Foreign affairs had no more than a small part in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and the Middle East peace process only a fraction of that. Yet the sorry prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians make a break with past US policy on this matter imperative, regardless of the new administration’s priorities.
The need for a move away from the lethal mix of arrogance and ignorance characteristic of George W. Bush’s presidency is hard to dispute. That is not all that needs breaking away from. Some observers have welcomed the past year’s surge of older-style US diplomacy, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s multiple visits to the region, efforts to build Palestinian institutions and security forces, and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over a final status agreement. Yet spin aside, these efforts hardly can be deemed successful. Realities on the ground—from settlement construction to deepening divisions within Palestinian and Israeli societies to growing disillusionment with a two-state solution—render the possibility of a peace accord increasingly remote.
The failings of Bush’s efforts have also revived nostalgia for President Clinton’s. But it is a nostalgia born as much of anger with the present as of longing for the past. The 1990s were a time of US activism on behalf of peace, yet there is a record to contend with. It is not as forgiving. On this issue, Clinton’s term concluded in failure, and it is a failure that bears at least some relation to the policies so lamented today.
President Obama will need to make a change, of that there can be little doubt. But it will take more than turning the page on the worst of the Bush years. It will mean writing an entirely different script.
Recent books by veteran US policymakers attempt to shed light on the mistakes of the past and offer guidance for the future. The Much Too Promised Land is Aaron Miller’s highly personal account of what he calls “America’s elusive search for Arab–Israeli peace.” The result of a study undertaken by the US Institute of Peace, Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky’s Negotiating Arab–Israeli Peace focuses on the Clinton and the two Bush presidencies, presenting a manual on what future officeholders should and should not do. Martin Indyk’s Innocent Abroad gives a broader picture. An ambitious comparison of the last two failed American attempts to transform the Middle East—Clinton through peace and Bush via war—it explores both the Arab–Israeli conflict and US policy toward Iran and Iraq. Somewhere at the heart of this quest, as Indyk’s title suggests and all three books conclude, are the labors of an often well-intentioned, frequently bewildered, and almost perpetually outmaneuvered superpower.
The three books offer sharp, at times unyielding critiques of the last two presidents. Yet none of the authors was a passive spectator during their terms in office. Miller, Kurtzer, and Indyk all had prominent parts in shaping or executing US policy. Kurtzer, who served as ambassador in Cairo and Tel Aviv between 1997 and 2005, held positions from which it was difficult to shape critical policy decisions and, in fairness, he constantly raised questions from afar.
No such luck for Miller or Indyk. Miller was an adviser to every administration since Ronald Reagan’s and, under Clinton, deputy to the Middle East peace envoy; as he repeatedly and self-critically acknowledges, he more often than not advocated the policies he now laments. Indyk is in a class all his own. Head of the Middle East office at the White House, assistant secretary for Near East affairs, and twice ambassador to Israel (1995–1997 and 2000–2001), he has held virtually every conceivable position of influence on the issue. The books also quote a myriad of former high-ranking officials who do not take a charitable view when it comes to their respective administration’s performance.
One should be only mildly surprised. There is a long tradition of former US Middle East officials retroactively bemoaning the strategies they once helped shape. Retrospective hand-wringing, far from an anomaly, has become something of a job hazard. None of the books fully confronts this phenomenon, which is a pity. The ritual has become pervasive enough and of sufficient consequence to warrant some discussion.
The Much Too Promised Land, Negotiating Arab–Israeli Peace, and Innocent Abroad tell broadly similar tales of an America that, naive, overzealous, or both, lost itself in the Middle East maze, was repeatedly outfoxed by those it sought to influence, and time and again fell short of its objectives. All three books should be read by analysts and those in the Obama administration who will be charged with picking up where Bush leaves off.
Their principal differences are stylistic. Kurtzer and Lasensky have written a sober, rigorous, no-frills account relying heavily on dozens of interviews with an imposing cast of current and former policymakers. The result is an impressive and refreshingly concise book. Indyk’s is part memoir, part political analysis, elegantly written, and hard to put down. Miller’s book is of a different sort. Informal, personal, and conversational, it is deeply introspective, as is its writer, who reveals himself to be at once intensely self-confident and inherently self-doubting. For much of his professional life, Miller worked in the large shadow of an outsized boss, Dennis Ross. Most of that time, one gathers, Miller believes he could not, or at least did not, speak his mind. Now is his chance. The Much Too Promised Land is not so much a history book or even an autobiography. It is Miller’s declaration of independence.
For all three authors, George W. Bush provides a straightforward and relatively uncontroversial target. We are left with the portrait of a man—and an administration—who were uninterested in the peace process, inattentive to the impact of their policies, uninformed about reality, incapable of follow-through, and utterly unembarrassed by it all. Ideologically, the new Bush team was inclined to downgrade the importance of the Arab–Israeli conflict; politically it was inclined to do the exact opposite of what Clinton had done. “There’s no Nobel Peace Prize to be had here,” Indyk quotes Bush as saying early in his tenure.
Of the accusations leveled against Bush’s policy, the most commonly voiced is that it was “disengaged.” Kurtzer and Lasensky condemn him for not being “actively engaged” in the peace process and regret that the “administration effectively disengaged for close to eight years.” Indyk evokes the President’s “default position of disengagement.” And Miller writes disapprovingly that “George W. Bush came into office with a mindset already predisposed to disengag- ing America from the Arab–Israeli issue.” Forget about the “Decider”; in Miller’s account, Bush has become the “Disengager.”
It is a curious charge, at once too mild and off-target. It suggests a passive, flaccid, laissez-faire attitude that could hardly be further from the historical truth and that would have been far preferable to it. Bush’s policies did not reflect disengagement; they were the outcome of a uniquely ambitious, often brutal, and always intensely engaged effort to reshape the Middle East. At its core, Bush’s Middle East strategy was as intrusive and interventionist as one could imagine.
Almost from the outset, the administration clumsily intervened in Palestinian politics, helped rewrite the Palestinian Basic Law, proclaimed Arafat a pariah, anointed its own favorite substitute leaders, insisted on Palestinian internal reform as a precondition for peace, took positions on a final agreement in a 2004 letter from Bush to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that tilted the playing field, encouraged confrontation between the nationalist Fatah and Islamist Hamas, imposed sanctions on Syria, and discouraged the resumption of Israeli–Syrian talks. Throughout, the Bush administration misread local dynamics, ignored the toxicity of its embrace, overestimated the influence of money and military assistance, and neglected the impact of conviction, loyalty, and faith.
On the dubious premise that talking to an enemy is a reward, the administration cut itself off from, and left itself with little leverage over, the region’s more dynamic actors, whether Islamist organizations, Syria, or Iran. It propped up local Palestinian and Lebanese allies, who mimic the West’s language, depend upon the US for resources and support, yet lack an effective domestic base. In short, it helped them in ways that hurt. How much more the US could have achieved by doing much less.
Bush’s sin was not disengagement, assuming disengagement is a sin at all. Judiciously deployed, actual disengagement—that is, taking a step back, forcing local parties to deal with one another, and demonstrating that the United States is neither excessively eager nor overly available—can be an effective, and often is an underused, tactic. Certainly, it is superior to a surprisingly common form of US engagement: the impulse to take a trip, roll out an initiative, or call a summit regardless of timing or consequence.
The past twelve months provide ample proof of the limitations of such practices. Bush’s empty promise of a final agreement by the end of 2008—like Condoleezza Rice’s peripatetic schedule, hollow feel-good pronouncements, and repeated unproductive meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders at a time when, with politically frail leaderships on both sides, even the most admirable peace accord would have lacked all credibility—lent engagement a bad name. The flaw was not that Bush failed to engage. It was how he chose to do so.
If Bush is easy prey, Clinton makes for more complicated and intriguing quarry. Whereas Miller, Indyk, and Kurtzer left the current administration midway through and with barely concealed frustration, they stayed with Clinton till the bitter end. Their books are full of praise for his personal devotion to Arab–Israeli peace. They laud his team’s unremitting efforts. They also elucidate how what they describe, in almost identical terms, as “an ideal strategic environment for peacemaking” gave way to the collapse of the Israeli–Palestinian and Israeli–Syrian negotiations as well as to the second Palestinian uprising.
Many explanations have been offered for this turn of events. All three books suggest deep deficiencies among Israelis and Arabs; none is sparing when it comes to evaluating Palestinian, Israeli, or Syrian leaders. But that is not their principal interest. Judging America is.
For all its positive qualities, the books argue, the Clinton approach was excessively undisciplined; it privileged process to the detriment of substance, and too often failed to hold parties accountable. Indyk argues that as Clinton’s presidency came to a close, he projected his timetable on Israelis and Palestinians who lacked his sense of urgency. He assumed they were driven by the sort of American pragmatism for which they had little appetite. Kurtzer and Miller complain that the US kept potential Arab and European allies at arm’s length and sought to resolve the conflict step by step rather than aim for a final resolution. They also regret the insularity of an American peace team whose insufficient balance and diversity led it to see things, according to Miller, “mainly from an Israeli perspective.” Mostly, they fault the Clinton administration for lacking a coherent strategy that would have enabled it to promote its own ideas rather than be subject to the parties’ will and whims.