- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2006

The Palestinian prime minister, Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, is shocked. He claims that without his government’s knowledge, the until-now unknown terrorist group Holy Jihad Brigades kidnapped two Western journalists (who have since been released) in Gaza.

Have Mr. Haniyeh and Hamas forgotten their own terrorist habits? When they were out of power, Hamas “militants” kidnapped and bombed without permission from the Palestinian Authority. That irony of wanting it both ways recalls the ancient historian Thucydides’ warning not “to annul those common laws of humanity to which all trust for their own hope of deliverance should they ever be overtaken by calamity; forgetting that in their own hour of need they will look for them in vain.”

The same freelance terrorism goes on in Lebanon despite the grumbles of the country’s “government.” Who, if anyone, is responsible for disarming Hezbollah terrorists? And what faction in Lebanon can officially make peace — or even war — with the Israelis?

At the other end of the spectrum, a similar problem of illegitimacy arises when a few thugs, not various tribes, run things. Strongmen in Syria, the Gulf, North Africa and Egypt may enforce order but are as illegitimate as the chaotic nonstate militias and terrorists that sometimes succeed them. When a country is in a state of perpetual martial law, no one really knows the sentiments of the silenced population.

So, should the United States be tough or friendly with law-and-order types like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the Gulf sheiks or Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi? Lecturing them risks the short-term anger of their state-run media, which slander America. But such pressure also offers the hope that some day the people in these leaders’ countries will appreciate the principled American support for reformers.

When Middle-Eastern dictatorships like Iran or Syria hate us, their savvy people seem to like us. But when we prop up Egyptian or Gulf autocracies, their citizens scapegoat the United States.

Messy democracy is probably coming one way or another to the region. Sticking to the bitter end with authoritarians will only eventually usher in a more extreme reaction. But by supporting the rule of constitutional law, we have the best chance of seeing moderates like Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan or Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq come to power.

Why should the United States commit resources to help reform a dysfunctional Middle East? Many reasons — both practical and humanitarian — come to mind.

(1) Islamic terrorism, as we learned well enough five years ago, has a global reach. Even just a few operatives are able to destroy the foundations of Western air travel, finance and civic trust. These terrorists are encouraged by their patron autocrats, who manage to shift the blame for their failures onto the West.

(2) The Middle East tyrannies export much of the world’s oil. The amount of petroleum they are willing to pump and sell can determine the pulse of the world economy. And much of the funding for terrorism worldwide has come out of the billions in annual petro-profits, which through private and public channels are paid covertly to terrorists both in admiration and as blackmail.

(3) Both militias and dictatorships — whether led by the Taliban, Iranian mullahs, Saddam Hussein or the late Hafez Assad — have butchered thousands of innocents.

(4) And tiny Israel is a successful, humane, democratic Western state that would be overwhelmed if the U.S. left the region.

The Middle East’s long-term health is, thus, critical to the security of the West. True, it is easy now to call the supporters of democracy in the Middle East naive — given the savagery in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan; the elected terrorists on the West Bank; and the deeply entrenched tribalism, fundamentalism and gender apartheid that thwarts liberal change so violently.

But a word of caution: We long tried almost everything else. Accepting dictators on their own terms did not bring stability, but constant war, oil embargoes and terrorism from the 1960s onward. Replying to two decades of terrorist attacks, from the Iranian hostage taking in 1979 to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, with indictments and a few cruise missiles only emboldened the jihadists. And staging coups or propping up authoritarians in Iran or the Gulf simply radicalized the Middle East.

In truth, fostering democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq was not our first, but last choice. It was not a good option, only a bad one when the others had proven far worse. What the U.S. is trying to do in the Middle East is costly, easily ridiculed and unappreciated. But constitutional government is one course that might someday free Middle Easterners from kidnappings, suicide bombers and dictators in sunglasses. That’s in our interest and theirs alike.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author, most recently, of “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.”

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