Careful Engagement on the March

CAREFUL ENGAGEMENT ON THE MARCH….Shibley Telhami writes in the Washington Post today that in a democratic Middle East, extreme Islamist parties are going to win power whether we like it or not:

Given this, skepticism about the real aims of these groups should be balanced by openness to the possibility that their aims once they are in power could differ from their aims as opposition groups. This requires partial engagement, patience, and a willingness to allow such new governments space and time to put their goals to the test of reality. Hamas, in fact, could provide a place for testing whether careful engagement leads to moderation.

If we are not willing to engage, there is only one alternative: to rethink the policy of accelerated electoral democracy and focus on a more incremental approach of institutional and economic reform of existing governments. There is no realistic third party that’s likely to emerge anytime soon.

That’s probably good advice, especially given Telhami’s subsequent acknowledgement that nobody in the Middle East actually believes we’re serious about democracy anyway. And after all, why should they? Hamas wins an election and we immediately start talking with Israel about how to undermine them. Saudi Arabia’s theocracy is treated with kid gloves because they have lots of oil, and Pakistan’s military dictatorship is left alone because they (sort of) help us out against al-Qaeda. Egypt holds a pretend election and gets nothing more than a mild verbal rebuke. The Kurds in Iraq would like nothing more than a chance at self-determination, but that’s a little too much democracy for our taste.

All of this is excusable. The Middle East is not a place that lends itself to simplistic solutions. But “democracy is on the march” is not the only way to promote democracy, especially in a region where U.S. support is almost a sure fire way to lose an election. Telhami’s “careful engagement” may not be a very punchy slogan, but in the long run, it’s more likely to work.