The Corner

Underestimating Democracies

Josh Muravchik’s op-ed in the Journal (via our web briefing below) is worth reading. Two highlights. On Gaza’s “victory” he writes:

What is even more worrisome about the events enumerated above is that most of them are devoid of any such strategic logic. For example, the Hamas “putsch” in Gaza–as Marwan Barghouti, the hero of the Palestinian intifada, labeled it from his prison cell–was an enormous blunder.

Hamas already mostly controlled Gaza. It is hard to imagine what gains it can reap from its “victory.” But it is easy to see the losses. Fatah, and the government of its leader Mahmoud Abbas, will be able to restore their strength in the West Bank with the eager assistance of virtually the whole outside world, while Gaza will be shut off and denied outside aid far more strictly than during the past year. Israel will retaliate against shelling with a freer hand. Egypt will tighten its border. And Hamas has in one swoop negated its own supreme achievement, namely winning a majority in Palestine’s 2006 parliamentary elections. Until now, Hamas had a powerful argument: how can the West demand democracy and then boycott the winners? But now it is Hamas itself that has destroyed Palestinian democracy by staging an armed coup. Its democratic credentials have gone up in the smoke of its own arson.

And on the bigger picture:

The apparent meaning of all of this pointless provocation and bullying is that the axis of radicals–Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah–is feeling its oats. In part its aim is to intimidate the rest of us, in part it is merely enjoying flexing its muscles. It believes that its side has defeated America in Iraq, and Israel in Gaza and Lebanon. Mr. Ahmadinejad recently claimed that the West has already begun to “surrender,” and he gloated that ” final victory . . . is near.” It is this bravado that bodes war.

A large portion of modern wars erupted because aggressive tyrannies believed that their democratic opponents were soft and weak. Often democracies have fed such beliefs by their own flaccid behavior. Hitler’s contempt for America, stoked by the policy of appeasement, is a familiar story. But there are many others. North Korea invaded South Korea after Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared that Korea lay beyond our “defense perimeter.” Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait after our ambassador assured him that America does not intervene in quarrels among Arabs. Imperial Germany launched World War I, encouraged by Great Britain’s open reluctance to get involved. Nasser brought on the 1967 Six Day War, thinking that he could extort some concessions from Israel by rattling his sword.

Democracies, it is now well established, do not go to war with each other. But they often get into wars with non-democracies. Overwhelmingly the non-democracy starts the war; nonetheless, in the vast majority of cases, it is the democratic side that wins. In other words, dictators consistently underestimate the strength of democracies, and democracies provoke war through their love of peace, which the dictators mistake for weakness.

Today, this same dynamic is creating a moment of great danger. The radicals are becoming reckless, asserting themselves for little reason beyond the conviction that they can. They are very likely to overreach. It is not hard to imagine scenarios in which a single match–say a terrible terror attack from Gaza–could ignite a chain reaction. Israel could handle Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, albeit with painful losses all around, but if Iran intervened rather than see its regional assets eliminated, could the U.S. stay out?

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