Down the Mideast peace process rabbit hole (yet again)
One of the more curious aspects of President Obama’s May 19 Middle East speech was his decision to devote so much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president’s main theme, of course, was supposed to be the Middle East upheavals of 2011 and the United States’ support for those seeking liberty after decades of tyranny. ...
One of the more curious aspects of President Obama's May 19 Middle East speech was his decision to devote so much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president's main theme, of course, was supposed to be the Middle East upheavals of 2011 and the United States' support for those seeking liberty after decades of tyranny. Indeed, in his speech, the president properly highlighted one of the region's great unspoken truths: that for years on end, autocrats of every stripe have cynically manipulated the conflict with Israel to divert their people's grievances outward. When provided half a chance to give voice to what's really on their minds, the Arab masses since last December have repeatedly demonstrated that their thoughts turn not so much to far away Palestine, but to their own mistreatment and degradation at the hands of corrupt, unaccountable despots. Contrary to the myth indulged by generations of Western diplomats, the real driving force of Middle East politics has proven not to be Israel's dispute with the Palestinians, but a freedom deficit that has left hundreds of millions of Arabs living lives of quiet desperation under the thumb of their own oppressive dictators.
One of the more curious aspects of President Obama’s May 19 Middle East speech was his decision to devote so much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president’s main theme, of course, was supposed to be the Middle East upheavals of 2011 and the United States’ support for those seeking liberty after decades of tyranny. Indeed, in his speech, the president properly highlighted one of the region’s great unspoken truths: that for years on end, autocrats of every stripe have cynically manipulated the conflict with Israel to divert their people’s grievances outward. When provided half a chance to give voice to what’s really on their minds, the Arab masses since last December have repeatedly demonstrated that their thoughts turn not so much to far away Palestine, but to their own mistreatment and degradation at the hands of corrupt, unaccountable despots. Contrary to the myth indulged by generations of Western diplomats, the real driving force of Middle East politics has proven not to be Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians, but a freedom deficit that has left hundreds of millions of Arabs living lives of quiet desperation under the thumb of their own oppressive dictators.
Was this really the time, then, for the president to re-focus global attention on the imperative of resolving the Palestinian issue? To commit, in effect, the very transgression that he had just minutes before rightly criticized Arab leaders for, i.e., diverting attention from what really ails the Middle East — the absence of humane, representative governance that has as its first priority addressing the legitimate needs of its own citizenry — to the intensely emotional, but profoundly intractable issue of Palestine?
For all the president’s laudable comments on the region’s "winds of change," what should have been the primary message of his speech was quite predictably overwhelmed by the deluge of attention given to his revived foray into peacemaking. "Obama Seeks End to the Stalemate on Mideast Talks," trumpeted the New York Times. "Obama urges Israel to make push for peace," proclaimed the Washington Post. Talk about stepping on your own headline. A vital region of the world is convulsed by a process of historic transformation that carries both great promise as well as great danger for U.S. interests. Yet in the wake of a major presidential address on the issue, all we are left talking about is a new U.S. position to help solve a six decade-old conflict whose prospects for near-term resolution are effectively nil?
Of course, quite apart from serving as a major distraction from the most pressing threats and opportunities that currently confront the United States in the Middle East, the president’s peace process play made little sense even on its own terms. Thanks in large part to the ham-handed diplomacy of Obama’s first two years in office, peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians are (as noted above) largely frozen. There was no real prospect that anything the president said in his May 19 speech was likely to launch the process on a more virtuous path.
Quite the contrary. Coming on the eve of a visit by Israel’s prime minister, without any advance warning or coordination between the two allies, the president’s "1967 lines" gambit guaranteed yet another embarrassing contretemps and breach of trust with the United States’ closest and most powerful Middle Eastern friend. Making matters worse was that the substantive tilt in favor of the Palestinian position came in the context of a brazen drive by the Palestinian Authority to defy U.S. interests — first by foregoing direct negotiations with Israel in favor of a dangerous course of unilateralism at the United Nations; and second, by striking a unity deal with an unreconstructed Hamas. On top of it all came the unfortunate spectacle of Prime Minister Netanyahu having to dress down the President of the United States in the Oval Office, and Obama’s efforts to "clarify" what his peace initiative really meant just days later in front of a pro-Israel audience. The cumulative effect was to reinforce all of the worst stereotypes of Obama that have unfortunately metastasized across the Middle East: a weak, unreliable, and incompetent leader whose first instinct is invariably to punish traditional American allies while rewarding those bent on undermining U.S. interests.
And all for what? To convince Europe to help derail the bid for U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood in September? Well, maybe. But, again, one has to ask: Why not do some advance coordination with Israel on what it would take to achieve this legitimate (and shared) strategic purpose? More importantly, why make the shift on "1967 lines" and endure all the subsequent costs without first securing guarantees that the Europeans will in fact deliver? Here, once more, the president simply plays to the most harmful caricature of himself, as a leader who actually believes that his august pronouncements are somehow a substitute for serious policy; a worrisome mix of arrogance and naiveté who is left playing the sucker that friends can never rely on to protect their backs and enemies increasingly believe can be challenged at little or no cost.
My own view is that given: 1) the potentially seismic impact of the Middle East upheavals and their huge significance for U.S. interests; 2) the degree to which the region’s uprisings indisputably have nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinian conflict; and 3) the moribund condition of the peace process itself (due in large part to the Palestinian refusal to return to the negotiating table), the president could quite credibly have limited his speech on the Middle East’s "winds of change" to the Middle East’s "winds of change," full stop — especially in light of the fact that he was scheduled just three days later to give another address focused on United States-Israel relations that provided a natural platform for discussing the (dismal) state of the peace process. Nevertheless, to the extent that the White House felt that the president could not possibly deliver a major speech on the Middle East without making some kind of sacrificial offering to the peace process gods, he could easily have done so without creating the mess that he did. Indeed, reports suggested that several of Obama’s senior advisors strongly urged him to avoid delving into substantive positions, and specifically warned him off his 1967 borders surprise.
The president’s personal pre-occupation with the Palestinian issue seems, at least in part, to be grounded in the standard-issue biases found in the Middle East studies departments of most of the United States’ elite universities. The persistent edginess toward Israel; a conviction that the root-cause of the conflict lies in the Jewish state’s sins of commission after 1967 rather than a failure by Palestinians to reconcile themselves fully to the Jewish state’s creation in 1948; and a seemingly impregnable faith that resolving the Palestinian conflict will serve as some kind of magic key for unlocking all the other challenges and dangers that America confronts in the Middle East, including its often-strained and troubled relationship with the broader Muslim world. It’s clear that some ideas just don’t die easily — even in the face of more than five months of region-wide upheavals against a myriad of deep-seated political, economic, and social pathologies that bear no connection to Palestine at all.
Of course, while Obama’s case of "peace process-itis" has its unique features and appears relatively severe, the general malady is certainly not uncommon in the annals of U.S. Middle East policy. Indeed, it’s arguably been the rule rather than the exception since Henry Kissinger first launched his shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 war. Ever since, it’s become one of the great orthodoxies of the church of U.S. foreign policy that pursuit of Middle East peace must be a first-order priority of every presidency, Democrat and Republican alike — whether or not the conditions for actually succeeding are particularly favorable. It’s an orthodoxy that is rarely questioned and when it is, it’s more often than not treated as, well, apostasy.
The place of the Palestinian question in U.S. policy certainly deserves more serious debate than it normally gets. The time, energy and resources devoted to the peace process are too often treated as an unadulterated good, like motherhood and apple pie. What American doesn’t want to see Israel secure and at peace with all its neighbors, and the Palestinians living in dignity in a state of their own? But the fact is, there are real opportunity costs to the effort. The capacity of American foreign policy to address seriously more than a handful of global issues at any one time is severely constrained. And for a number of reasons, meaningful pursuit of the peace process is a particularly time intensive endeavor, and one that by its nature requires a heavy investment at the level of the president or secretary of state, and often both — clearly, at the expense of other issues that are, arguably, of greater import for U.S. strategic interests and often more amenable to progress by the effective application of sustained American diplomacy and power.
After the first Gulf war ended, Secretary of State James Baker spent a vast chunk of his remaining time in office working tirelessly to put together the Madrid peace conference. The effort certainly appeared to dwarf the energy that he, the president, or other senior national security officials, for that matter, devoted to the problems that would very likely be posed to the United States by a dangerous, vengeful tyrant in Baghdad that had been badly bloodied, but left in power to fight another day. While no doubt a great diplomatic accomplishment when viewed through the narrow lens of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, one does at least have to ask in hindsight: What is the lasting, concrete contribution that Madrid made to the safety and security of the American people? There were certainly those at the time who believed that no UN regime would likely contain Saddam indefinitely, and unless removed from power, Gulf War II was all but inevitable — the only question being whether it would be on terms more or less favorable to the United States. Whatever one thinks of the controversial effort to liberate Iraq in 2003 (in which I was heavily involved), the issue of how American national security priorities in the Middle East should have been ordered twelve years earlier (in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s crushing defeat) — between the peace process, on the one hand, and definitively resolving our Iraq problem, on the other — was certainly worthy of far more discussion than I (as a member of Baker’s Policy Planning staff) recall it getting.
Along similar lines was the extraordinary investment that the Clinton Administration made for almost eight years in peace efforts with the Palestinians and Syria. In the administration’s defense, it came into office with a still-functioning Madrid process already in place and, more importantly (and to its total surprise), less than eight months later got handed a breakthrough agreement negotiated by Israel and the PLO in Oslo. With Arafat clearing the way, Jordan’s King Hussein was free to follow quickly by concluding his own peace deal with the Jewish state. For at least a brief period in the mid-1990s, then, it was a defensible proposition that with a serious U.S. push, a comprehensive Middle East peace that conclusively resolved the Palestinian issue and removed Syria from the region’s war calculus was within reach.
Yet given what everyone knew about the long, bloody history of both Arafat and the Assad regime, and the deeply troubling extent to which their double-dealing and dabbling in terror continued well after U.S.-brokered talks commenced, the question of how long that window for peacemaking actually remained open, and therefore worthy of such an extraordinary investment of U.S. diplomatic energies, should probably have been subject to greater scrutiny than it was. Arafat, of course, was welcomed at the White House by the President of the United States more than any other foreign leader during those years. Between 1994 and 1996 alone, Secretary of State Warren Christopher made close to two dozen trips to Damascus to press for peace with Assad.
As a member of Christopher’s staff who was traveling with him to the Middle East on what seemed like a weekly basis at one point, it was certainly my impression that issues related to the peace process had sucked almost all the oxygen out of the room of U.S. diplomacy. Comparatively, the amount of serious, sustained attention that the secretary and president were able to focus on developing effective national strategies to address other critical threats to U.S. interests in the Middle East — the slow, but indisputable, unraveling of containment against Saddam; the emergence of revolutionary Iran’s hegemonic designs for the region under the shadow of a fledgling nuclear program; and the rise of the full-blown danger of Al Qaida and radical Islamic terrorism — was relatively small and largely episodic in character, usually in response to short-term crises. Whether that kind of balance made sense, in light of the relative magnitude of the threats that these disparate issues actually posed to vital U.S. interests, was a question that largely went unexplored.
Then there’s the George W. Bush administration. In contrast to Clinton, Bush came to office with peace talks collapsed on all fronts and the Palestinian issue set ablaze by Arafat’s unleashing of the second intifada. In short order came the attacks of September 11. In response, pursuit of traditional peace talks was clearly downgraded in American policy; Israel was given room to defeat the Palestinian terror campaign; Arafat was determined to be an enemy of real peace, not a partner for historic compromise; and a commitment was made to help new Palestinian leaders build the political, economic and security prerequisites of a functioning state that would eventually be capable of making, and sustaining, a stable peace. Simultaneously, of course, Al Qaida was attacked, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were removed from power, and a high priority was placed on efforts to isolate and pressure Iran and Syria, while promoting political and economic reforms across the region. However one now evaluates the mixed legacy of those efforts, there’s no doubt that, at the time, Bush’s decision not to make Oslo’s (and Arafat’s) revival a top priority was pilloried as heresy by large swaths of the U.S. foreign policy establishment — in addition to those Middle East regimes who well understood the peril should Bush’s insight gain traction that despotism and bad governance, not Palestine, lay at the heart of the region’s modern-day travails.
Fast forward to the final years of Bush’s second term and Secretary of State Rice’s intensive efforts to organize the Annapolis conference and facilitate renewed Israeli-Palestinian discussions. The re-emergence of the peace process as a top American priority no doubt had several causes: new Palestinian leadership that understood the disutility of terrorism as a diplomatic tool; an Israeli prime minister eager for negotiations and prepared to make sweeping concessions to get a deal; and a growing acceptance of the conventional wisdom by many in the administration — especially after the 2006 electoral victory of Hamas and the subsequent Israeli-Hizballah war — that focusing on the Palestinian issue, not the Freedom Agenda, was a better means of mobilizing Arab support for faltering U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and pressure Iran.
While this shift was no doubt comforting to the mandarins of U.S. foreign policy, the fact is that here, too, there were real opportunity costs to be considered for such a re-calibration of U.S. priorities. In the first place, many believed, quite correctly as it turned out, that as relatively moderate as Mahmoud Abbas was, he was no more capable than Arafat (though for different reasons) of making the painful compromises demanded by a historic, conflict-ending peace accord with Israel. And given this belief that there was no real deal to be had, there were deep misgivings about launching a serious effort on the peace process that would, as a practical matter, inevitably result in the downgrading of several other priorities that had come to be identified as central to President Bush’s core agenda, including: pushing hard for reform in Mubarak’s Egypt; seeking maximum isolation of the Assad regime in Syria; and preserving the gains of Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, and the momentous regional turmoil of the past five months behind us, the merits of these trade-offs are at least worth debating.
In the end, it may well be too much to ask any president to resist the siren song of the peace process. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that they and their top advisors self-consciously struggle to maintain a sense of perspective as they allocate their extremely limited time, energy and resources. They need constantly to be asking: What are the greatest dangers and opportunities that U.S. vital interests currently confront in the Middle East, and where does an effort to solve the longstanding Palestinian conflict rank in that mix? What are the main threats to the security of the Persian Gulf and the free flow of oil? From where does the most pressing danger to Israel’s survival arise? What are the prime drivers of violent Islamic extremism and instability in the Arab world more broadly?
The future of the Middle East does now seem to hang very much in the balance. The way a number of major issues play out over the next year will have enormous consequences for the United States, either for good or for ill. The course that Egypt’s revolution takes. The fate of the bloody-minded, anti-American regime in Damascus. The looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Iraq’s potential to be an oil-rich, powerful, and democratic partner for the United States. Sad as it may be, it’s hard to argue that, in light of current regional developments, the chronic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — especially in its present sorry shape — truly rises to the same strategic level. Setting aside the president’s May 19 speech (and the troubling fact that his peace process discussion was 10 times longer than his single paragraph on Iran), one still hopes that he’s able to see this reality, distinguish what is truly vital from what is merely important, and set our national priorities accordingly.
John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
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