Wednesday, January 4, 2006

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Will Rasmussen is 50% correct

Over at TNR Online, former Beirut Daily Star correspondent Will Rasmussen argues that Hezbollah's performance in the Lebanese government confounds predictions by democracy activists that Islamist movements will moderate once they get involved in governing:

Should radical groups in nascent democracies be allowed to participate in politics? This has long been a central dilemma in the Middle East; and as Islamist parties have demonstrated their electoral power in Egypt and Iraq, the question has only grown in importance. One common response to this quandary has been to argue that bringing radical groups into politics can serve to moderate them. In TNR, the Carnegie Endowment's Marina Ottaway has argued that "there is ample evidence that participation in an electoral process forces any party, regardless of ideology, to moderate its position if it wants to attract voters in large numbers and avoid a backlash." In a recent editorial, the Financial Times echoed this sentiment: "The Islamists are part of the future of the region and their participation in the political process remains the best hope of moderating their often radical views." The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, published by the Middle East Forum and the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon, has asserted that there is "reason to believe that Islamist movements become more moderate when they are allowed opportunities to participate in a democratic political system."

Recent events in Lebanon suggest that this analysis is mistaken. In July 2005, the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah claimed a cabinet position in Beirut for the first time, taking over the energy ministry. Far from moderating, Hezbollah has only grown more strident and disruptive during the last five months. But the party's failure to moderate has also yielded an unexpected benefit: Lebanese are increasingly fed up with Hezbollah's behavior. In other words, bringing Islamist parties into government can sometimes pay dividends not because they will moderate once offered a share of power--but rather because they won't.

I'm pretty sure most democracy activists would dispute Rasmussen's characterization of their position. The argument isn't that democratic participation will cause radical Islamic movements to moderate - it's that radical Islamic movements will either moderate or lose their base of support.

Something that got pruned out of this piece is worth stating: no radical Islamic movement, upon taking office, has succeeded at the mundane tasks of governing. Iran's Ahmadinejad, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Sudanese under Turabi -- they have all sucked at governing.

I suspect democracy activists are perfectly comfortable with the outcome in Rasmussen's piece.

posted by Dan on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM


It depends on what you consider "the mundane tasks of governing." The Taliban would still be ruling today if they hadn't dealt with Osama bin Laden. The Iranian Revolution itself arguable brought Islamic radicalism to power, and has held on for awhile achieving a lot in terms or rural infrastructure development in the 1980s. I've also heard noises suggesting that Hamas-governed Palestinian cities are doing okay.

posted by: Brian Ulrich on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

Islamists may have "sucked" at governing by our standards, but their objectives have been different, focused on maintaining themselves in power. This can be done by governing wisely and well, but can also be done by killing one's actual and prospective opponents. Islamist governments excel at this, and once they have been in power long enough can sometimes moderate their tactics to the extent that actual and prospective opponents are merely imprisoned or exiled rather than killed outright.

This begs the question of what happens to Islamist movements like Hamas or Hezbollah in Lebanon that, given the opportunity to govern, alienate non-members. Are they marginalized? Are they marginalized only in those parts of the country they cannot physically control? Do they abandon their attempt to participate in democratic politics if it appears they can acquire power by other means? Finally, should they gain power by democratic means, how do they respond when they are threatened with losing power in a subsequent election?

I would suppose the answer to each of these questions might be different in different countries (the questions themselves, of course, are applicable to many non-Muslim countries as well). In general, though, I can sympathize with those who feel Islamist parties can most safely participate in politics if they represent too few people to take over the government.

posted by: Zathras on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure I'd agree that Iran's regime has been successful at anything except holding on to power. (And that is not governing, of course.) Perhaps there was some success with rural development--I'm not an expert on that. But there is also today massive and widespread frustration with unemployment, corruption, economic sclerosis, and all the rest, and this in a country with more natural resources than you can shake a stick at. Ahmedinejad won because of his promises to take on the veted interests, not because of his Islamism. He will suck like the rest of them at the actual issues of governance, because he's crazy. Then who's next? Who knows.

posted by: Contributor A on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

Radicals in general don't govern well, because radicalism is, in general, the belief that some magic bullet or other will fix everything.

A radical is a man with a match, to whom everything looks like a barn. Of course he can't govern worth a damn.

Or should I say that to a man with a silver bullet, everything looks like a vampire?

posted by: P. Froward on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure the claim that "Lebanese" are fed up with Hezbollah" is accurate. After all, we heard the same early last year -- that Hezbollah's support for Syria would hurt it in the polls and that didn't happen at all. I've no doubt that some Lebanese are fed up with Hezbollah, but I've seen nothing to indicate that its natural base (rural Shiites) are fed up with it.

As far as competence in governance, both Hezbollah and Hamas have shown some competence in running social services organizations. Hamas has shown itself to be more competent than the Palestinian authority (talk about damning with faint praise).

But the fact is that many third world countries, even democratic ones, rarely have good governance, and massive corruption and incompetence is common enough that I don't believe Islamic radicals stand out.

Finally, silver bullets don't do diddly to vampires.

posted by: erg on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

"I suspect democracy activists are perfectly comfortable with the outcome in Rasmussen's piece. "

I'm just a little taken aback that this country is divided between Democracy activists and the alternative at this time of the day. I might expect it from whatever hole the Buchananites have been hanging out in, but its still shocking to find progressives so thoroughly opposed.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

Communists sucked at governing, but they kept power and were a threat to the rest of the world and an agony to their people.

We run the risk of seeing democracy bring the Muslim brotherhood to power in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine and Shiite fanatics in Iraq.

I am not proposing any solution, but this has been presented by the right as a positive change and proof of Bush policy. It may not be.

posted by: adam on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

Will radical grpus moderate once they participate in democratic politics? I don't know, but for one thing: seven months is too short a time to answer. We should wait and see for 5 years at the least to know where Hezbollah is going. As an example, look at the IRA. The peacemaking process in North Ireland, with democratic government and all, is going on for years and still the IRA is struggling with itself. But it is changing. Let's wait and see what happens to Hezbollah in 5 years.

posted by: Harmen on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

There's a difference between running everything and participating in a government your party does not control -- Hezbollah has been in the latter position. This classically presents a choice between (a) cooptation/moderation, and (b) disruptive behavior that tends to brand the party as unfit to govern. It's a dilemma even for non-extremist parties, because participation in the government limits their ability to attack it.

This was, e.g., Mitterand's strategy in bringing the Communists into his Socialist-led government, and was at issue as the Greens decided whether to join the late coaltion in Germany.

It's not the same question as whether an extremist-dominated government will moderate.

posted by: Punch on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

You don't have to be a radical 'Islamist' to not be able to govern. Radical Christians are doing quite a nice job of not governing very well right here in the godd ole ewe ess of ay.

posted by: mrjauk on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

Jeez, my first thought was we let the republicans into power and what happened. Yikes!

posted by: dilbert dogbert on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

im not sure its correct to generalize from Hezb and Hamas to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Both of the former either currently or recently engaged in terrorism - while MB hasnt in decades, IIUC. Both Hamas and Hezb, esp Hezb, are heavily dependent on support from Iran, while I dont think the same can be said of MB.

posted by: liberalhawk on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

The key danger is that if the radicals get into power, they may decide that although they like elections when they win, they don't like elections when they think they'll lose. I'm not so worried about Hamas winning, but I am worried about the coup d'etat that they may try some years from now.

posted by: AA Tulchin on 01.04.06 at 03:17 PM [permalink]

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