The success of Hamas in the elections for the Palestinian Authority has provided a joyous opportunity for that small but sizeable body of opinion in the West which considers the Arab world unfit for democracy. The sight of the terrorist leaders celebrating their election win tempts some otherwise sober people to sympathise with those malcontents on Oxbridge high tables who mutter longingly about the days when the world was ruled by kings and princes; by friendly, if not always benign, dictatorships.
It is beyond question that the events of the past week have proved a huge embarrassment for the neoconservative project, and for President Bush in particular. American — and, of course, British — policy towards the Middle East in recent years has been founded on a simple premise: that democracy is a necessary condition for peace and stability in the region, and therefore must be encouraged at all costs.
It was certainly not part of the great neocon plan that the Palestinian people, when given the opportunity to elect a government, would reject a party promising to negotiate for peace with Israel in favour of a terrorist group explicitly committed to a suicidal armed struggle against it.
In theory, the ballot box tames terrorists by channelling their energies into politics. The neocon faithful point to examples stretching from Latin America to Northern Ireland, and say that it should happen, too, in the Middle East. In practice, the Arab and Muslim world is showing plenty of examples to confound this theory. Hezbollah is now in government in Lebanon, and rather than be tamed it launched a cross-border attack on Israel just two months ago.
It is an undeniable irony that the Middle Eastern states most friendly towards the West — Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the peaceful emirates on the western shores of the Persian Gulf — tend to be those least inclined to hold elections, whereas those Middle Eastern peoples who do get the chance to vote, the Iranians being the other noted example, tend to pick the most violent extremists on the ballot paper.