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Funding Fatah Supporting less-than-democratic move is most realistic of bad choices

When the leader of a mature democracy expresses great faith that the democratic process will lead to peace and prosperity, he's only looking in a mirror. When that same leader expects democratic experiments in other lands to instantly catapult sectarian, totalitarian or otherwise undeveloped societies into modernism, he's clearly living in a fog.

President Bush's dream of a Middle East swept by the healing powers of democracy lies today in a smoldering heap. Not because there is anything wrong with the dream, but because there was so little skill and effort devoted to the hard work of making the dream reality.

The Iraqi elections that our government was so proud of were not a brief detour on the way to today's tribal and sectarian civil war. They were on a direct path to it. With coalition forces so criminally undermanned and poorly equiped, the ensuing chaos was only deepened by election results that formally left a nation riven into hostile clans and sects.

And this week, the U.S. administration was forced to participate in a counter coup in the Palestinian Territories, propping up its preferred leader with kind words and hard cash even though what he had just done was to wipe away the democratically won power of his internal rivals.

The United States, the European Union and Israel are making the least distasteful choice by releasing billions in aid and tax revenue to the Fatah-led faction that controls the West Bank, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, thus backing his dismissal of Hamas from the governing positions it was freely elected to only last year.

In choosing the devil they know, Israel and its friends have made a reasonable decision to back Fatah as it effectively balkanizes the Palestinians' already meager territory, spinning off the ungovernable and terrorist-infested Gaza to the tender mercies of Hamas and its extremist leaders.

The hope for democracy not only carrying the day, but carrying it in the right direction, is not abandoned. In theory, funding Fatah will allow that more moderate faction to win popular support and deprive an isolated Hamas of the ability to provide government services or even meet a payroll.

Of course, if that's a good idea now, it would have been a better one a year ago. That opportunity missed, the Palestinian people could abandon democracy altogether and decide to fight it out, perhaps ending up an even more radical and violent nation than it was before.

One election does not a democracy make. The care and feeding of infant republics is a job the United States should have paid much more attention to in the recent past, and must devote much more time and money to in the future. Just tearing down the old system and expecting democracy to bloom among the ruins is dangerously unrealistic.

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