How many times has Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) failed to meet American expectations, how many times have they looked around in search of the next leader, "the real one" - and nonetheless stuck with him. They didn't do this out of love, nor out of hope, which had already faded. Abu Mazen, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is the default option. Without it there would remain only one of two options - chaos, or Hamas - which are respectively American policy's two most bitter fears today. Therefore the Americans will protect the leader everyone already agrees is incapable of providing any goods.
The United States has learned - and tried to put into practice - plenty of lessons following 9/11. Some of these lessons are controversial, some are understandable to everyone. For example, promoting democracy in the Middle East - an act that entails difficulty and for which it is paying a price in Iraq. For example, neglecting countries that are deteriorating into a state of chaos, without regimes - the kind that reigned in Afghanistan where Al-Qaida operatives found shelter.
Sometimes these objectives merge, but they also often clash. The crisis in Somalia summons the Americans to contend with chaos of the Afghan sort - but the greater fear is of a similar situation in more important countries such as Nigeria, the oil producer. The crisis in the PA calls for contending with the dubious results of the democratic process, but here too the greater concern is what will happen in Egypt, Syria or Saudi Arabia, if they undergo a similar process.
Therefore, and this is not evident to everyone, the U.S. has a clear interest in blocking Hamas, which is disconnected from the Israeli interest. If Hamas demonstrates that it is possible to hitch a ride on the back of the democratic process to implement a radical Islamic ideology, its accomplishment will undermine the United States' chances of succeeding in its moves to found democracy in the region. Israel - cynical, disillusioned - has little interest in the long-term, ideologically-guided processes, whose chances of succeeding bitter experience has taught it to doubt. Israel wants a strong leader with whom it can reach a stable agreement. Hosni Mubarak, hereinafter "dictator," is a welcome model. Abu Mazen, hereinafter "elected leader," is a warning against things to come.
But reality sometimes looks a little different from Washington, and the result of the democratic process in the PA is important mainly for its ability to have a ripple effect on similar processes. If democracy leads to chaos - it won't offer much temptation for the neighbors. If it brings a glorious achievement for Hamas - the temptation could prove lethal. Only the middle way is good for the Americans. And so far, they haven't identified another leader, besides Abu Mazen, who can zigzag through the obstacle course they themselves put in place.
His disadvantages are well known to them, and they regretfully come to terms with the fact that this will not be a truly stable regime, nor a democracy by the book. That is why they wanted a referendum that would bolster Abu Mazen's standing and weaken his rivals; that is why they will continue supporting the presidential guard that is not subordinate to the government, in the hope that it will manage to impose order in the PA. It will certainly safeguard Abu Mazen, and also vulnerable border crossings, and - who knows? - it might even bend Hamas' militias. And if not, then at the very least he will serve as a counter-weight for them.
Because this is how the Americans see their situation, Israel's situation, Abbas' situation - what a senior Israeli official termed "a lame joke": rickety and pathetic though it be, it is the only crutch to lean on in a precarious situation. In any event those grabbing on to it will also agree to pay with the hard currency of credibility. They won't be ashamed to strengthen "the president" at the expense of "the government" - even if not so long ago they sought to do just the opposite. And as for the claim that this is, in fact, typical American hypocrisy, they will reply with a shrug: Better hypocrisy than disaster. Or Hamas. Or chaos.