After it was conclusively determined that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Bush Administration announced that the most important purpose of its invasion was to further the cause of democracy in the Middle East. It declared that stable, democratic regimes were the best deterrent to terrorism and the best hope for peace. WMD, it seems, stands for We Meant Democracy.

A milestone in this march toward the open society was Palestine. The Administration supported the participation of Hamas in the recent parliamentary elections there, reasoning that the Islamist movement’s widely predicted new role as minority party in the Palestinian Authority’s legislature would help to tame its ideological rejectionism. But now, after Hamas’s stunning triumph, the Administration has changed course, threatening the PA with diplomatic isolation and a cutoff of all aid unless Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and agrees to abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. It has been reported that Washington and Tel Aviv are planning an economic destabilization campaign to force a collapse of the new government, though the Bush Administration has denied it.

Such a hard line is shortsighted and dangerous. Respect for the United States in the Muslim and Arab world, already at dismal levels, will plummet further if Washington refuses to accept the results of what were, after all, remarkably free and fair elections. US attempts to isolate and demonize Hamas will only increase public support for it among Palestinians. A cutoff in aid to the PA, whose salaries are the life support for several hundred thousand people, could cause both a humanitarian catastrophe and widespread violence. Threats to isolate the PA will only throw Hamas into the arms of other rejectionists like Iran.

A policy of cautious engagement, while not without risks, is much more likely to strengthen Hamas’s pragmatic tendencies. The movement has made clear that it wants to concentrate on improved governance and continue the cease-fire with Israel, which it has held to with commendable discipline for a year. Hamas won the elections not because Palestinians want Islamist rule and the destruction of Israel but because of widespread public disgust with Fatah’s corruption and mismanagement. Polls consistently show that a large majority of Palestinians want a two-state solution to the conflict. If the Bush Administration truly supports democracy in the Middle East, it will give Hamas a chance to fulfill these reasonable desires, and to succeed or fail on its own merits. That’s the best hope for peace.