Slouching Toward Jerusalem

Slouching Toward Jerusalem

Mini Teaser: The United States has been a surprisingly ineffectual Middle East peacemaker. Clinton’s overenthusiasm and Bush’s lack of interest caused us to lose our credibility with both Israel and Palestine.

by Author(s): Aaron David Miller

HAVING WORKED for the administrations of five former presidents, I want to offer some very unsolicited advice about the challenges the Obama administration faces in dealing with the Arab-Israeli situation. It's neither the most nor least important issue America faces abroad, nor even in the Middle East; yet experts and pundits will spill gallons of ink arguing over how important it really is to protecting American interests. But one thing about the conflict is painfully clear: unless the president tries to manage it, it will manage him.

Most American presidents have failed in dealing with what Harry Truman called the fifty-year headache. It is a two-part headache really-on one level a conflict between Israel and its Arab-state neighbors, both those who share contiguous borders with Israel and those who do not. And on another level it is a conflict between Israel and a Palestinian nationalist movement. Indeed, in the course of its involvements, the United States has had few successes in brokering agreements between these states, a handful of moments really where a combination of changes in the region and tough, smart American diplomacy came together to produce results.

Near and far misses-not to mention outright failures-have been the norm. Given the growing importance of the entire region to our national interests, continued floundering on Arab-Israeli peacemaking is something we can no longer afford. For the past sixteen years-under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush-America has stumbled at peacemaking and bumbled at making war. As a result, we are neither feared, respected nor admired as much as we need to be in a part of the world from which the principal threat to America's security is likely to come.

Right now, even with the uptick in positive perceptions of America as Obama settles into the White House, with apologies to Jonathan Swift, the United States continues to be perceived like some modern-day Gulliver, wandering around in a part of the world it does not understand nearly well enough, tied up by smaller powers (both nonstate and state) that seem to have more tenacity than Washington. And when we're not confounded by these smaller powers, we're tying ourselves up with our own illusions about how to make deals and at what cost, not to mention by the constraints of our own domestic politics-particularly the influence of the pro-Israel community.

Franklin Roosevelt once said that Lincoln was a sad man because he couldn't have everything. Indeed, governing is about choosing. Considering the current financial crisis, political capital cannot be expended or wasted on foreign-policy issues that are not top priority. Nevertheless, Obama cannot be a consequential president without protecting the nation's security and creating a coherent and successful foreign policy. In the Middle East, this means picking spots carefully.

With ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unstable situation in Pakistan and perhaps a looming confrontation with Iran over the nuclear issue, the foreign-policy agenda is obviously already full. Making room for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian situations, though, is critical. These issues, particularly the Palestinian dimension, continue to resonate powerfully-emotionally and ideologically-in a region filled with anger at America. The sources of that anger run deep, from our support for authoritarian regimes, to the perception that the United States blindly supports Israel. The region's authoritarian governments use much of that anger to mask a deeper malaise inherent in their own regimes-regimes that have failed to deliver politically and economically on promises to their constituents and that refuse to take responsibility for their own dysfunction. Reform movements are checked by governments, particularly in Syria, that seek to maintain a mode of confrontation with Israel (without the costly consequences of an actual war) to preserve their power and control over state resources. In other cases, such as Egypt, the official press is given considerable leeway to blast the Israelis, maintain regime legitimacy, and co-opt and outflank the opposition. Solving the Arab-Israeli issue is no panacea for what ails this broken and divided region. But not dealing with it will continue to pose serious security risks for Israel, leave Arab moderates that are aligned with America exposed to angry Arab streets and opposition movements, and enhance the influence of others, including Iran.

In the spirit of avoiding future catastrophes and perhaps mining some opportunities in this much-too-promised land, here are recommendations drawn from traveling a negotiator's highway-one admittedly strewn with more defeats than triumphs. Embracing them will not guarantee success; ignoring them will almost certainly guarantee failure.


HOW AMERICA deals with the Israelis through all of this will be critical to success. They need to be reassured. With Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran developing a nuclear weapon, Israel has serious security challenges that will require American support. But over the last two presidencies, the special bond between the United States and Israel that serves American interests turned into an exclusive bond that does not. This relationship must be rethought.

Essay Types: Essay