- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
One of the silliest things ever written was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s statement that, "There are no second acts in American lives." Fitzgerald obviously wasn’t around to witness the lives of Oliver North, Elliot Spitzer, G. Gordon Liddy, Elliott Abrams, or Madonna’s entire career. I’m even betting Tiger Woods manages a pretty successful second act after his own embarrassing melodrama.
If Fitzgerald were alive today and studying the United States’ Middle East policy, he’d never have written such a silly line. I refer to Laura Rozen’s latest Politico column, entitled "On the Mideast: Waiting for Superman." Rozen suggests that the Obama administration is thinking about bringing former Clinton-era official Martin Indyk into the government to jump-start the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks. She also speculates about the possibility of using former president Bill Clinton as some sort of a special envoy, an idea that has been recently advanced by New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons.
Waiting for Superman? More like Waiting for Godot.
There’s little doubt that the Obama’s administration’s handling of Mideast affairs has been an embarrassing failure, but it is hard to see how these personnel moves would help. Nothing personal, but didn’t these guys have the chance to produce an Israel-Palestinian peace in the 1990s — when conditions were a lot more favorable — and didn’t their efforts end in near-total failure? (That goes for Dennis Ross too, who is already a key player on this issue in the current administration, and who seems to be repeating his past mistakes.) Clinton, Indyk, and Ross were handed a golden opportunity with the Oslo Peace Accords back in 1993, and they spent the rest of the 1990s squandering it. They had plenty of help from the Israelis and Palestinians, but the U.S. record during that decade is hardly one that inspires confidence.
Let’s also not forget that Indyk was the chief architect of "dual containment," a remarkably foolish policy that achieved the neat trick of putting the United States at odds with two countries (Iran and Iraq) that also hated each other. It also forced the United States to keep large air and ground forces in the Persian Gulf, thereby contributing to the rise of al Qaeda. And as both Ken Pollock and Trita Parsi have shown, a primary motive for dual containment was reassuring Israel about Iran, so that it would be more forthcoming in the peace discussions. Gee, that worked out great, didn’t it?
As for the former president, it’s clear he recognizes the value that a peace deal would bring, and I don’t question his sincerity on this issue. But his own track record isn’t encouraging either. The number of Israeli settlers more than doubled during his eight years as president, and he didn’t lift a finger to stop it. Moreover, he persuaded Yasser Arafat to go to the hastily-prepared Camp David summit by promising Arafat that he would not be blamed if the talks didn’t succeed. But when the talks collapsed, Clinton walked out to the microphones and put all the blame squarely on Arafat, in violation of his earlier promise and contrary to the available evidence. (Arafat was partly to blame for Camp David’s failure, but so were the United States and Israel.) That act of political vengeance contributed greatly to the myth that Israel has "no partner" for peace, a belief that has undermined all subsequent efforts to end this tragic conflict.
When it comes to the United States’ Middle East policy, in short, there are an infinite number of "second acts." In a country of 300 million people, you’d think we could find a few fresh faces to handle these issues, instead of retreads who have been tried and found wanting. Instead, we keep recycling the same people (mostly for domestic political reasons), who adopt more-or-less the same negotiating strategy, yet somehow we expect a different, happier ending. And so we get the same familiar melodrama, and like any tragedy, the play always ends badly.