Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Finding Moderates or Cultivating Them?

Not unfairly to quote out of context, but the following sentence, a now-common formulation, symbolizes a problem in Washington's attitude toward Islamic adversaries that is cropping up constantly at the moment. It results from thinking things only half way through.

"The Obama administration should also look carefully at how to reach moderate Hamas elements and engineer a Hamas Fatah reconciliation"

The original error was the Bush Administration effort to push all potential opponents of the U.S. into each other's arms ("if you're not with us, you're against us"). The Obama Administration seems to have gone halfway toward solving that fundamental foreign policy error by admitting that we might be able to talk to "moderates." Maybe so. Among all the Islamic militants around, no doubt there are some who are just defending themselves from aerial attack by outsiders. However, the real breakthrough would be not to admit that it is useful to search for "moderates" but to recognize the degree to which U.S. behavior is at fault and conclude that the way to find a solution is to offer Islamic militants a reasonable compromise. In other words, the key is not to discover moderates in hiding, but to persuade as many militants as possible that war is not the only answer.

Is this just wishful thinking? Who knows? The answer will undoubtedly not be the same for all times and places. The point is to try to make them an offer that some will not be able to refuse - an offer of a compromise that both sides can live with.

  • The point is not to identify some Hamas member wishing to live under Israeli colonial oppression but to offer the Hamas an apology about January 2006 and a second chance to participate in Palestinian democracy, not to mention liberation.
  • The point is not to identify some Iranian apologist for the Shah but to see if a reasonable combination of security guarantees and openness to considering Iranian perspectives on such issues as U.S. regional military deployments, the international narcotics trade, the future political course of Iraq, and Palestinian liberation would persuade a significant portion of the Iranian elite to engage constructively.
  • The point is not to buy off Taliban members one by one but to demonstrate that they might, without fighting, be able to have a deal including the end to U.S. attacks, efforts to eliminate some of the injustice of Pakistani and Afghan society, such economic aid as they may want, and consideration of their religious views in return for rooting out al Qua'ida and settling things domestically without violence.

The point, to make it simple, is not to discover closet moderates but to create moderation. Each step toward cultivating moderation involves modifying Washington's appetites. We did much to create their extremism; if we try half as hard to create moderation, who knows what we might achieve?

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