouring money into a blackhole without results. That’s what happens when the government is corrupt. That is the real underestimation. That is where the "values and institutions" offered by Fatah had a proven track record of failure.

Hamas, on the other hand, played into the democracy model quite well, especially as defined by the US and others. They fielded candidates and campaigned. They had a grassroots campaign that included highlighting the problems of the incumbent government. Suggesting we outlaw this party that is popular with the people is a poor demonstration of democracy. The problem, the underestimation, was how Hamas gained such popularity. The attractiveness of Hamas took many forms, from direct support to opposition to the status quo. In elections around the world, we find the same motivations. President Bush relied on anti-Clinton/Gore votes just as he relied on pro-Bush votes to get into office. Did some vote for Chirac instead of Le Pen because they loved Chirac or disliked Le Pen? There are other examples of a party or official gaining office on the demerits of the other and of the electorate just trying something new.

The American underestimation lies in the groundwork of supporting Fatah and not disrupting Hamas’ base. A parallel is the Cali Cartel in Columbia. The drug lords maintained a policy of preventing broken windows. Like the methods used to take back American inner-cities, it addresses the root causes of basic civil life. Crime prevention and encouraging and supporting the public is the path to winning hearts and minds. The drug lords built churches, schools, and roads. Hamas followed this same route to victory with a track record superior to Fatah in preventing and fixing the broken window. The United States underestimated the value of civic processes.

French-style hypocrisy to demand the exclusion of candidates does not and did not fly with the population. Our moral authority to suggest, let alone demand, alternatives was lost and we never attempted to regain it through any outreach. Where were our outreach programs to engage the population, speak to the local media, and to educate the electorate? We lost the pulse when we failed to implement cultural and public diplomatic missions.

Disarming Hamas needed to be done on several levels. The most important disarming would have been the smothering of their rhetorical firepower. They offered an alternative that was seen as viable by the electorate. The goal should have been applying subtle and soft touches to marginalize Hamas. Instead, in the war of words, Hamas won and we wonder why.

UPDATE 1 Feb 06… on 27 Jan 06 State posted the following:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections was "somewhat unexpected" but does not change the deep aspiration for peace of the Palestinian people.

In an interview with the Reuters news agency January 26, Rice said the
Hamas victory was an expression of the Palestinian people’s desire for
change from the "corruption and non-accountability and lack of
transparency" that characterized the rule of the late Palestinian
President Yasser Arafat. (See related article.)

The article continued…

“Perhaps we have to step back and remember that our own journeys to democracy were also rocky and difficult.”  (See related article.)

2 thoughts on “U.S. Underestimated Hamas’ Strength

  1. Great post, Matt – and certainly valid, save for the mostly hollow appendaged statements by Sec. Rice.That Hamas won the affection of its constituents is not much different from a Chavez being re-elected after being “coup-ed” out of office by a democratic superpower.
    Hamas did it grass-roots. They gave money to the community, supported and were true to the religious and idealistic morals of its constituency.
    But Hamas does not seem to be “freedom-loving.” The money that Hamas has instilled into the Palestinian social infrastructure comes primarily from terrorism motivated activities.
    Dr. Gilboa is a brilliant scholar, but I too have difficulty agreeing with his definitive opinions or points of view.
    But to see these same characters (Bush, Rice, etc) fail to comprehend the vicious cycle they so naively enable —
    It IS completely unfair to judge Hamas as a distastrous, irresponsible, xenophobic organization.
    They take care of their own now — but everything about their rise to power only enhances the reality of American disconnect.

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