American Hubris in the Middle East
I was listening to a discussion on the Diane Rehm Show this morning on the Annapolis Mideast Peace Conference this morning, featuring Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya TV, Glenn Kessler, diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, and Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and director of the Saban Center. It was, as would be expected, well informed and lively.
It was, however, plagued with the premise, so common to these discussions, that the United States and the American president are the most important factors in the negotiations. That’s simply nonsense.
The Bush administration took office with the belief that Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, in the Middle East and elsewhere, was wrongheaded and that a change of course was needed. On the Israeli-Palestinian dialog, particularly, they believed that the Clinton administration had been heavy-handed in pressuring Israel to make major concessions and thereby strengthened the hand of Palestinian hardliners. It wasn’t just the neo-cons, either, pushing this line; pragmatist Colin Powell was front and center.
Whether this was ill advised in hindsight is, as with so many other things, an open question. Regardless, the arrogance behind the assumption that we’d have peace in the Middle East if only George W. Bush wanted it badly enough is infuriating.
First off, solving the Palestinian question has been a central focus of American foreign policy for a generation. Bill Clinton devoted eight years of his not inconsiderable skill to the problem. Despite some great photo-ops and a Nobel Prize for Yasir Arafat, it was all for naught.
Much more importantly, though, the regional actors themselves have some say in the matter. Tremendous domestic fluctuation took place in the domestic politics of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority during this time. Do these people really think that, if only Condi Rice were more engaged, Fatah would have been more competent and less thuggish and Hamas would have remained on the sidelines? Or that Israeli domestic sentiment would have remained in favor of major concessions to the Palestinians while terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens were a daily reality?
Yes, the American president has a major role to play in mediating international disputes. He’s got some sizable carrots and sticks at his disposal but he doesn’t operate in a vacuum. But he’s not possessed of a magic wand to wave away problems. Nor is he a benevolent dictator to whom all around the world bow.
Image: Steve Bell, The Guardian