Never-Ending Stories

Peace processes don’t work.

In the Newspaper Roundup, The National Interest distills the day's foreign-policy editorials.


Never-Ending Stories (April 27)

Yesterday, we noted Richard Haass's op-ed on how the United States shouldn't focus all its energy on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Today, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens takes that viewpoint, broadens it and makes it global. While Haass was concerned with the disadvantages of pursuing a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace plan, Stephens is convinced that all peace processes are a bad idea.

He uses the recent sinking of a South Korean naval vessel as a springboard for his thoughts. It is suspected by some that North Korea torpedoed the ship. "Kim Jong Il," Stephens writes, "likes his metaphors to be as literal as possible. When he wants to blow up diplomacy with the U.S., he detonates a nuke. When he wants to torpedo relations with South Korea, he torpedoes one of their ships." Despite this bellicosity, Stephens believes that a lot of people in the West simply don't get it: "Every time [Kim Jong Il] bids to be the Worst Person in the World, some liberal chimes in to explain that he's just a short, misunderstood man driving a tough peace bargain, badly in need of Jimmy Carter's TLC."

Stephens sees the Obama administration's approach to peacemaking-presumably not only in North Korea, but also in Israel, Iran and other trouble spots-as little different. Although Stephens doesn't explicitly say so, he seems to believe that this sort of diplomacy emphasizes process and dialogue above all else, even if process and dialogue aren't producing any results. The Obama team, Stephens argues, isn't the first to employ this method-it has a long pedigree in American statecraft, dating back to the first Bush administration, and continuing on during the Clinton years.

Back then, Foggy Bottom had all kinds of peace plans, for the Koreas, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Columbia and Sri Lanka. "Name your intractable conflict," Stephens says, "and the U.S. State Department had its hand off-the-shelf appliance to deal with it."

Were any of these programs successful? Well, the Northern Ireland one was. But Stephens isn't willing to concede that American involvement in the dispute helped end the conflict between unionists and republicans. The eventual settlement "owed less to George Mitchell's interventions than to the fact that the conflict-pitting prosperous, English-speaking Irish Protestants against increasingly prosperous, English-speaking Irish Catholics-no longer made sense to the bourgeois terrorists at the helm of the IRA."

Meanwhile, the other peace plans didn't work at all. The Sierra Leone deal "collapsed within months." Colombia's resolution "ceded an area the size of Switzerland to the FARC" leftist rebel organization. Instead of getting along with Bogota, the FARC "used its safe haven to better arm itself, take high-profile hostages, train foreign terrorists and nearly overthrow the government." The Palestinians and Israelis went on disagreeing. And North Korea's peace deal involved the transfer of "several hundred million dollars" from Seoul to Pyongyang "for a June 2000 photo-op summit that produced nothing."

Not a very good track record. Why, then, do we persist in this peace-process framework if it doesn't achieve anything? Stephens believes that "even as peace processes almost invariably fail between the warring parties, they also almost invariably succeed as political theatre for the peace processors themselves." Quite a few of the leaders involved in the above proposals (Stephens mentions Kim Dae Jung, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and President Obama) won Nobel prizes for their work. As such, what Stephens sees as a meaningless political charade will continue, as "the peace processors . . . bask in the glow of their good intentions." But it will be to their, and their nation's, detriment. For "wicked men, convenient partners in this game of self-congratulation, illusion and deceit, will plot their own advantage."


The Distraction (April 26)

Richard Haass is getting tired of President Obama's great interest in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he argues that while "peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value" and "constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States," it wouldn't be a panacea. "It is easy to exaggerate," Haass writes, "how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs." A peace settlement certainly won't solve all our problems in the Middle East. In fact, it might even serve as a distraction from far more pressing issues that need to be dealt with-now.

Take Iraq, for example. Haass notes that the country is in the midst of a peaceful political struggle to form a new government. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds all want to participate in the process. They are "divided over the composition of the new government, how to share oil revenues, and where to draw the border between Kurdish and Arab areas." The creation of a Palestinian state would do absolutely nothing to resolve "any of these power struggles."