A Moderate Revival?

February 12, 2009 Region: Americas

A Moderate Revival?

The election of Barack Obama, combined with Tzipi Livni’s strong showing in Israel and Mohammad Khatami’s return to politics in Iran, might herald an international resurgence of pragmatism.

The Israeli elections, coupled with the summer vote in Iran, could contribute to the arc of moderates forming in key countries across the globe-from the United States to Pakistan to India. This depends on the political winds settling the dust the right way in Israel and Iran. And the operative word-for all the promise of change in the United States-is moderates. There is no clear transformational figure in the heap and many have not made pretenses of being one. But the completion of the arc would deliver these leaders an opportunity to prove what they can achieve in concert.

There is a clear distaste for moderate leadership in quarters of both the Left and the Right around the world-given a conviction that these leaders will perpetuate a status quo that is contrary to the domestic and global good. Writing for Haaretz, Gideon Levy offered a compelling argument in this regard, maintaining that a Livni triumph would put a softer, more salable face on policies that are counterproductive to breaking ground with the Arab world. Levy said that a Netanyahu victory could eventually force a crisis that might eventually lead to traction toward peace. And Geoffrey Kemp, writing for TNI online, posited a similar argument on the other end of the spectrum, arguing that a Khatami electoral victory could complicate the nonproliferation efforts of the United States and others, since it would put a more palatable face on Iran's continuing, and possibly infectious, nuclear ambitions.

But the United States has only a limited capacity for brinkmanship and forcing its will abroad. That capital was spent in Iraq. The ongoing, and apparently escalating, financial crisis is serious enough to impair U.S. economic vitality for a decade and beyond. This scenario should be the main focus of those observers concerned about a challenge to U.S. predominance in the Middle East and elsewhere. Any decrease in the global supply of oil, potentially precipitated by a confrontation with Iran, would deepen the economic troubles and limit America's ability to project power.

And the prospect of a post-crisis Israeli-Arab peace agreement is attractive and seemingly feasible. Conflict-fatigue has indeed led to resolution of crises elsewhere. But protracted conflict can also radicalize populations, and cause them to perpetually seek to "honor" their dead through continued fighting and recalcitrance in negotiations. There is an instinctual logic to such entrenchment. The latter appears to define the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic and will likely continue to do so, regardless of Israel's new leadership. Both populations have lived through serial crises, with no breakthrough in peace. It remains possible, though, that moderates working together could make achievements on the margins-not unlike India and Pakistan had been doing until Mumbai. The Israelis and Palestinians may not be agitated by a plodding or even a failed peace initiative, as long as the U.S. president does not then turn around and point a finger of blame at the Palestinian side, as President Clinton did with Arafat after the Camp David collapse.

The Iranian people, meanwhile, support improved relations with the United States and their right to develop nuclear technology. With a credible inspection regime, these preferences may not be irreconcilable. Also, Iranians now lack the revolutionary zeal to radically change their political system-something Americans are also, presumably, unwilling to effect by force.

Moderate leaders, by temperament and ability, are limited in range of action by what their populations are ready for. But they also need not do less than the popular sentiment allows. President Obama has said he hears Abraham Lincoln when drafting speeches, but he is not Lincoln's comrade in circumstance. Obama essentially faces the long, hard slog of repairing the damage inflicted by his predecessor. And though the president is being criticized for overly obliging Republicans on the economic stimulus package, polls demonstrate a majority supports Obama's approach, even though they may not favor the whole package in substance.

America just had a transformational president, willing to throw up the chessboard and rearrange the pieces. Bush indeed left the country much transformed. And after America was led by its own Netanyahu at a pivotal moment, what did we get? We got Obama. We will see what he can achieve, along with his temperamental brethren.


Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.