Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Miller's Crossing

It is hard to think of a more thoughtful or pragmatic voice on the subject of the Middle East than Aaron David Miller's, so his recent article in Foreign Policy,"The False Religion of Mideast Peace," in which he explains his skepticism about prospects for President Obama's current peacemaking, deserves to be read (or, as in my case, read twice).

Like all apostates, Miller lists his many sad declarations of faith, and these are affecting, if not entirely persuasive. Here is one, for example:

From the 1940s through the 1980s, the power with which the Palestinian issue resonated in the Arab world did take a toll on American prestige and influence. Still, even back then the hand-wringing and dire predictions in my Cassandra-like memos were overstated. I once warned ominously -- and incorrectly -- that we'd have nonstop Palestinian terrorist attacks in the United States if we didn't move on the issue. During those same years, the United States managed to advance all of its core interests in the Middle East...Today, I couldn't write those same memos or anything like them with a clear conscience or a straight face. Although many experts' beliefs haven't changed, the region has, and dramatically, becoming nastier and more complex.

Palestinian terrorism in America as a driver of American diplomacy? Nastier now than the October War? More complex than King Hussein's decision to join the Baghdad Pact? Never mind. Miller has two important points to make, and like most heretics, nothing would make him happier to be proven misguided. We had better know the arguments against him if we are ever going to be persuasive in conversations with American officials, or friends, for that matter.

THE FIRST POINT (which the quote I reproduced implies) is that Israeli-Palestinian peace is not really all that central to American foreign policy interests in the region. I won't dwell on the point: you can read what he writes and make up your own mind. I will repeat here what I said when others wrote something like this a little while back, which is that the issue is not whether Israeli-Palestinian peace will be very good for America, but whether Israeli-Palestinian (and Lebanese, and Syrian) war will be very bad. The answer is, it will.

Incidentally, Miller's rhetorical gambit suggests we should believe he is right because he was once one of the people who would have argued he was wrong. But Roger Cohen, one of the people who argued that Obama should ratchet down expectations last year, now argues that Obama should make a strong push for a peace, much like he pushed for health reform--all of which leaves readers impressed with Gods That Fail in a bit of conundrum regarding which change of heart is more inspired. Anyway, a belief in peace never really meant the conviction that peace will happen--and I suspect Miller remains a kindred spirit in this sense. Then again, I don't write memos to presidents.

WHICH BRINGS ME to Miller's second point, the more important in a way. Basically, he is saying Obama is bound to fail, so he shouldn't waste his political capital:

Governing is about choosing; it's about setting priorities, managing your politics, thinking strategically, picking your spots, and looking for genuine opportunities that can be exploited -- not tilting at windmills. And these days, Arab-Israeli peacemaking is a pretty big windmill.

Arab-Israeli peacemaking is politically risky and life-threatening, Miller writes. Big decisions require strong leaders. Even with strong leaders, you still need a project that doesn't exceed the carrying capacity of either side. Bottom line: Negotiations can work, but both Arabs and Israelis (and American leaders) need to be willing and able to pay the price. And they are not.

Nor does America carry the prestige it once had. Israelis and Palestinians will have to own the deal, and they will simply care more, especially those who try to scuttle it. Moreover, America doesn't have the mystique a negotiator needs to cajole and seduce. Then there is America's domestic politics. ("The last thing Obama needs now is an ongoing fight with the Israelis and their supporters, or worse, a major foreign-policy failure.") Finally, America is Israel's best friend and must continue to be.

But, surely, not every diplomatic achievement rests on bringing others to agreement, any more than every political victory requires Senator Graham. Sometimes, you win by getting other major players lined up to put the hold-outs in an untenable position over time. Miller seems to take for granted that any future Middle East breakthrough will look like the last one: Camp David I, where President Carter got Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to sign a deal. That's not necessarily what a breakthrough would look like today. Consider what Obama has been doing on nuclear non-proliferation. Consider international banking regulation.

Regarding the conflict, Obama could stand with the EU, Russia, China and the UN Security Council on a joint declaration of principles. Indeed, if I were writing a memo to him it would look something like this:

The future of a Palestinian state is not the internal affair of Israel, nor is Israel’s security in the region just a matter for Arab leaders. The conflict is an international problem, confounding the vital interests of America and other Western countries.

No agreement could ever be implemented without international security guarantees, and the investments of the world’s donor countries. The principles of international law exist to be applied; inevitably, the American administration will offer bridging ideas. Why wait to present a plan in pieces when all parties—and especially the citizens of Israel and Palestine—need a solid political horizon to adapt to now and over time?

The time has come to acknowledge that direct negotiations alone will not produce a final agreement, and that the United States government—acting with the European Union, and the Quartet—must present a plan of its own, building on the progress of past negotiations and consistent with doctrines of international law.

An American plan will rally the EU, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and persistent Israeli and Palestinian majorities, especially if the US backs up the plan with actions that encourage compliance. A sustainable peace cannot be implemented quickly, but an international plan would provide realistic hope that the era of occupation and has ended. In the absence of such hope, the forces of peace will be swept away.

Is Miller right that such a plan would mean more losses in 2010 Congressional elections? Who knows, but I doubt it. Public assumptions about the conflict have been shifting, especially among younger voters. There are so many other things to judge Obama on. Besides, an "ongoing fight" with Israelis and their supporters, or with Palestinian rejectionists and theirs, for that matter, will not necessarily play out as "a foreign policy failure." Failure is not getting them to yes. It is looking gutless in the face of their no.

So why don't we, agnostics all, encourage President Obama to work to supersede UN 242, the Oslo Agreements, and the Mitchell "Roadmap," with a new, more detailed governing framework for peace. Getting every great power and virtually every other state behind it would be a great diplomatic achievement, irrespective of whether Israelis and Palestinians accept or reject it, especially if it builds on the 2002 offer of the Arab League, and wins its endorsement, too. It would utterly transform the dynamics of Israeli and Palestinian politics over time. It would restore, well, faith.


Y. Ben-David said...

All of Bernie's plans assume that there is a "solution" that can be imposed on both sides. Something like the one Brzezinski stated "a total withdrawal to the pre-67 lines in return for the Arabs giving up on the Palestinian 'Right of Return'". Only problem is that the Arabs could never accept such terms, even if you could twist Israel's arm and impose it on them.
Bernie's base assumption is that, deep down, the Arabs want a peace agreement, which, of course, is not true. The Arab-Israeli conflict is GOOD for the Arab unites them against a common foe, it allows them to avoid democratizing and liberalizing their societies "because of the Zionist danger". Making peace with Israel would open those who support it to the charge of being traitors and sell-outs in the eyes of more extreme players like Iran, Syria, al-Qaida and others who use the Arab-Israel conflict to attack their opponents.

In any event, the US has NO LEVERAGE with which to push the Arab side to agree to peace. The US can NOT place sanctions or realistically pressure the Palestinians to agree to this because the Palestinians will be backed to the hilt by the Arab oil powers, whom the US is dependent on for financial support. The Palestinians can always warn that if the US and EU threaten to cut the money they gives to the Palestinian Authority for its operating expenses (more than 50% comes from the US and EU) all it will do is bring HAMAS to power, and HAMAS is totally opposed to these peace moves. So the US is stymied.
I am glad to see that Miller has woken up to the facts. It is about time Bernie do so as well.

Potter said...

Miller does seem to be pointing to the necessity of something catastrophic happening: war.

But the real battleground, I agree, is in the application of international law by the international community.

Aaron David Miller's piece sounded defeatist and the advice that seems to arise from it is this disasterous "status quo" which will be war, maybe all out war, precisely where Netanyau and his factions seem to be heading stupidly.

"Failure is not getting them to yes. It is looking gutless in the face of their no.

I think you mean - "Failure is NOT not getting them to yes. It is looking gutless in the face of their no"

I totally agree.

Potter said...

Y. B-David: Your whole argument is based on the blindness of a totally negative view of "the Arab world". And there is no such unity. You make no sense at all:

Making peace with Israel would open those who support it to the charge of being traitors and sell-outs in the eyes of more extreme players like Iran, Syria, al-Qaida and others who use the Arab-Israel conflict to attack their opponents.

You mean with Palestinians on the way out of their suffering, deprivation, depression, their dispossession no longer an issue because energies would be focussed on building their new state, enjoying normal life, past grievances (mere) holidays of remembrance,-- you mean to tell me that the "extreme players" are going to have openings within, in the Arab world in general not to mention the rest of the world?


The US may not be able to force a deal, but it certainly can lay out a plan for all the world to see. The Arabs did it in 2002.

Regarding Hamas- Fawaz Gerges wrote a good article in The Nation last january about their evolution: The Transformation of Hamas. They should be included, not ignored.

Y. Ben-David said...

This may come as a shock to you, but not everyone in the world thinks like you do nor do they have the same values. Individual Palestinians may or may not want the better life you described, but in the eyes of the Arab world, they are the cannon fodder in the war against Israel that all the Arabs support, including those in the countries that have "peace treaties" with Israel (Jordan, Egypt). The Arab world is engaged in a long-term war of attrition with Israel in which violence is used hand in hand with negotiations. The Arab world is not concerned as such with the welfare of the Palestinians (that is why I referred to them as the Arab world's cannon fodder) but they are merely the first echelong in the battle, because the Arab world's rejection of Israel has nothing to do with the poor Palestinian peoples lack of "self-determination", but rather because the existence of a dhimmin Jewish state in the center of the Arab/Muslim Middle is abhorrent to the Arabs, an abomination, a humiation that must be eradicated no matter how long it takes. All Arabs know that it took two centuries to get rid of the Christian Crusaders, and they view the current struggle as a replay of that conflict. I am not basing this on my reading their minds...this is what they tell their people everyday in their own media in Arabic. Israeli political and territorial concessions (as opposed to local arrangments and economic developlment) merely show the Arabs that Israel is weak and can eventually be pushed back into the sea.
This is the reality, as much as you "progressives" wish to deny it.

Potter said...

Y. Ben-David- Not everyone thinks your way either. When you say "the Arab world" you assume a lot... too much to be believable by the evidence. What you are revealing is your own mistrust and disdain, your seige mentality. And this Dhimmi business and dragging crusaders in to the argument and the almost hilarious, if not pathetic business about Israel being "pushed into the sea" is tired hackney stuff. It's excuses to hold on tightly for sheer blind fear and. Your attitude multiplied will be self-fulfilling.

Dare to take away the big foot on Palestinians and allow them to be. Dare to show some maturity, confidence and courage, not to mention humanity justice and respect for international law. Then let's see how "the Arab World" responds. I think you are a coward.

Potter said...

Roger Cohen (New York Times, April 23, 2010)

To enter Israel is to pass through a hall of mirrors. A nation exerting complete military dominance in the West Bank becomes one that, under an almost unimaginable peace accord, might be menaced from there.
A nation whose army and arsenal are without rival in the Middle East becomes one facing daily existential threat. A nation whose power has grown steadily over decades relative to its scattered enemies becomes one whose future is somehow less secure than ever.

Why is this so? Because of concessions? Not conditions in the West Bank and Gaza? Not the occupation? Not the walls, the checkpoints, the Gaza siege and war and media coverage? not the violations of international law not to mention Israeli law? Not because of past and even current US indulgence of Israel against both's own interests?

Potter said...

Y B-D: I am not basing this on my reading their minds...this is what they tell their people everyday in their own media in Arabic. Israeli political and territorial concessions (as opposed to local arrangments and economic developlment) merely show the Arabs that Israel is weak and can eventually be pushed back into the sea.
This is the reality, as much as you "progressives" wish to deny it.

Oh yes, I forgot ( ref my previous) : Not because of the provocative evictions and continued building in East Jerusalem?

Do you deny all of that? Is this something only those misguided "progressives" can see?

(sorry, I'm done)

Shoded Yam said...


Well done.


Y. Ben-David said...

You have not shown me a single shred of evidence that what I said is not correct-you have simply expressed your wishful thinking that it not be true....such as saying that it must be because of Israel's building in east Jerusalem that is bothering the Arabs. BUT IT IS TEL AVIV THAT IS BOTHERING THE ARABS...that is why they launched repeated mass orgies of violence and war starting in 1920. You and the "progressives" try to lead everyone to thing that it all started with the "occupation" in the wake of the Six-Day War. Well, why did the Six-Day War happen at all? Jews weren't living in east Jerusalem then, or in Hevron. Why did the 1948 War of Independence happen? Because of the Jews building "setlements" like Tel Aviv. They are saying today the same things they said then...that DHIMMI Israeli has no right to exist.
Again, show me that the Arabs have changed their attitude from their statements to their own people in their own Arabic media. Go ahead.

Shoded Yam said...

By virtue of the inherent racism of orthodox judaism, the majority of Jews in the world today will always have contempt for you. But maybe if you stopped defining yourself through the eyes of your racist shitbag palestinian counterpart; Ibn Daoud, you at least, could shed the image of a sniveling whining melamed from Chelm and finally crawl out from under the bed.

Potter said...

Give me a break B-D- You mean to tell me that the entire Arab world, I mean the people in it, is/are so stupid to forgo issues of their own well-being and that they swallow the propaganda that they should be more afraid of Israel? Or is is rather that too many Israeli’s are sick in their heads with insecurity? Or is it that Israeli’s are the ones who don’t want an end to the conflict, the ones that are buying the demagoguery that the status quo is the best that can be had for the foreseeable future? Do you believe that nobody sees through Netanyahu’s transparent act?

Shodad Yam- from you it’s a compliment.

I agree about racism. Normally one tries to hide it; it’s not a good thing to expose. I realized just yesterday ( duh) that racism is shooting oneself , cutting oneself off, denying oneself the knowledge and experience of the breath of humanity. Maybe this can only be realized outside the self imposed mental and physical barriers. Maybe it takes guts too. A racist can’t comprehend what he is missing, or how he is harming himself because he’s too into his racism. So I think racism is really self denial, a closing down of one’s world, of horizons, nurturing of negative feelings about all those of one particular kind or another- convincing yourself that they all are your enemies, will bring you harm irrespective of who they individually actually are. Who they each are as individuals is irrelevant to the racist.

The racist lives in a very limited space.

Shoded Yam said...


My friend, I'm not sure what you're referring to but if it was directed at you, it could be nothing other than a compliment.

No worries :-)

Potter said...

Shoded Yam- I was referring to your "well done"- thank you.

Acuumyst said...

I consider myself a progressive but I have to agree with Y.B.D post April 28.

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