Column: The case for moderates

By Farah Stockman / The Boston Globe

There was a reason they killed her first.

Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a Hutu, believed in living in peace with Tutsis. She was about to go on the radio to appeal for calm. Had she lived, and had her message been heeded, the extermination campaign against Tutsis in Rwanda might never have gotten off the ground.

That’s the irony of “identity” conflicts. The voices that can pull a country back from the brink are the easiest ones to silence. Moderates are sitting ducks. They face enemies on two fronts: extremists in their own camp, and those on the other side.

In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels systematically assassinated Tamil politicians who showed a willingness to compromise. In Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, who reached out to Catholics and even visited a convent, was forced to resign by his own party. Even here in the United States, partisan wrangling has turned “moderate” into a dirty name for an endangered species. In red states, moderate Republicans get picked off by the Tea Party. In blue states, they get trounced by the likes of Elizabeth Warren.

”You can see this pattern whereby leaders who moderate their policies find themselves displaced by a rival,” said Brendan O’Leary, a former senior adviser on power-sharing to the United Nations, who now teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

So are moderates doomed?

Not exactly, O’Leary said. But timing matters: “Moderates are most important at the outset of new regimes.”

When a change in government happens, moderates have a tiny window of opportunity to set an inclusive tone.

When John Garang, a rebel leader in South Sudan, got killed in a plane crash, his widow could have urged the mass murder of his long-time foes. Instead, she assured her countrymen that the crash was an accident.

But leaders often miss those precious moments when moderation is possible. The new Ukrainian government that came to power in February could have sent a message of unity: that Ukraine is a nation of two languages — Ukrainian and Russian — and two regions — East and West. Instead, it signaled that Russian might no longer be considered an official language. That made it much easier for Vladimir Putin to stir up anger and dissent among ethnic Russians.

In Syria, too, O’Leary sees a tragically missed opportunity.

At the beginning of the protests, opposition forces spoke of unity for all Syrians. But, as the war dragged on, the mostly Sunni rebel fighters did little to reassure minority groups about the future. They refused to promise the Kurds more autonomy. They didn’t tell the Alawites that a new regime would forgive them for supporting Bashar Assad. They offered no credible protections to Christians who feared Sharia law.

Recently in Aleppo, a prominent opposition activist was reportedly forced to wear a hijab, even though she’s Christian. “It is impossible for us Christians to live with these armed groups,” she wrote on her Facebook page. Christians, she wrote, should “leave this country. It’s not ours any more.”

With stories like this, it’s no wonder that minorities have turned away from the rebels. And its no wonder that the Assad regime has regained the upper hand.

The moment that moderation expires is the moment conflicts spin out of control. People take sides. Positions harden. Bodies start piling up. The thirst for revenge sets in. By then, moderates have gotten killed, or dismissed as traitors, or they have transformed into extremists. When a situation reaches full-blown war, hardliners are viewed as the true representatives of their people.

That dynamic could explain why Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to walk away from peace talks in recent weeks. As talks drag on with few concessions from Israel, he’s worried about being sidelined by other Palestinian leaders, who are increasingly calling him a “sell-out.”

If conflicts go on long enough, moderation disappears. In Rwanda, it’s a bad sign that many people once considered “Hutu moderates” are now viewed as extremists. Agathe Uwilingiyimana died a hero of the genocide. But if she were alive today, I wonder what she would be called.

— Farah Stockman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.