Obama’s Eminence Grise

For decades, George Mitchell has worked, quietly and diligently, on Washington's most intractable political problems. This week, he shows his cards on Middle East peace.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Among the many kinds of political animals found in Washington, few are as widely admired as the Gray Man. Quietly competent, somewhat bland, respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, and most comfortable working tactfully behind the scenes, the Gray Man is a dying breed in today’s American politics. He is often spotted in a beige trench coat or gold-buttoned navy blazer in his native environment, the Senate committee hearing or the long seminar at Brookings. Unlike his flashier cousins, such as the Red-Blooded Partisan or the Silver-Tongued Orator, the Gray Man eschews the media spotlight — in fact, he speaks in public as little as possible. In a Fox News era, he is unapologetically a C-SPAN kind of guy, to the eternal gratitude of those in politics who are counting on him to get the real work done while others blather endlessly.

Modern-day specimens of the breed include Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Sen. Richard Lugar, but the unquestioned Alpha is George Mitchell. Since retiring as the Democratic Senate majority leader in 1995, Mitchell, 76, has patiently worked to resolve numerous seemingly intractable conflicts, including Northern Ireland and the steroids scandal in baseball, winning plaudits for his tenacity and evenhandedness while remaining curiously anonymous to most of the American public. Now, as President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, Mitchell finds himself back in the spotlight — or as close as he ever gets to it, anyway — ahead of this week’s United Nations General Assembly session, which could serve as a venue for relaunching the troubled peace process. Obama’s plan to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in New York is a start. The looming question, given the particularly difficult circumstances that prevail in the Middle East, is whether even this most distinguished of Gray Men is capable of brokering a broader breakthrough.

A former Army intelligence officer and federal judge of Lebanese descent, Mitchell is fond of telling people, "There’s no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended." Indeed, he seems to take genuine pleasure in addressing the planet’s most arcane, contentious debates. Prior to being drafted by Obama in January, he was participating in a bipartisan panel of elder statesmen including his old Republican Senate colleague, Bob Dole. When the panel presented its recommendations on U.S. health-care reform this summer, Dole joked, "George left early because he thought solving Mideast peace would be easier." The audience laughed, but those who knew Mitchell wondered if he had, in fact, departed in search of a bigger challenge — the holy grail of negotiators.

During his numerous trips to the Middle East this year, Mitchell has largely employed the same techniques as he did early on in Northern Ireland. There, he began by meeting individual parties in the conflict and, essentially, letting them vent for as long as they liked. In his memoir Making Peace, Mitchell recalled his first encounter with the Rev. Ian Paisley, in which the unionist minister, evidently displeased by the appointment of an envoy with some Irish roots, refused to even sit down. Paisley limited his responses to Mitchell’s polite queries to a loud, grating: "No. No. No. No."

"I was accustomed to rough-and-tumble political debate," Mitchell later wrote, "but I’d never experienced anything like this." By most accounts, his initial closed-door meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and others have been much more polite, but only incrementally more productive.

Mitchell listened attentively while in Belfast, betraying no sign of fatigue or frustration, allowing his patrons to exhaust themselves with invective until they were finally ready to be led — by the nose, if necessary — toward compromise. Among Protestants and Catholics alike, Mitchell slowly built personal relationships with the same attention to detail that made him such an effective majority leader in the Senate, where getting bills passed means not only understanding the political stakes for all the major players, but also the seemingly tiny details that can impact the timing of a vote, such as who has to be back in their home district for their kid’s soccer game.

"He is a man of serious intent and serious purpose," Mark Durkan, a key player on the Irish nationalist negotiating team, told the BBC in 1999. Mitchell was patient when necessary — he famously described the Northern Ireland peace process as "700 days of failure and one day of success" — but he was also unafraid to set tough deadlines. The famed 1998 "Good Friday accord" was concluded after a 36-hour sprint of negotiations that ended, Mitchell wrote, with a final phone call from unionist leader David Trimble and "tears welling in my eyes." Also worth noting: For all its fanfare, that agreement was basically a place holder, one that wasn’t fully secure until final peace accords were signed in 2007. Mitchell’s professed willingness to focus on what’s possible under given circumstances — even if that means an incomplete deal that doesn’t fully please anyone — seemingly fits well with the ethos of compromise that characterizes the Obama administration (see Health Care, Fall 2009).

One enduring truth about mediation is that all sides usually know, deep in their hearts, what a final agreement will look like. The role of the mediator, then, is to help create the political and personal circumstances necessary for such an agreement to take root. That certainly seems to be the case in the Middle East, where many observers think that a peace deal will inevitably involve an independent Palestinian state, Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist, a freeze and partial dismantlement of Israeli settlements, and some kind of special status for Jerusalem. The broad outlines of an end-state solution were equally apparent from the start in Northern Ireland. Mitchell was the man who was able to convince the leaders to put years of mistrust aside and accept the inevitable.

So what made the difference? What led to the breakthrough? In a 2007 interview with the Guardian, Mitchell zeroed in on the popular mood that prevailed among all sides of the public debate in Northern Ireland during the 1990s: "The two messages [political leaders] were getting, and really they’re still getting from their constituents, are: ‘Look, we want this settled. We don’t want this conflict to continue.’"

Unfortunately, that kind of popular groundswell, that feeling of inevitability, is precisely what seems to be missing in the Middle East in late 2009. The Israeli public is focused on the looming threat from Iran’s nuclear program, and in February it elected a leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who long resisted the idea of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians, meanwhile, are preoccupied with their internal split between Fatah and Hamas, which in turn makes a united negotiating front impossible. Polls show that neither Palestinians nor Israelis have much faith in Obama’s ability to broker a deal. Meanwhile, it is highly debatable whether, if Obama were to list his most urgent policy priorities, Middle East peace would make the top five. "The chances of meaningful success are slim to none," said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center who has advised six U.S. secretaries of state on the peace process. Of Mitchell, he says: "I admire the man. I offer my condolences on the mandate."

In the short term, the bar for success is relatively low — it would essentially constitute Mitchell shepherding Israelis and Palestinians back to the table for meaningful negotiations for the first time since December. (This week’s sit-down doesn’t count, Abbas’ spokesman has insisted.)

However, given the present climate, creating a real sense of urgency might require a more forceful, vocal, even inflammatory kind of leadership than a Gray Man is able to provide. There is a time for table-pounders, too; maybe this is one of them. "George is not the kind of guy who will slam his notebook shut and say — ‘I’m leaving,’" Miller says. James Baker, the brash Texan who was secretary of state and Middle East point man under former President George H.W. Bush, did precisely that — three separate times, and to great effect, Miller says.

The danger is that, precisely because of his tact and reserve, Mitchell could be endlessly strung along by parties who don’t fear him — or his notoriously cool boss, Obama. After eight months of talks with little tangible result, that concern is already percolating in much of the Arab press. The Syrian newspaper Tishrin noted in an editorial this week that "after five visits to the region, Mitchell is still touring" while "the peace process is completely stuck." Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Al-Safir worried that "between every Mitchell visit, more Palestinian land is being lost and more Israeli settlements are being built."

For his part, Mitchell seems acutely aware of the risks, pressing energetically — and a tad publicly, by his standards — on his most recent tour for a freeze in Israeli settlement construction and an Arab gesture toward recognizing the Jewish state. And at least one of his former critics thinks he’s the right man for the job. "Making peace is a difficult, exhausting and, at times, hugely frustrating process," Gerry Adams, the Irish Republican leader, wrote in the Guardian when Mitchell was appointed to his new position earlier this year. It was precisely Mitchell’s personality — "good-natured, humorous and tolerant," Adams stated — that allowed him to win over negotiators in Northern Ireland who had become experts at filibustering outside negotiators. "It is this experience," Adams predicted, "that will stand him to good stead as he embarks on his journey to the Middle East." We’ll see.

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