After Hamas, the radical Islamic and anti-Western movement and terrorist organization, achieved victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, I was invited by a leading think tank in Washington to debate with another Middle East analyst the implications of that stunning development for U.S. policy in the Middle East and the moribund “peace process.” I found quite fascinating the reactions of some members of the audience, which consisted mostly of foreign policy-establishment types, to my very gloomy forecasts about the repercussions of the first electoral win by an Islamic political group—an offshoot of the militant Muslim Brotherhood—in an Arab-Sunni country.

Many in the audience were trying to convince me that the Lord works in mysterious ways (though they didn’t use those exact words) and applying what I would describe as “dialectical thinking run amok.” Yes, under the rule of Hamas, Christians and women would be relegated to the status of second-class citizens, not to mention that these experts in suicide bombing whose election platform quoted the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion were committed to the elimination of Israel and would never be willing to make peace with her. But . . . who knows? Recall the Nixon-goes-to-China scenario, and it is quite possible that only the Palestinian hard-liners would succeed in delivering an agreement with the Israelis. Also, when radical political groups come to power, they tend to adjust to the political reality, moderate their extreme positions, and become more pragmatic. And if a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority decided to pursue a radical domestic and international agenda, it would only fail miserably, and the Palestinian people—who supposedly voted for Hamas only because the ruling Fatah leaders were corrupt and they wanted to bring to power honest and competent figures who would make the garbage trucks run on time—would eventually kick the extremists out of power. After learning their lesson, the Palestinians would elect the Good Guys, the moderates, the proponents of the Third Way who would make peace with Israel and welcome the establishment of an American Empire in the Middle East, in exchange for a visit to the White House and tickets to Davos.

Yeah, right. According to this kind of wishful thinking, the Hamas victory makes a lot of sense—a disastrous situation pregnant with hope for a better future. Now we understand why the Bush administration launched its Crusade for Democracy in the Middle East, which has already helped to bring to power in Baghdad a bunch of radical Shiite clerics with ties to Iran, and why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected the pleas of Israeli and Palestinian officials to put on hold the election in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It seems that America’s chief diplomat and the neoconservative ideologues—who, notwithstanding the mess in Iraq, continue to drive U.S. policy in the Middle East—remain committed to the axiom that promoting free elections in the region (and elsewhere) not only is the moral obligation of the American people but is bound to advance U.S. interests, since democratically elected governments rarely go to war against each other. And if things don’t work exactly as this ideological dogma predicts, we’ll just have to hope for the best—and spin, spin, spin.

Contrary to what the neocons have been preaching, nationalism, not democracy, is the most powerful political force in the modern era, and, if anything, democracy and free elections tend to empower nationalist leaders who challenge the status quo and are warriors, not peaceniks. By promoting democracy in the Middle East, the Bush administration has ignited the forces of nationalism, ethnicity, religion, tribes—or a mixture of all of these—in Iraq and in Palestine. The Bushies have made the Middle East safe for nationalism, and radical ethnic and religious identity, and have created an environment in which civil wars and international conflicts are becoming more, not less, likely.

Specifically, in Palestine, it was the Israeli strategy—backed by the Bush administration—of isolating and weakening the late Yasser Arafat and his secular and more moderate Fatah movement, which had recognized Israel’s right to exist, that created the conditions for the Hamas victory in an election that was promoted by Washington as another step in the U.S.-led “March to Freedom” in the Middle East.

Indeed, if, in 2000, anyone had to draw an outline of a plan to ensure that Hamas would come to power, he would only have had to propose the policies that were advanced by the Israelis and the Americans and which helped radicalize the Palestinians and encourage them to abandon Fatah and turn to Hamas leaders as their political saviors who could stand up to the Israelis and the Americans and provide them with a source of identity and a sense of security.

That the Bush administration couldn’t figure this out and expected Fatah to win and the “peace process” to move forward should not have come as a surprise. These are the same policymakers who had predicted that the Iraqi people would welcome the American “liberators” with flowers and that Iraq would emerge a vibrant liberal democracy that would serve as the model to the entire Arab Middle East. This fantasy has dealt a decisive blow to American interests in the Persian Gulf, where Iran is now emerging as a more assertive power that is in the process of forming an anti-American Shiite crescent that includes Iraq. Now, after the election in Palestine, America has suffered another setback, making Washington even less likely to succeed in reviving negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and helping radical Islamic movements around the world to gain a sense of confidence. (It is not a coincidence that the violent demonstration against the “of- fending” Danish cartoons erupted immediately after the Hamas victory.) Perhaps, when the history of the “War on Terror” is written years from now, scholars will name George W. Bush, not Osama bin Laden, as the political figure most responsible for the spread of radical Islam (and not democracy) in the Middle East.