When Hamas and then Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers a few weeks ago, the Israeli government could have held its fire and avoided a major confrontation in which dozens of Israelis - and many more Palestinians and Lebanese - have died. There might have been a strategic rationale for such a policy, since starving kidnappers of attention may be the best way to deter them. But Israel's leaders could not consider this option: they are responsible to an electorate that will tolerate war deaths but will not tolerate the neglect of kidnapped soldiers.
In the past, Israel was the only democracy in the region, and its enemies, whether autocratic states or free-floating terrorist groups, were not similarly accountable to a voting public. This time, however, things are different. With the Iraq war, the United States introduced to the Middle East a bold new policy of democratization by destabilization. That policy encouraged elections in Lebanon and Palestine, opening the door to entities like Hezbollah and Hamas that are now experimenting with a potent cocktail of electoral politics, radical Islamist ideology and violence. Destabilizing the old order really has changed the rules of the game. We are now witnessing the most serious regional test so far to the wisdom of starting down this uncertain path.
The most important new feature of the present situation is the strange hybrid character shared by Hamas and Hezbollah: both are simultaneously militias and democratically elected political parties participating in government. In the case of Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in January, the political wing may not be able to control the military wing, yet the party maintains a basic unity of purpose. Hezbollah, for its part, does not hold a majority in the Lebanese Parliament, but its elected leaders participate in the Lebanese government, whose democratic credentials have been cited by the Bush administration as a sign of progress in that troubled country.
The dual political and military structures of Hamas and Hezbollah are not unique. In Iraq, both the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Moktada al-Sadr's movement play major roles in the elected government while maintaining counterpart militias that they have been unwilling to disband. The model of Islamist organizations that combine electoral politics with paramilitary tactics is fast becoming the calling card of the new wave of Arab democratization.
The fact that Hamas and Hezbollah pursue democratic legitimacy within the state while also employing violence on their own marks a watershed in Middle Eastern politics. For one thing, the boundary between state and nonstate violence has essentially been erased. Has the Palestinian government demanded an exchange of prisoners with Israel, or has the Hamas militia? Israel has been acting as if it were at war with Lebanon - its targets have included a Lebanese Air Force base and Beirut's international airport - but Hezbollah began the hostilities, not the Lebanese government.
More important still, the fact that Hamas and Hezbollah owe much of their present standing to elections calls into question the viability of Middle Eastern democracy as a peaceful practice. In choosing these Islamists, Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites were in effect endorsing not only their political aims but also their commitment to violence, which was never hidden during their campaigns. (The same is true, to a lesser degree, of voters in Iraq who opted for the Shiite alliance.) It was possible that once in power, the politicians at the helm of Hamas and Hezbollah would distance themselves from violence or at least refrain from initiating it. That would have been a reasonable strategy if they wanted to persuade the voters that they could actually govern and use the resources of the state to improve their constituents' lives. We now know definitively that the leaders have rejected this path.
How will the constituencies that support Hamas and Hezbollah react, over time, to kidnappings and rocket attacks that were calculated, it would seem, to provoke Israeli military reprisals? The elected Islamists are gambling that popular anger at Israel, apparent in the streets of Gaza and southern Lebanon in the first weeks of battle, will translate into redoubled enthusiasm for Islamist intransigence and rejectionism. This has sometimes worked for both Hamas and Hezbollah in the past. Both groups came to power in part because they were perceived as the only local actors willing to fight Israel head-on.
For its part, Israel is gambling that the right strategy is to make the people who elected Hamas and a government that includes Hezbollah reckon the costs of their representatives' recklessness. That is why Israel has targeted not only Hezbollah leaders and strongholds but has also bombed infrastructure that sustains daily life for everybody in Lebanon. From Israel's standpoint, this is no longer a fight with nonstate terrorists who are holding their fellow citizens hostage to their tactics. It is, rather, war between Israel and countries that are pursuing (or tolerating) violent policies endorsed (or at least accepted) by their electorates.
Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza last year on the theory that disengagement would lead to fewer attacks on it, not more. Right-wing Israelis argued that withdrawal rewarded Islamist violence and that rockets would soon be fired into Israel from the very areas being vacated. Now those critics claim to have been vindicated. The reply of the centrist Israeli government - elected on the promise that it would unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank too - is to insist that in the long run Hamas and Hezbollah can be deterred like Israel's other Arab enemies. The route to deterrence, claims the government, is to degrade the capabilities of Hamas and Hezbollah and in the process inflict on Gaza and Lebanon the punishment of defeat in war - the same approach that eventually led the major Arab powers to stop attacking Israel a generation ago.
The catch for Israel is that, taken too far, the strategy of making all Palestinians and all Lebanese pay for the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah may well backfire. Destroying the economic prosperity that had begun to return to Lebanon is likely to generate fresh hatred of Israel, and Palestinians under the gun have in recent years tended to become more radicalized, not less. Provided that democratic institutions in Palestine and Lebanon remain intact, the long-term success of Israel's campaign will probably depend on how the Palestinian and Lebanese electorates evaluate all that has happened. They will be doing so against the backdrop of deeply conflicted feelings: Hamas and Hezbollah may have sparked this round of fighting, but the bombs raining down on their cities and the soldiers in their bases still come from Israel, and no one likes to be bombed.
Democracy means that you cannot blame someone else for troubles caused by your own government. That is a comparatively new lesson in the region, and whether it is learned or not will determine the prospects for democracy itself there. But dodging missiles and running from tanks is not the ideal circumstance for rational reflection on the nature of self-rule. As in Iraq, what is especially risky and worrisome about democratization through destabilization is that it comes accompanied not by peace but by the sword. In this dangerous environment, the costs of democracy - the weakness of government, the uncertainty, the violence - can be felt everywhere. The benefits of democracy, though, are barely palpable.
Although elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories owe much to America's democracy agenda, the Bush administration has, from the start, generally taken a hands-off approach to the region once known as the Levant. This is in part a function of limited capacity. Officials who have been focused since 9/11 on Afghanistan, and then on Iraq, cannot spare the time or attention to supervise the ins and outs of Israel's dealings with the Palestinians or with Lebanon. It also reflects the fact that the Bush administration - mindful of President Clinton's ultimate failure at Camp David - is wary of squandering its credibility on an ever-elusive peace deal. But it results, too, from a shift in perspective created by the Iraq-driven nature of the democratization policy itself. This has led the administration to see developments outside the Persian Gulf as democratic aftershocks of Saddam Hussein's removal - and to believe it best to stand aside and let destabilization and the democratic spirit do their slow work.
Lebanon, in particular, has been treated by the Bush administration as a success of democratization. In a sense it has been one. Mass demonstrations, largely free of violence (including several organized by Hezbollah), set the tone for domestic Lebanese politics in the wake of last year's assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. These protests would have been hard to imagine without the American commitment to democratization in Iraq. For once acting with European allies, the Bush administration was able to respond by pressuring Syria to reduce its involvement in the country. The only difficulty was that once elections were held, Hezbollah took on a substantial role in the governance of the country while retaining its close ties to Syria and Iran. Until this latest crisis, the American attitude toward this problem was to leave it alone.
In Israel and the Palestinian territories, a hands-off strategy appeared to be working. Successful elections following the death of Yasir Arafat, coupled with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, made it seem that the permissive approach was the right one. Until Hamas's election victory this January, it even seemed conceivable that democratization might eventually create a Palestinian government capable of saying yes to Israeli peace overtures and delivering Palestinian popular support for an eventual deal.
The sudden explosion of Israel's fronts with Gaza and Lebanon represents a major challenge to the Bush administration's detachment. Leaders and political observers in the region instinctively expect the Bush administration to respond to the crisis the way earlier administrations dealt with previous crises - namely, by becoming deeply involved and trying not merely to halt the violence temporarily but also to guide the parties toward a comprehensive solution. Among some in the region, you can almost sense a nostalgic yearning to become once again the center of attention for American foreign policy.
How the United States responds to this latest crisis will therefore set an important historical precedent: has Iraq once and for all displaced Israel and its neighbors as the focal point of American interest and attention in the broader Middle East? Should the Bush administration limit its involvement to stanching the bloodshed in the short term and then disengage from serious negotiations, it would be a sign that we really have shifted the focus of our regional policy away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a shift that may last a quarter-century. (It could take at least that long for the United States to come to terms with its involvement in Iraq - win, lose or draw.)
Letting relations between Israel and its neighbors develop on their own, without our stage management, would suggest that the Bush administration is taking seriously its own argument that democratization is a messy, long-term business that must run its course, unimpeded. According to this claim, the regional destabilization that followed the Iraq invasion is just the cost of democracy. The new wave of violence is one storm center in that destabilized atmospheric system. If the strategy of democratization remains in place, other storms will form - and they, too, will have to be weathered.
Of course, even if President Bush did take on the task of negotiating something more than a stopgap to the bombing, American diplomats would face a more difficult challenge than their predecessors ever did. In the past, crises involving Israel were addressed by dealing with the regional Arab powers, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, all of which exerted influence of different kinds on the actors. Today, however, Iran has become the predominant external influence on Hezbollah, and perhaps even on Hamas. And American leverage over Iran, never very significant since the Iranian revolution, is today at its lowest ebb in years in the wake of the U.S. involvement in Iraq and the election of the populist anti-American Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The point is not that Iran necessarily gave a direct order to either Hamas or Hezbollah to initiate a new round of hostilities by kidnapping Israeli soldiers. No direct evidence of any such order has been made public, and the complex internal workings of Hamas - which moved first - are not particularly susceptible to such a chain of command. Rather, Iran clearly gains by the mess that has emerged, and both Hamas and Hezbollah know that serving Iranian interests is sure to result in continued, active support from Tehran.
The main issue for Iran is, of course, the threat of American intervention against its growing nuclear capacity. Iran's primary foreign-policy goal is therefore to deter the United States through the threat of repercussions. One potential arena is Iraq, where U.S. troops can barely handle the Sunni-led insurgency and would face the danger of being overwhelmed if there were serious attacks on them from either Shiite militias financed by Iran or Iranian irregulars. But Iran has more tricks up its sleeve. The attacks on Israel not only harm America's closest regional ally, but, by generating an expanding circle of violence, also substantially destabilize the region. It is as if the Iranians were saying to the United States, ''You have your strategy of creative destabilization, and we have ours.''
Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah is already being cited as evidence by those who want the United States to intervene directly against Iran. If their argument prevails, then Israel's little wars with Hamas and Hezbollah will turn out to have been a pair of proxy wars leading to the big one right around the corner. In Lebanon in the 1980's, Israel and Syria fought such a proxy war on behalf of the United States and the Soviet Union respectively. That it remained a proxy war is something for which we can be grateful.
But the cold-war days of balanced powers are behind us now. Faced with the threat of terror, the remaining superpower chose to unleash at once the forces of freedom and instability. From Baghdad to Beirut, Gaza City, Haifa and beyond, the consequences are beginning to be realized. We are in the world of asymmetry, of democratically legitimated militias and armed bands that fight wars with powerful states. Democracy can no longer be seen as an end in itself, and the fate of peoples lies in their own hands.
Noah Feldman, a contributing writer for the magazine, is a law professor at New York University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.