American Hubris in the Middle East

Middle East Peace Process 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

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    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.

    Agreed. To think of Bush as being some capable diplomat able to broker a political solution to a complex conflict is laughable.

    When Bush wants something policy-related “badly enough” it generally leads to disaster.

  2. Scott Swank says:

    Why are most commentators on the political right incapable of seeing the thuggish behavior of the Israelis? We’re talking about a place where not uncommonly Palestinian youths are taunted that they’re not man enough to do anything about Israeli soldiers until the youths throw rocks, then the soldiers shoot them and laugh. This sort of thing isn’t policy, nor everyday — but it happens far too often to be dismissed as apocryphal. Mortars are fired from a Palestinian town and the Israeli army comes in and bulldozes all of the orange or olive trees in retaliation, destroying the town’s economy. And the stories go on and on.

    Don’t get me wrong, I find the Palestinian terrorism abhorrent. But I simply can’t see why the right is so blind to Isreal’s abuses.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Now, now, Scott. Be nice or you’ll be branded an anti-semite pretty soon.

  4. Hal says:

    I think the premise is that without the US providing vast and necessary support to Israel, the outcome would have been substantially different. We’ve given how many 10’s of billions to Israel over the last 4 decades? We’ve put enormous pressure on countries, not to mention the UN and other non-state entities which has high leverage on the way things have worked out. You say that Clinton devoted a lot of effort to trying to get the solution, and granted he did, but he didn’t actually change the facts on the ground wrt Israel at all. Aid increased. We did nothing to stop settlements and other such roadblocks. And just recently, didn’t we organize the blockage of funds to the democratically elected government of the Palestinians?

    This stuff has a lot of effect on the outcome and to toss it off as some piffling effect on the issue like you’re doing, James, seems amazingly silly.

    If we wanted to, we could, for example, take the top 3 or 4 issues that the Palestinians have with Israel off the plate and make them non issues by simply stopping the vast sums of money flowing to Israel. Granted, the President can’t unilaterally change that, but certainly if he made it an issue he could get congress to change the laws and large effects would happen.

    Your position seems to be that the poor ol’ US doesn’t swing a ginormous bat in several relevant realms – military, economically and diplomatically. I think all you have to do is perform the thought experiment of the US ceasing to do anything wrt this issue and you’ll easily see the magnitude of leverage we collectively wield over the situation. Is it enough to solve the situation if the leverage would be used differently? We’ll never know because of the way US policy is made in this area – i.e. it’s unipolar and sides entirely with Israel.

    Not saying this is good or bad strategy, but clearly it’s not hubris to think that we could change things if we did things differently. Photo ops aren’t really at the same level of effectiveness as 10’s of billions of dollars, which is what you appear to be asserting.

  5. Tano says:

    I disagree with James here.

    Both the Israelis and Palestinians, left to their own devices, migrate relentlessly toward extremist positions, which entail, on BOTH sides, a vision of a single state over all the disputed territory, controlled by them.

    It has only been through the sustained efforts of outsiders, mostly the US, that focus can be maintained on the goal of actual peaceful resolution to the conflict.

    The Bush administration has not only dimmed that vision through its disengagement, it also adopted a thoroughly one-sided approach to the conflict, rather than attempting to be an honest broker. And to further compound the problem, the most favored Israeli leaders of the Bush administration have been the most hardline rightwingers. This not only encourages those elements in Israeli that are least interested in peace, it also undermines those Palestinians who are interested in peace, because they are seen by their people as weak and conciliatory in the face of extremists on the other side.

    Absenting ourselves from the diplomatic effort has not only allowed the problem to fester, it contributes to the radicalization of both sides. The US cannot magically solve the problem for them, but we can be a powerful factor driving the confict in the direction of resolution, and in that this administration has been a disaster.

  6. Triumph says:

    The Bush administration has not only dimmed that vision through its disengagement, it also adopted a thoroughly one-sided approach to the conflict, rather than attempting to be an honest broker.

    uhh…Tano…we are talking about BUSH here. Why in the world would you think of him as being capable of acting as an “honest broker”?

    For instance, I submit that the reason you have seen democracy flourish in most of Latin America over the past seven years is that Bush has largely kept his crazed interventionism out of the region.

    Sure, you still have Bush railing against Chavez and Fidel every so often, but had not the “War on Terror” asserted itself early in his tenure, you likely would have seen the US spreading instability in the region, given all of the Reagan-era hacks Bush appointed to key positions.

    Since Bush decided to be the self-appointed bearer of democracy to the the Middle East, Latin American countries have been able to deal with their own issues without having to contend with US interventionism.

    US intervention in the Middle East, by contrast, has promoted regional instability.

    As James implies, someone of Bush’s disposition is in no position to broker peace in such a situation where complex historical conditions make sensitive diplomacy essential.

  7. Tano says:

    yes Triumph, I can’t really argue your points. I do have the tendency, when I look back wistfully at what could have been these past seven years, to imagine all manner of alternative scenarios, none of which have George Bush at the helm.

  8. mannning says:

    Lots of people seem to think they know how to handle the Israeli-Palestinian problems with a change of tack. Most of these people weren’t even born when this conflict began in earnest, and do not have the insight to foster a solution.

    Neither have a string of Presidents, diplomats, military men, well-connected civilians, and vast sums of US money dumped on, not only Israel, but also Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt, to attempt a peaceful interregnum.

    We support Israel because without our help they would be overrun and killed by the thousands, if not to the last man. Stop our support and Israel is dead. It is quite clear who have been the aggressors in this conflict for 50 years or more, and it isn’t Israel. It is disgusting to me to see people trying to build support for the Palestinians, including the Hamas and Fatah murderers.

    The US cannot be a truly honest broker in this conflict, and its past failures in trying are not due to lack of effort in every dimension, but to the intransigence of the Palestinians. We have been gamed at every turn for most of those 50 years to open our pockets, and back off from the defense of Israel.

    The nature of this conflict is a clash of Jews versus Muslims, and we are kidding ourselves if we think that we could intervene successfully with diplomacy in this Holy War. Islam speaks to this end, the end of the Jews, every day, and has done so for 1200 years.

    Who are you to say that we can change this Holy War, this jihad, by peaceful means?

  9. Hal says:

    Thus speaks Mannning.

    I think you provide, in a nutshell (a rather apt term, I might add), a perfect example of why this is all SNAFU. When I step back and understand that you’re actually serious and not doing performance art, it all makes sense as to why that whole region is a complete mess.

  10. mannning says:

    Yes it does, because of your types who snarl things up with warm expectations, only to see it all unravel at the first little incident. You do not consider or understand the full situation, and the depth of the animosity that exists between the parties.

    Lollipops will not solve the ME problem, which is what you appear to advocate. That, or total withdrawal of the US, which will doom Israel. That is surely mindlessly idiotic, and absolutely inhumane. Or, maybe you want to lavish US taxpayer’s money on the Palestinians beyond common sense. Remember what Arafat bought and banked?

    In any event, try being more rational, Hal, it makes for more informed debate. Try!

  11. Hal says:

    I’m not sure who the heck you’re arguing against Mannning, but it certainly isn’t me. Nice little boxing dummy you’ve constructed in the corner there, but seriously dude, you should actually – you know – investigate and figure out if someone holds the views you’re stuffing into that straw man.


  12. mannning says:

    Ok, Hal, tell us your full views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    If you fall into lollipop territory, or total withdrawal of the US from the ME, I will be waiting for it. If you believe that the US should financially support Palestine at the same or higher level as we support Israel, I will be waiting as well. If you believe that we should deny financial support to Israel, I will be waiting for it.

    Tell us, Hal! Tell us if you support Palestine at all, and what you are willing for the US taxpayer to give them, and whether or not they are trustworthy partners in the peace process, or whether you think that THIS TIME they will be trustworthy.

    Have a go!

  13. Hal says:

    Hmmm. How could one resist such a pleasant call to discussion?

    Geebus, Mannning, you really are a loon.

    In any event, I’m sure you’ll unleash the full wrath of Mannning on the person who said this

    If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished

    Because, you know, only lolipops would says such things.

  14. mannning says:

    No position on Israel/Palestine? Just willing to carp and sputter? I see…

  15. Hal says:

    No position on Israel/Palestine? Just willing to carp and sputter? I see…

    Well, you’ve clearly laid out your position. My position is rather immaterial, don’t you think? I’d much rather see you argue against the head of the Jewish state, telling us all how much of a loser he is in your most excellent opinion.

    I’m in this for the comedy value, Mannning. You really should do this as performance art. It’d fit right in with the whole polyester and bell bottoms revival going on. Maybe you can fling chocolate syrup across the audience in cadence with your hip bebop rendition of the rant.

    While wearing leopard skin speedos and a tight corset.

    You’d be a smash hit in the retro scene.

  16. Alex says:

    And what do you think of Obadiah Shoher’s arguments against the peace process ( )?