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.