Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world on Thursday in Cairo has been generally well received, as at least a major step towards repairing America’s image in the Middle East. But the power of Obama’s oratory is so great that it almost puts him at a disadvantage; it makes it easier for some critics to dismiss it as just “words”, in contrast with “deeds”.
Hence, for example, Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli conservative writing in the New Republic, complained that “Words … will only be remembered as significant if they have consequences”, and drew attention to “two imminent opportunities to test the effectiveness” of the speech: “Will it help the more moderate candidates win in next week’s Lebanon election? The week after, will it help in transforming Iranian public opinion and make Iranians more prone to oust their radical president?”
I don’t think that’s a very fair test: many factors determine election results, and you can’t pin all the responsibility on one speech, however good, in the last week of the campaign. But if the Lebanese election was a test of Obama’s effectiveness, he passed with flying colors: the pro-western coalition of prime minister Saad Hariri was re-elected with its majority intact.
Speculation last week had been that the opposition, led by the militant Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, would emerge on top, but preliminary results show Hariri’s “March 14 Alliance” with between 69 and 71 of the 128 seats. In 2005 they won 72.
The media are presenting the result as a huge relief for Israel and the United States. That’s certainly true as far as the US goes; a Hezbollah victory would have made Obama’s task much harder. But the Israeli government might see things a little differently. Its strategy depends on convincing the world that the Arabs are bent on its destruction and cannot be trusted as partners in peace — results like this one make that case less and less plausible.
Daniel Pipes, one of the most crazed of the neoconservatives, was reported last week as admitting that, if he had a vote in the Iranian election, he would probably support hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For similar reasons, it’s easy to imagine Israel’s Avigdor Lieberman entertaining a preference for Hezbollah.
In any case, Hezbollah is not going away any time soon. Its participation in a democratic election and graceful concession of defeat are positive signs and, in keeping with Lebanon’s institutionalised power-sharing, Hariri is expected to include Hezbollah ministers in his new government.
While it’s always nice to have moderates win, that’s not the big test for either peace or democracy. Getting moderates to agree with one another is no great challenge. A successful peace process will require the hard-liners to be brought within the tent, and the real victory comes when democratic institutions are strong enough to withstand the election of extremists.