The Middle East Channel

Physician, heal thyself first

In light of the resignation of the National Security Council’s Dennis Ross, and as the international community waits for the United Nations to consider Palestine’s road to formal statehood, we call upon the Obama administration and so-called Middle East experts advising the various presidential hopefuls to take some introspective "down time." The purpose is to ...


In light of the resignation of the National Security Council’s Dennis Ross, and as the international community waits for the United Nations to consider Palestine’s road to formal statehood, we call upon the Obama administration and so-called Middle East experts advising the various presidential hopefuls to take some introspective "down time." The purpose is to reassess heretofore time-honored policies, practices, political campaign pronouncements, and come up with a realistic and viable way forward. 

It is clear that Obama’s efforts toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire have been nothing short of a failure. When tallying on to previous failed administration attempts, the cumulative effect has been a clear loss of strategic leverage. This loss is detrimental to the U.S. interest of securing two states living side by side in peace in the region, as well as influencing the likes of Syria and Iran at a critical time. This trend must be reversed and replaced by revitalized action on a critical U.S. national security issue. 

How does America begin do to do this? A not so distant lesson from its military provides worthy insight. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. military was in tatters, particularly the Army. With the Cold War in full swing it was clear something had to be done. One tool developed by the Army to work itself out of the crippling hangovers and ghosts from Vietnam was the After Action Review process – or AAR. The process was an unbridled, no-holds-barred procedure that first openly identified what happened followed by in-depth analyses as to why. 

During this "down time" the Obama Administration is in desperate need of a focused U.S. Middle East Peace Process AAR. His team of personalities needs to objectively reassess its failed policies regarding their efforts and readjust accordingly. Republican candidates are also obliged to reassess and go beyond the infantile mantra that Obama has simply "thrown Israel under the bus." Along the lines of the Army’s AAR process, we offer the following critical observations and prescriptions. 

AAR item number one: Arrogance. The belief that a single envoy or small group of "experts" has all the answers to this time-honored conundrum is a seriously flawed foundation. Yet it continues. Envoys and their teams have long ignored the advice and counsel of U.S. embassy, consulate, and security personnel. Obama’s team threw out all of Bush’s bathwater with the simplified claim that everything was re-opened for analysis and negotiation, regardless of historical lessons or prior commitments. The administration needs to reassess its basic platform and faulty reasoning proffered in support. The relatively small group working the complicated issues should be widened and not proceed further without judicious democratic debate. Our nation cannot be held hostage to the same old faces who have never succeeded but keep getting called back to serve without any sense of humility or critical lessons learned. In any other profession when someone consistently fails to deliver they are fired or demoted.  These prescriptions are equally applicable to those advising the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls.   

AAR item number two: Mismatch of strategy, bureaucratic organization, and operational measures in the field. We can no longer be held hostage to the dynamic claim that "we cannot want peace more than the parties." If peace between Israel and the Palestinians is in the long-term strategic interests of the United States as it has so often proclaimed, then not only can it want it more, but it has the duty to forge forward however painful and difficult. Political speeches and pronouncements do not matter unless actualized on the ground. 

Bureaucratically, the U.S. must get its diplomatic house in order. The administration and Foggy Bottom, in particular, need to address and fix once and for all the historically caustic relationship between its own diplomatic institutions on the ground, the embassy in Tel Aviv, the consulate general in Jerusalem, and the other organizations that fall in between. Operationally, the U.S needs to regain a clue of what’s actually happening on the ground, in the West Bank and Gaza. U.S. diplomats need to quit hiding behind anachronistic force protection measures and get their loafers and wingtips dirty. There has not been a determined American presence in the West Bank or Gaza since 2000. Ambassador Robert Ford traveled frequently in the middle of the Syrian revolution. The West Bank and Gaza are Shangri-La in comparison. When this discretion significantly impedes the conduct of the mission, there needs to be a redress for a decision in Washington.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, National Security Advisor Steve Hadley came to recognize the debilitating and counterproductive nature of stove piped U.S. bureaucratic approaches. He ultimately instituted video teleconferences from Washington to directly coordinate and hold accountable State Department, USAID, the U.S. Security Coordinator, and others. Though ad hoc, his effort was an example of a true "whole of government" approach worth replicating.  

AAR item number three: According to former Special Envoy George Mitchell, the only viable path to success were in negotiations, period. This singular vision was myopic at best. Faith in this prescription left Obama’s team blind to both realities on the ground and to the significance of other worthwhile efforts already in play. Negotiations are critical, but not above or beyond the contributions of activities already painstakingly embarked upon, particularly by the parties. Negotiations need to be anchored and coordinated with concrete actions and viable institutions on the ground, not in competition with them. Without this symbiosis, there is nothing to sustain political achievements, no matter how grand their design. 

AAR item number four: Undercutting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the expense of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Fayyad became the darling of the administration over the past several years but at the U.N. last September, Abbas showed where the real power resides in Palestine. This realization sent the diplomats scurrying to rebalance their attention — too late. The successes of Palestinian state-building enterprises were the result of both Abbas and Fayyad’s efforts, not one at the behest of the other. Abbas did what no terrorist or militia has done to date — non-violently remind the world of Palestine’s dilemma and a way forward. And the sharp reduction in violence over the last few years occurred during his watch. Abbas’s reticence to return to negotiations has as much to do with the failures of U.S., international, and Israeli politicians as they do his own intransigence. External actors should stop bad mouthing and exercise instead the leadership needed to forge creative diplomatic and state-building endeavors that will remove excuses for not returning to the negotiating table. 

AAR item number five: Refusal to exploit success — no matter its genesis. The developments between Israeli and Palestinian security services fostered by the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) since 2005 is the good news story over the past two administrations. A modicum of hard earned trust between the parties in security matters has been painstakingly re-established and in numerous areas of cooperation. This trust needed forceful and continuous diplomatic nurturing to move it to the political realm and other areas of bilateral cooperation. Instead, issues dealing with security were taken for granted and not viewed in their proper context given events since the disastrous second intifada. As such, they were relegated to secondary importance. This was a mistaken premise. 

One, the positive security developments are the basis for the noted rise in investment and economic development. Two, the security cooperation continues to weather the political storms to date. Bolstered by security developments in the West Bank, Israeli security forces are advocating more independence and transfer of more areas to Palestinian control, a boost to their authority. Success, no matter its origin, should be exploited, not bypassed or ignored. 

In 1942 General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell lamented, "We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and re-take it." In the past few weeks many of our U.S. peers in and out of government have privately expressed the feeling that we’ve been "run out of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and it is humiliating as hell." We challenge the administration to find out what caused the current and debilitating misfortune, and to go back and take it from there. 

If an immediate return to negotiations doesn’t get us there, the U.S. should maneuver and exploit the unprecedented successes of the Palestinian state-building endeavors and the tangible Palestinian, U.S., international, and Israeli contributions therein to date. Not only because it is in the interests of Israel and the Palestinians but, first and foremost, because resolution of the conflict is the interests of the United States. Simply put, an issue claimed to be of national interest is not an issue that can be lead "from behind."

P.J. Dermer is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and former Army Defense Attaché to Israel. Steven White is the former Senior Advisor to the United States Security Coordinator to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC.) Both are currently co-authoring the history of that mission.

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