The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections has given rise to much soul searching in Washington about who lost Palestine. Although the George W. Bush administration continues to defend its decision to “allow” elections to take place in Palestine, rather than acceding to Israeli demands to stop the process, a growing number of voices is joining a chorus of doubts about the U.S. policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion currently taking place is focusing on the wrong issue. The main problem is not U.S. policy but the underlying conditions in the last few months that have led to the victory of Hamas in Palestine and to the impressive showing by both Shia and Sunni religious parties in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt. True, the Bush administration badly miscalculated the outcome when it launched a policy of democracy promotion in the region—meaning above all a headlong rush toward elections. But it is not U.S. democracy promotion that has made Islamist movements into major players in the Middle East. However, a wrong U.S. response to the victory of Hamas could easily radicalize even the more moderate Islamist organizations, which have evolved considerably recently. And it is definitely not in the U.S. interests to weaken the reformists within the Islamist movements.

Islamist movements are today the major opposition political force in most Arab countries. No amount of U.S. or European support for liberal and secular politicians will change this reality for the foreseeable future. Islamist organizations have been systematically building up their constituencies and organizational capacity for decades. They have crafted a message about morality and socioeconomic justice that resonates readily with the public. Non-Islamist parties—often misnamed liberal or secular—have largely ignored the imperative of political organizing. They have complained about repressive governments and written about the need for reform but have not been able to translate their ideas into a political message that attracts support. As a result, they have virtually no organized constituencies and, though aware this is their major weakness, appear unable to change the situation. Even under the best circumstances, it will be a long time before they can catch up with the Islamists. No matter what the United States says or does, the Islamist parties will remain the strongest players in the politics of Arab countries. The only question is whether they will continue to manifest that strength by competing in elections, as they have done lately, or whether they will do so through violence.

The U.S. reaction to the Hamas victory could determine the answer to that question by influencing the balance of power within many Islamist organizations. Radical groups are not the issue here: Terrorist organizations that pursue extreme goals through violent means have already made their choices and will not be changed one way or another by U.S. policies. But most Islamist organizations are in transition, and the U.S. reaction may have a significant impact on their evolution. Organizations such Hamas, Hezbollah, and most political parties in Iraq (including the secular Kurdish parties) are pursuing political strategies while maintaining an armed wing. The United States has decided to tolerate the situation without more than an occasional nod toward the necessity of disbanding militias in Iraq and  expressed displeasure but took no action when Hezbollah joined the Lebanese government. It is, however, taking a hard line with Hamas after its victory in Palestine on the assumption that the suspension of U.S. and European support for the Palestinian Authority will force Hamas to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel, disband its militia, and moderate its position. In reality, the policy could easily lead Hamas to seek support from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other oil-rich Gulf countries.

The greatest consequence of an uncompromising U.S. position on Hamas could be a change in the internal balance of power between hard-liners and reformists inside the growing number of Islamist organizations that have renounced violence. Among these groups are legally registered parties such as those in Morocco and Jordan and illegal organizations such as the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood. All these groups have chosen the path of democratic politics, not only participating in elections but also showing the flexibility and willingness to accept the compromises necessary to be successful in a democratic political process. For example, the Moroccan PJD (Parti pour la Justice et le Developpement) has accepted the country’s new personal status law, which does not conform to the Islamic sharia, on the grounds that the law was democratically discussed and enacted and that the party must submit to the decision of the majority. Although there are people sincerely committed to reform in all these parties, they have not won the battle over the future direction of the movements once and for all. The reformists still face considerable skepticism and opposition from hard-line factions that consider the political system of their countries completely corrupt and thus do not believe in the value of participating in them. The hard U.S. response to the victory of Hamas—particularly the decision to penalize the entire Palestinian Authority by suspending aid to it—could well tilt the balance back in favor of the hard-liners.  After all, what is the point of participating in a democratic process, if victory only results in penalties? Although a stronger presence of Islamist moderates in Arab parliaments is not something the United States particularly wants, it is  preferable to the presence of strong Islamist movements that have given up on political participation and pragmatism and turned back to intolerance—or, worse, to violence.

Given the potentially dangerous consequences of its initial response to the victory of Hamas, the Bush administration needs to  moderate its position. The first step would be to draw a distinction between Hamas as a political party, which obviously cannot be considered as a partner in negotiations over the future of the Palestinian territories until it takes steps to recognize the state of Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, which must continue administering the territories because there are no other options since the Israelis have no intention to take on that burden again. The Palestinian Authority needs money to function and, if denied Western assistance, it will turn to other countries, most likely Iran and Saudi Arabia. In turn, such assistance would create new additional complications to the prospects for peace.  A much better solution would be to continue providing support for the essential tasks of the Palestinian Authority but to impose strict controls that would prevent money from moving from the Authority to Hamas where it could feed patronage and corruption. The consequences of denying basic support to the Palestinian Authority are not in the interests of the United States or Israel.