Woodrow Wilson Meets Hamas

The eventual election of a terrorist group to run the Palestinian legislature presumably was not what Woodrow Wilson had in mind when he brought the U.S. into World War I, telling Congress it was an opportunity to establish "a universal dominion of right" based on democracy and self-determination for all peoples.

Yet, last week’s exercise of Palestinian self-determination resulted not only in a triumph for the terror group Hamas, but in an opportunity for Hamas to remind the world that its charter calls for destroying Israel, one of America’s best friends in the world and still the sole Western-style democracy in the Middle East.

As reported by the Washington Times this week, Mohammed Nazzal, a Hamas leader, told Al Arabiya TV: "The Americans and the European Union are dreaming if they think they can force us to change our positions."

But Hamas’s victory should force Republicans here to ask themselves: Do they really want to become the party of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy?

Wilson, after all, was a big-government Democrat, a Utopian who believed intellectual elites could remake and improve everything they touched, including quite literally, the world.

When Wilson ran for President in 1912, as Kendrick A. Clements notes in Woodrow Wilson–World Statesman, he vowed to "lift our diplomacy to the levels of what the best minds have planned for mankind." But it wasn’t until after he had been narrowly reelected in 1916 on the slogan "He kept us out of war," that Wilson demonstrated what he meant.

In 1917, when Germany announced it would attack neutral shipping in the seas surrounding Britain, Wilson could have made a compelling argument for war based on self-defense. Germany was claiming the right to kill innocent American civilians on the high seas.

But when Wilson asked Congress to declare war, he framed that war not as an inherently limited act of self-defense against a known aggressor, but as an open-ended crusade to reshape the entire globe into self-determining democracies. He argued that that would end war forever. We would fight, Wilson said, "for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."

Representative governments, he argued, do not intrigue against other nations. "Cunningly contrived plans of deception or aggression, carried, it may be, from generation to generation, can be worked out and kept from the light only within the privacy of courts or behind the carefully guarded confidences of a narrow and privileged class," Wilson said. "They are happily impossible where public opinion commands and insists upon full information concerning all the nation’s affairs."

Of course, World War I did not usher in an age of universal democracy and peace any more than last week’s democratic vote for a Palestinian legislature ushered in leaders who disdain "plans of deception or aggression" or who even feel the need to keep such plans "carefully guarded."

Today, however, it is a Republican President bidding to revive Wilson’s Utopian vision.

Even more than Wilson, President Bush has had compelling reasons to wage war as a matter of national self-defense, and, in the years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he has conducted the self-defense of this nation with courage and manifest effectiveness.

But a year ago, in his second Inaugural Address, Bush out-Wilsoned Wilson. "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," he said. "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way."

Last week, Palestinian found their voice in Hamas. If the U.S. were to push democratic movements across the Middle East, where Islamist ideology is on the rise, it could mean more Hamas-type victories. In nuclear-armed Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharaf overthrew an elected government in 1999, but has been a good friend to the U.S. in the war on terror. Should we foment a democratic movement against him?

Our CIA could not accurately answer the concrete question of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Where are the government analysts who now can accurately parse and predict the political passions of Pakistanis?

The real question for U.S. foreign policy is not ideological, but practical. It is not: How do we advance democracy globally? It is: How do we keep our own country safe, prosperous and free?