In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration has justified the enormous financial, human and diplomatic costs by saying it is spreading secular, liberal, Western-style democracy to people who deserve it and have been denied it.
No doubt, democracy is rare in the Middle East, and if democratic principles can take root in Iraq, the implications for the rest of the region are profound. At the same time, free elections in the region and elsewhere in the world can mean more headaches — not fewer — for Washington and the West. For example, free elections in Bolivia and Venezuela have produced leaders generally seen as anti-American.
Of course, the most obvious examples exist in the Middle East. First and foremost: Palestine. Hamas, which the U.S. government views as a terrorist organization, defeated Yassar Arafat's Fatah Party in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, illustrating the trend in the Middle East of radical Islamists gaining legitimacy through democratic means. But they were voted into office not to wage war with Israel but to end Fatah corruption, extend social welfare to the poorest Palestinians and achieve basic goals of peace and prosperity.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood scored massive electoral gains, pointing out that free elections anywhere in the Middle East will most likely result in Islamist governments, although not necessarily fundamentalist theocracies. In Jordan and Morocco, Islamic parties have scored significant political elections. In Afghanistan, former Taliban members won numerous seats in the newly-created Parliament.
And it's worth mentioning that Iran's elections, although tightly controlled by the Ayatollahs, resulted in the election of a president who has called for the destruction of Israel and the U.S. and seems determined to join the world's nuclear powers and create a Middle East missile crisis.
It's still to early to tell what might...