The Israelis didn't want Palestinian elections back in January 2006. Even Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, had been worried about them and kept asking for delays. As early as the spring of 2005, Abbas had warned American officials that he did not have the popular support to disarm Hamas, the Islamist party that turned suicide terror bombings into a standard tactic in Israel and which both Abbas and the Israelis saw was growing in power. But Bush administration officials insisted, confident of the curative powers of democracy. Later, after Hamas stunned the world by winning control of the Palestinian Parliament, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed: "Nobody saw it coming."
The line could describe much of what has resulted from George W. Bush's efforts to transform the world—or at least one part of it, the Middle East. As long as the Islamists of Hamas refused to recognize Israel, the United States refused to deal with the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government. The hope was not that ordinary Palestinians would suffer, but that they would realize such a government was not in their best interests. At the same time Washington tried to bolster Abbas and his Fatah movement—the secular Palestinian party founded by Yasir Arafat. The strategy backfired. America was seen to be taking sides. Hamas, under pressure, built up its own paramilitary forces to counter those controlled by Abbas (and trained by the United States). Then, last week, as tit-for-tat killings in Gaza spiraled out of control, those Hamas fighters in Gaza turned out to be far more fierce than their better-funded opponents. The result: the radicals are now in charge of Gaza, a 140-square-mile strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea along Israel's western border that is packed with 1.4 million Palestinians, most of them desperately poor. Until late 2005 Gaza was occupied by Israeli troops, and until last week Bush still saw it as part of the new Palestinian state he wanted to create along with the larger West Bank. Now Gaza may become Hamas's private enclave and perhaps even an ungovernable font of terror.
The violent takeover of Gaza by Hamas is not just a death knell for Israeli-Palestinian peace, splitting Bush's dream of a Palestinian state into two armed camps. It is also, along with the quagmire in Iraq, a historic rebuff. In his second Inaugural Address, the president embraced the promotion of democracy as his top priority, declaring: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." But in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, as in Russia, Pakistan and other places, liberty is retreating. And the fact remains that those places where Washington has most actively and directly pushed for elections—Iraq, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza—are today the most factionalized, chaotic and violent in the region.
Why does the disaster in Gaza matter? In part because the defeat of the secular—and more moderate—Fatah forces could, along with the insurgents' success in Iraq, inspire Islamist radicals in the region and around the world. Hamas is not the Taliban, and it knows that an uptick in rocket attacks against Israel will be met with a harsh response. But, as Bush said in his second Inaugural, the whole point of promoting freedom is to blunt the hopelessness and anger that breed radicalism. Gaza faces 50 percent unemployment in the best of times. Qaeda-like splinter groups that have carried out kidnappings of foreigners have already begun to appear. Further isolating the territory is not likely to fill its residents with faith in the future.
Citizens of countries where Washington has called for greater democracy—Iran, say, or Syria—now have three less-than-inspiring examples close to home. In Lebanon, Iranian-backed Hizbullah reigns as a power unto itself. In Iraq, the sect-based parties that came to power in the 2005 elections have created a bloody nightmare, and stymied any attempts to forge a truly national consensus. And in the Palestinian territories, Washington simply rejected the election results.
Optimists in Israel and America argue that Abbas, having dismissed the Hamas-led Palestinian government, is now free to receive millions in aid money and customs revenues that had been held back. The idea seems to be to bolster the wealthier, less radicalized West Bank and starve Gaza (of attention and respectability, if not food). But simply walling off Gaza, and more than a million Palestinians, will bring the region no closer to peace. In a recent interview with NEWSWEEK, Rice said that establishing the idea of a "two-state solution" was one of her proudest achievements. "You now have a broad international consensus," she said. "That's a conceptual breakthrough." What she's left with now, at best, is a one-and-a-half-state solution.
Gaza also poses a lesson in the limits of imperial power in the 21st century. Let's face it: Americans have always made crummy imperialists. A century ago Teddy Roosevelt complained that "America lacked the stomach for empire." A senior White House official echoed that lament early in the Iraq occupation, noting that America has the power of a true empire, like Rome or like Britain in the 19th century, but not the taste for acting like one. "Look at us in Iraq—how much difficulty we have in saying we will anoint people to run the country. Does anyone think the Romans or the Brits would have been deterred?" he grumbled.
Nor did many hard-liners in Washington ever fully understand that using raw power to "impose" democracy on peoples who were not ready to seize it for themselves was a chimera. By insisting on cure-all elections in countries and territories that had no institutions of justice and security, or a politically aware economic middle class, to sustain democracy, the Bush team clearly seems to have overreached.
The next American president will have to grapple with a Middle East that is messier and quite possibly angrier than before 9/11. But also, in a larger sense, he or she will have to confront anew a harsh lesson in the limits of power. America can only be, at best, a guiding hand behind an international system that is disposed to democracy and open markets. Bush is himself coming to acknowledge this, especially by maintaining a multilateral front with the Europeans to deal with the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice, in her NEWSWEEK interview, acknowledged that the administration had scaled down its hopes for "transformational" policy. "We're laying the foundations for someone else to succeed in the future, and I think that's fine." But right now, success looks very far away indeed.