NEW YORK — Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections last week is widely seen as discrediting President Bush's desire to spread democracy. Actually, the electoral triumph of this pro-terrorist, anti-Western movement offers more evidence for the failure of the cynical approach that the United States pursued before Mr. Bush came into office - a pseudo-realistic policy of using supposedly benign dictators to repress Islamic extremists.
That, after all, was the rationale behind the Oslo process: Israel and the US would support Yasser Arafat in the hope that he would deliver peace and crack down on the crazies. Fat chance. Instead, his Fatah Party gave birth to the suicide bombers of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and he tolerated terrorists affiliated with competing groups as a cudgel to pressure Israel into greater concessions. Palestinian television and radio stations, newspapers, and schools never ceased to glorify suicide bombers ("shahids," or martyrs) and to revile Jews and Americans. When Israel wasn't willing to deliver as much land as Arafat wanted, he unleashed the second intifada, an all-out terrorist offensive that took years to defeat.
In that time, conditions only got worse in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, leading to a precipitous fall in Palestinian living standards and considerable property damage and loss of life, without defeating the "Zionist entity." This failure increased disenchantment with the Palestinian Authority, which has all the disadvantages of a typical oligarchy (including extreme corruption) and none of the advantages (it provides no law and order). Disenchantment turned to disgust when Gaza descended into anarchy following the Israeli pullout. It was thus no great surprise that voters turned to Hamas, which has shown itself to be less venal and more adept at delivering social services than the incumbent Fatah Party.
Polls indicate that most Palestinian voters aren't in favor of waging all-out war against Israel, which would result in ruinous retaliation. But there is no denying that this has been Hamas's agenda, notwithstanding occasional truces. It now has a choice - either suspend its war on Israel and concentrate on delivering mundane civil services, or risk a backlash among voters.
The Hamas militants, unlike their fellow fundamentalists in Iran, don't have the luxury of oil revenues. Much of the Palestinian Authority's budget comes from European, American, and Israeli largess, which presumably will be cut off unless Hamas comes out against violence and in favor of Israel's right to exist. If Hamas sticks to a rigid ideological agenda, it will become as unpopular as the Taliban. And if "Hamastan" becomes a breeding ground of international terrorism, it will be even more vulnerable to a military response than Afghanistan was.
Palestine, like Iran, may have to pass through a period of Islamist misrule before it arrives at something better, as Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be doing under relatively moderate religious parties. That's unfortunate, but what's the alternative? There aren't many well-intentioned strongmen who will overhaul Islamic societies along Western lines and pave the way for democracy, as Kemal Ataturk did in post-Ottoman Turkey.
Most of the dictators the US winds up supporting or tolerating - not only Arafat but also Hosni Mubarak, Bashar Assad, Pervez Musharraf, the Saudi royals and, once upon a time, Saddam Hussein - have a symbiotic relationship with Islamic extremists. The radicals serve the dictators' purpose: They scare the West into endorsing an illiberal status quo. President Mubarak, for one, extends more tolerance to the Muslim Brotherhood than to liberal critics such as Ayman Nour, now languishing in jail. When the mosque becomes the only outlet for dissent, the odds of an Islamic takeover increase once the tyrant leaves the scene.
Bush is right not to play the dictators' game anymore. The best way to avoid the Hobson's choice between different types of tyranny - secular or religious - is to pressure existing regimes to allow more dissent, and eventually democracy. That never happened under Arafat, when all the major media outlets were controlled by the state and the judiciary was the handmaiden of the government. Anyone who publicly criticized Arafat's graft and incompetence risked a beating, or worse. Countless Palestinians were killed after being convicted in kangaroo courts of being Israeli "collaborators."
For years, the US and Israel turned a blind eye to such abuses. And now we see the result: a brutalized society in which the most radical elements have taken over. We should work to avoid that outcome in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and other Muslim states by getting serious about human rights now - before it's too late.
• Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ©2006 The Los Angeles Times.