Restraining democracy

Posted: Feb 15, 2006 11:05 PM

Our love affair with democracy is here and there unrequited. Some sixty years ago, the essayist Albert Jay Nock remarked that if you freeze a frame on a member of the American clerisy, you will find his mouth open, having uttered the syllables "demo." In the second frame, he'll have closed his mouth on the syllables "cracy."

In a desperate attempt retroactively to challenge the Palestinian election of Jan. 25, we are now contending that it was not really pure democracy, because voters were confused by the presence of third-party candidates and partnerships, all of which had the effect of augmenting the Hamas vote, etc. etc.

But the hard fact of the matter is that next Saturday, the new government of Palestine will take charge, and the majority of votes in that authority's legislature will be those of Hamas. This is an event of colossal importance in the sinuous path toward livable arrangements in the Near East. Something has to happen. Either Hamas has to be castrated, or it has to be stopped. By military action? God save us, the United States and Israel have come up with a military solution in drag.

The idea is to starve the Palestine Authority into undoing the results of its election by declining frontier payments to Palestine from Israel (they yield about $55 million a month). Simultaneously, you suspend all U.S. contributions to Palestine, leaving the authority with a mere $100,000 in monthly cash from supporters abroad. This is nickels and dimes, and in a matter of weeks, Palestine would not be able to pay the salaries of 140,000 employees critical to the maintenance of civil order.

Where do we go from there?

Well, it just happens that the French and the Russians hove in over the weekend. The rule had been, since the January election, that Hamas would need to reform its charter, which calls for the elimination of Israel. Something less than that, say the French and the Russians: If Hamas will just agree to enter into conversation with the West, without exactly renouncing its pledge to destroy Israel, that will be enough for a start. What we need is jaw jaw, to avert wah wah, as Churchill counseled in 1954.

The hulking monster in the background of all this is Iran. The mullahs there could finance the basic requirements of a Hamas-dominated Palestine with one's day's pumping of oil. This development truly horrifies the diplomats. The annexation of Hamas' program by the implacably hell-bent Iran would be a long step toward the realization of nightmare.

Then, on the other side of Israel, we are in Egypt. And there, lively in the political womb, is a bumptious child bursting to celebrate the birth of democracy in Egypt.

We are dealing with a movement that decades ago was illegalized by the Egyptian government. But the Muslim Brotherhood persisted, and in the parliamentary election last fall showed its gathering strength. Accordingly, on the same weekend in which Hamas faced economic ostracism, Mubarak announced a postponement by two years of scheduled local elections. This was a visible sign of fright -- that democracy was on the move, and that a religious organization which has engaged in violent activities threatens the plans of Mubarak, which were to hand Egypt over to his son.

Observers with minimal liberal sensibilities welcome most moves against Mubarak, but not every move against him, because he has stayed outside the clutches of the Islamic totalists and because his country was the first Mideast power to acknowledge and to respect Israeli independence. The prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood overwhelming Egypt and collaborating with the mullahs' Iran reminds us of the risks that democracy can bring.

It is a bitter pill to swallow, to see the United States and Israel forthrightly attempting to subvert democracy in Palestine. But the first law in this sermon is that democracy's fruits sometimes need either to be stillborn or else to be resisted.