Thomas Mitchell on new book by Miller

Thomas Mitchell on new book by Miller

The Much Too Promised Land by Aaron D. Miller, Bantam, New York, 2008, 385 pp. $26.00.

In 2003, Aaron David Miller, who had served as a deputy to Dennis Ross on the US Mideast negotiating team, retired from the State Department after 20 years of service. He played a major role in American Mideast policy during the George Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations. The following year his former boss, Dennis Ross, published “The Missing Peace” –a blow by blow account of his years in the Clinton administration negotiating peace, along with a brief chapter summarizing his role in the Bush Sr. administration. Unlike Ross’s narrative account, Miller’s book is analytical in scope and covers the peace process all the way from 1973 to 2003.

Miller’s work is divided into five parts. The first deals with American interests and goals in the region and domestic constraints. Miller deals with American Jewry and AIPAC at length and concludes that while AIPAC lobbying is a constraint, it is an obstacle that a determined administration can overcome, as did Ford and Kissinger in 1975 and Bush and Baker in 1991.

The second part deals with American successes in Mideast diplomacy and consists of three chapters covering the Kissinger shuttle diplomacy of the mid-1970s, Carter’s involvement from 1977-79, and James Baker from 1989 to 1991. In each period he focuses on the key American actor and the motivations and methods employed. The chapter for each is labeled with a short one-word synopsis of the actor: Kissinger—strategist; Carter—missionary; and Baker—negotiator.

The material for this part and the following two parts are based on a careful reading of participants’ memoirs, his own experiences and extensive interviews with American, Israeli, and Palestinian decision makers. The list of interviewees and dates at the rear of the book includes three former presidents, one former vice president, and every former secretary of state from Kissinger to Powell along with current Secretary of State Condi Rice. Miller apparently used the memoirs as a treasure trove for the interviews and then used the answers from the interviews along with a few quotes from the memoirs. Those wishing to learn in-depth the issues and details of the 1970s diplomacy will be disappointed. They should turn to William Quandt’s “Peace Process” for those details.

The fourth part is devoted to Clinton’s two terms and the diplomacy on the Palestinian and Syrian tracts. Unlike other American decision makers such as Ross, Madeleine Albright, and President Clinton and Israelis Shlomo Ben-Ami and Ehud Barak, he does not blame the failure at the Camp David II summit in July 2000 exclusively on Yasir Arafat. The book seems to be a synthesis of the conventional American-Israeli school and the conclusions of Clayton Swisher, whose “The Truth About Camp David” blamed poor American preparation and strategy for the failure, along with an Israeli failure of nerve. Miller blames the American team, Arafat and the Palestinians, Ehud Barak and even Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad. Assad is blamed for refusing to make the sort of political gestures that both Sadat and Arafat were willing to make to reassure the Israeli electorate before major territorial concessions. This resulted in Barak wasting precious time on the Syrian track at the expense of the Palestinian track. He faults his own side for failing to make it clear to Assad that such gestures would be required and to the Israelis that a full withdrawal from the Golan would be necessary.

The fifth and final part consists of two chapters. The first is a review of the junior Bush administration’s record, concluding that Bush’s “hands off” approach won’t work in the Middle East. In the final chapter, Miller argues that successful Middle East diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible but not likely. He argues that to be successful the US would have to employ the deviousness of Kissinger, the missionary focus and attention to detail of Carter, and the ruthlessness of Baker.

He is clearly stating that successful diplomacy will not translate into domestic popularity. Each of these three previous successful figures is anathema to large portions of the “American organized Jewish community.” Israelis understood that they were not paying for Kissinger’s salary, but many American Jews failed to understand that Kissinger’s first loyalty should be to his employer. Miller doesn’t cover the Reagan presidency, because he doesn’t feel that Reagan left any lasting legacy to Mideast peacemaking. Reagan and Clinton were domestically the most successful presidents during this period and neither succeeded in Mideast peacemaking. The diplomatic successes of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and George H. W. Bush were not rewarded at the polling places.

Miller also deals briefly with the fact that the Mideast team of both Baker and Clinton was a Gentile-free zone. He mentions that the Palestinians referred to him, Ross and Dan Kurtzer, the American ambassador to Israel as “the three rabbis” and Israelis close to Shamir referred to them as “Baker’s Jewboys.”

I recently watched an episode from the sixth season of “The West Wing” in which the Bartlett administration successfully mediates a Mideast peace agreement without the participation of the secretary of state, the national security advisor, or the assistant secretary of state for the Near East. Instead, the issues are debated among the president, his chief of staff, and two Jewish domestic affairs advisors. I wonder what Arabs, not fully versed on the realities of American television and Hollywood thought, when they saw it. Even if the episode was not shown in the Middle East, imagine all of the Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Palestinian students who might have seen it. While I don’t fault the participation, qualifications, or loyalty of any of the individuals in the team, I question the collective impact of having Middle East diplomacy dominated by one particular ethnic group, even if the individuals are faithfully executing the policy of the elected president. Israelis complained that Kissinger gave Israel a worse deal because he was an assimilated Jew. Arabs must have felt justified insofar as they had antisemitic suspicions. Imagine what American Jews and Israelis would think if the team was made up exclusively of Arab Americans.

If I were teaching a course in regional conflict management, I would use this book as a basic course text, along with Jonathan Powell’s “Great Hatred, Little Room” on Tony Blair’s diplomacy in Northern Ireland.

Thomas Mitchell is a graduate of Hebrew University and the doctoral program in international relations at the University of Southern California. He specializes in research on deeply divided societies – particularly Arab-Palestine, Northern Ireland, and 19th century America.

By | 2008-05-29T12:43:00-04:00 May 29th, 2008|Blog|0 Comments

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