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Welcome to the Monkey House, Mr. President - John Brady Kiesling

Date: Mon, 27 Feb 2006 08:49:22 -0500
Subject: [ Sunday Gazette-Mail ] Story:John Brady Kiesling

February 26, 2006
John Brady Kiesling

Welcome to the Monkey House, Mr. President

When scientists removed the dominant males from the huge cage at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Georgia, the little band of pigtailed macaques under study there slid slowly into civil war.

A similar thing happened in 2003 when the U.S. military removed Iraq’s dominant males. Dominance hierarchies are a basic organizing principle for many species, including ours. Those hierarchies are easy for an outsider to subvert, but impossible for an outsider to impose.

When I toured the West Bank in July 2004 with a group of former U.S. diplomats, the similarities to Yerkes were uncomfortable. Israel was building a seven-meter-high concrete wall to supplement the chain-link fences and barbed wire. Scientific observation took place round-the-clock: electronic surveillance and a massive network of Shinbet officers and informers. From time to time the government of Israel would conduct an experiment by removing some dominant Palestinian male with a missile strike.

The Palestine being created by Israeli policy may have been ungovernable even then. Too many angry humans were crowded into too-small cages. The Palestinian leadership, aging secular revolutionaries from Beirut and Tunis, was balanced uneasily atop a traditional society of tribal elders.

The peace deal with Israel meant no younger leader could match the legitimacy Arafat had built up over decades of self-sacrificial violence. Arafat did not waste his hoarded legitimacy trying to govern. His “alpha male” followers embezzled or extorted the money to buy their children a ticket out of the cage. Their corruption undermined, perhaps fatally, the habits of deference to authority that keep a society functioning.

The United States and European Union tried to legitimize Abu Mazen’s Palestinian Authority with cash for salaries, public works, and basic security. Israel was an unhelpful partner in this effort, and it failed.

Meanwhile, Hamas had evolved to fill an ecological niche Arafat and Fatah had left vacant. Hamas was religious, because Islam was the major untapped source of political legitimacy. It was well-organized, because discipline and forethought were its only competitive advantage in a game dominated by competing clans. It was virtuous, because Arafat withheld from Fatah’s rivals any good opportunities for corruption. And it was violent, because status in any dominance hierarchy depends on proven willingness to avenge insults, and daily insults were a fact of Palestinian life. A cruel environment taught Hamas to be cruel but capable, a thrift-shop version of the Israeli army across the wall.

Terrorism is local politics not policy, a tactic of the weak rather than an ideology of the strong. When Greece’s 17N terrorist group murdered American officials, it was not to defend the Greek people against U.S. “imperialism” but rather to endow a threadbare political program with Robin Hood glamour. When Hamas murdered Israelis, it was to show that, unlike the Palestinian Authority, it had its eye firmly fixed on the duty of governments: “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Once Arafat died, Hamas had no credible rival in the political competition that mattered. The January 2006 parliamentary elections formalized Hamas’s transition from terrorist organization to ruling party. Hamas would play by democratic rules, because such rules now favored it.

Hamas is closer to today’s ideological mainstream than we care to admit. It is certainly not the first political party on the planet to win a democratic election by glorifying military operations and pandering to religious bigots. Democratic rules do not require Hamas to govern Palestine on the basis of its electoral platform. President Bush prudently ignores his murderous 2000 campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Hamas will not destroy Israel in 2006 or ever. But it will not renounce that goal, not if it wishes to be obeyed by a million Palestinians who respected such bravado.

Palestinians are human beings not macaques. They aspire to rational calculation of personal and national self-interest. Hamas leaders know their victory in honest elections gives them perhaps a year to prove their fitness to govern. They are just as helpless as Fatah at the key legitimizing task of any dominance hierarchy, defending the tribe and its territory against predators. Israel made a point of humiliating the Palestinian Authority as its response to Hamas terror attacks. If Israel now strengthens Hamas’s rivals similarly, Hamas will return to suicidal violence. To commit its future to democratic rules, Hamas must find a braver, better Israeli partner than Abu Mazen had.

The election of Hamas is a scientific experiment. It tests President Bush’s theory that democratic evolution is an effective antidote to totalitarianism. His temptation is to intervene to ensure that Hamas will fail. However, for the results to be meaningful, Hamas needs an honest chance to govern.

The Palestinian people will then decide, through a free election four years from now, whether Islamic extremism is an evolutionary dead end. If the United States and Europe withhold the aid on which Palestinians depend for survival, they lose the leverage over Hamas to compel that free election. If so, this little experiment, like so many others on powerless fellow-primates, will have taught us nothing.

John Brady Kiesling resigned in protest as political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Athens in February 2003. His book “Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower” will appear this summer. A version of this commentary first appeared in the Athens News.

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