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If men could learn from history,
What lessons it could teach us!
But passion and party blind our eyes.
And the light which experience gives us
Is a lantern on the stern,
Which shines only on the waves behind us.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Today, with headlines from the Middle East dominated by bloodshed, terrorism, sectarian warfare, civil strife, and threats to destroy Israel, it's hard to imagine that not so long ago the politics of the region were punctuated by signing ceremonies at the White House where Arab and Israeli leaders expressed their common commitment to peace and reconciliation. Critics and cynics would later come to mock such occasions as mere "photo ops," as if they had no greater significance. But now, given the deplorable state of Middle Eastern affairs, those ceremonies should be remembered as indicators of what was possible when Arab and Israeli leaders, under the auspices of an American president, committed their nations to settle their grievances through peacemaking.
The handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, is usually considered the climactic moment of that era. But that was at the beginning; Rabin seemed quite reluctant to shake Arafat's hand. The high point of the peace process actually came two years later, on September 28, 1995, when Rabin and Arafat came to the White House again, to sign the "Oslo II Accord," which provided for Palestinian rule to replace the Israeli army in the major cities and towns of the West Bank. Hosni Mubarak, the always-cautious president of Egypt, turned up this time to bear witness. King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan stood proudly next to Rabin a year earlier they had signed the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty. Even the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia in traditional Arab headscarf and robes was there for the entire world to see.
This time, the audience was treated to a spontaneous gesture quite different to the stiffness of the first occasion: Arafat put an affectionate arm on Rabin's back, and Rabin, a shy and gruff man who normally had no time for demonstrative gestures of affection, had left it there as they departed the room together.
Later that evening, President Bill Clinton hosted a reception for the peacemakers at the Corcoran Gallery, across Seventeenth Street from the White House. In the ornate, Doric-columned main hall, Washington's politicians, diplomats, and lobbyists mingled with representatives of the Jewish and Arab-American communities. After a time, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore appeared with the leaders on a podium at the southern end of the cavernous hall to address the crowd. Arafat and Rabin had not expected to make speeches. Given the opportunity to stray from his usual mantra of demands for justice for the Palestinian people, Arafat actually delivered warm words about the importance of peace with his Jewish cousins.
Rabin responded in kind. He noted that Jews were not famous for their sporting abilities, except when it came to speechmaking, at which he averred they were Olympic champions. Turning to Arafat, he said, "It seems to me Mr. Chairman, that you might be a little Jewish!" The crowd laughed and a Cheshire-cat grin spread across Arafat's normally pouting lips as he declared: "Yes, yes, Rachel is my aunt!" How exactly Arafat calculated that he was related to the biblical matriarch was a mystery, like so much else about this strange man. But it was emblematic of the occasion that someone who prided himself on being a Muslim world leader would choose publicly to claim Jewish ancestry.
For the first time, Rabin spoke about the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. It may sound strange now, when statehood is commonly accepted as a Palestinian right, that Rabin opposed a Palestinian state, insisting that the Oslo Accords make no mention of it. But this night was different. Feeling that the Palestinians had committed themselves to living peacefully alongside Israel, Rabin outlined his vision of a peace in which Palestinians would have an independent state of their own. What was needed, Rabin explained, was "separation, not because of hatred, [but] because of respect."
At that moment, many thought the Arab-Israeli peace process had reached a tipping point. It seemed only a matter of time before a Palestinian state would be established in most of the West Bank and all of Gaza. A peace deal between Israel and Syria was also in the works, painstakingly negotiated in secret between Rabin, Clinton, and Syrian president Hafez alAsad. If it too could be finalized, the Arab-Israeli conflict would be over.
Five weeks later, Yitzhak Rabin would lie dead in the emergency room at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital, murdered by a Jewish religious extremist. The assassination of the principal Israeli architect of peacemaking would set Israelis and Palestinians on a path of destruction that would eventually engulf the whole peace edifice. Try as he might, with Rabin gone, Clinton was unable to salvage the peace process.
How far we had traveled in such a short time. Clinton and his peace team of which I was a member had entered the White House full of optimism. A student of history, Clinton understood that the stars were aligned for a breakthrough that could end the Arab-Israeli conflict and provide a lasting legacy for his presidency. That heroic endeavor would in the end turn into a blinding obsession to complete the task he started with his slain Israeli friend, and to burnish his own tarnished presidency.
Bill Clinton attempted to transform the Middle East by making peace, committing his energies and prestige to an objective that befitted the idealism and optimism that underpins American foreign policy. He sought to convert far-off provinces bound in conflict and mired in tribalism into a land of peace and harmony. In contrast to his successor, George W. Bush, Clinton chose to operate within the traditional bounds of statecraft, preferring the instruments of diplomacy to the weapons of war, as he attempted to drag the region across the threshold of the twenty-first century.
Clinton was hardly oblivious to the ills that afflicted the Middle East: a rogue predator plotting his revenge in Baghdad; revolutionary mullahs in Tehran using terror and violence to spread their Islamist ideology to the rest of the Middle East; Israeli politicians struggling to survive in the harsh world of coalition politics; and corrupt and unrepresentative Arab regimes that failed to meet the needs of their people and allowed no political space for them to express their disaffection. But Clinton chose to contain and limit the impact of these negative influences rather than confront them, in the belief that a breakthrough to peace would do more than anything else to change them. He did not ignore the American impulse to spread democracy abroad, but he believed that peacemaking would be the catalyst for unleashing the region's potential for political and economic liberalization.
Clinton had some important successes. The negative influences of Iraq and Iran were neutralized and the security of America's oil-rich, Gulf Arab clients enhanced. He helped ensure stable successions in Morocco and Jordan and the eventual defeat of Islamic extremists in Algeria. He persuaded Muammar Qadhafi to get out of the terrorism business, laying the groundwork for Libya's eventual abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction. He brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, capitalizing on the statesmanship of Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein. He brought the Israeli-Syrian negotiations to the point where the disposition of barely two hundred meters on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee was all that separated the parties from an agreement. And he took the Oslo Accords, the framework Israeli-Palestinian agreement that had been negotiated behind his back, and diligently translated it into a series of interim accords and parameters for a permanent peace that could have ended the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
It was a wholehearted diplomatic endeavor in which for eight years President Clinton and his peace team invested more time, energy, and prestige than in any other area of American foreign policy. But ultimately it failed.
Instead of peace, Israelis and Palestinians became locked in a bloody conflict, which over the next five years managed to destroy the framework of comity that had taken three decades of dedicated American diplomacy to construct. By the end of President Clinton's second term, the Middle East had already begun to revert to its violent, tribal, fundamentalist tendencies, a trend that erupted in Gaza and the West Bank but found its most explosive expression in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. With Clinton gone, his successor chose to forsake peacemaking for war-making in the belief that it could provide a more effective catalyst for transformation.
This is a story laced with irony. Clinton and his peace team believed they were involved in a noble effort to remake the Middle East in America's image. However, their best efforts were inadequate to the task and the consequences were the opposite of those intended.
I have recounted this tragedy in three parts. In the first, Clinton uses his diplomatic energies to reach the peak, that moment in September 1995 when it actually seemed as if the valley of peace was opening out before us. To reach that point, Clinton developed a strategy that combined the pursuit of peace with a policy of "dual containment" to deal with the Middle East's rogue regimes in Iraq and Iran.
The second part details the fate of "dual containment," that other branch of our strategy, underscoring the symbiotic relationship between developments in the Gulf and the fate of Clinton's primary strategy of peacemaking in the Arab-Israeli arena. The interconnected nature of the political dynamics in the Middle East that this experience reveals provides an important lesson for future American policy makers. And as the policy of regime change pursued by Clinton's successor gives way to new ideas for containment of Iraq's civil strife, and engagement with Iran, Clinton's experience with both those approaches provides salutary schooling.
The third part of this book chronicles the downward spiral that began with Rabin's assassination and culminated in Arafat's rejection of Clinton's parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian final settlement put forward in the last days of his presidency. How we arrived there, via Shepherdstown, Geneva, and Camp David, is a dramatic story in itself. More important, though, are the lessons to be learned from the bold but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reach the goal of a comprehensive end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The ultimate failure of Clinton's efforts was a very personal one for me. I could never have imagined when I arrived with my wife, Jill, and my infant daughter, Sarah, in America in 1982 as a visiting professor from Australia on sabbatical at Columbia University that ten years later I would join the White House staff of a new president and become responsible for helping to craft Clinton's Middle Eastern strategy as his special assistant in the National Security Council.
Twenty years earlier, as a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I had been caught up in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It was a defining moment in my life. As I lay awake listening to BBC radio broadcasts of Henry Kissinger's efforts to negotiate a ceasefire, I came to understand the pivotal role of the United States as the one party that, through its diplomacy, could help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. From that point on, I had become obsessed with the U.S. role in promoting Middle East peace studying, writing and teaching about it. Suddenly, there I was at the epicenter of that effort.
Even then I could not have imagined that two years later I would become America's first Jewish ambassador to Israel, dispatched by Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher to work with Rabin on completing the Israeli-Syrian peace deal. Two years after that, Madeleine Albright would appoint me as the first Jewish assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, responsible for developing and implementing Clinton's strategy toward the Arab world. And then in July 1999, on his first visit as Israeli prime minister to Washington, Ehud Barak would ask Clinton to send me back to Israel again as ambassador to work with him on the comprehensive end to the Arab-Israeli conflict that they had set as their common objective.
The climb up that mountain seemed so natural and destined that I never thought of looking down to contemplate how easily and how far we could fall. Like Icarus, only after the wax on my wings finally melted could I begin to understand the precariousness of the whole enterprise.
That getting of wisdom should have begun five months after I arrived in Israel, the night Rabin was assassinated. I was in the emergency ward at Ichilov Hospital with Leah Rabin on that fateful night, just as I had been privileged to be with President Clinton for every meeting he had held with the slain Israeli leader. But I convinced myself that Rabin's decisions had rendered the peace process irreversible. Even the electoral defeat seven months later of Shimon Peres, Rabin's peace partner, with whom I had worked closely, did little to dent my assumption of inevitability. The subsequent Netanyahu era became the winter of our peace process discontent, as we struggled to negotiate the Hebron and Wye agreements, shore up Saddam's containment cage, and chase after an illusory engagement with Iran.
But just as spring's warmth so quickly erases the memories of winter's chill, so too did Barak's election rekindle my belief in manifest destiny as I returned to Israel for a second chance to complete the deal. It was only as George W. Bush's interim ambassador, working with Ariel Sharon, the newly elected Israeli prime minister, did I begin to appreciate the real impact of Rabin's assassination and the profound implications of our inability to complete the peace deals in Clinton's last year.
Because I was intimately involved in Clinton's peacemaking efforts and in his wider strategy for the Middle East, I have felt a keen sense of personal responsibility, not least to understand and explain from an insider's perspective what went wrong. That journey has been a difficult and humbling one. Along the way, I came to appreciate that good intentions backed by America's immense influence are on their own inadequate to the complex task of shaping the course of Middle Eastern history. One also needs to imagine the possible consequences beyond the ones we hoped for. Indeed, hope and optimism are critical components of the innocence that is the hallmark of America's engagement with the Middle East. Why would we bother to try to transform such a troubled region unless we somehow believed we could, and should? But the dark side of that innocence is a naïveté bred of ignorance and arrogance that generate a chronic inability to comprehend the multiple ironies of the Middle East. Bill Clinton tried to make comprehensive peace there and ended up with the intifada instead. George Bush tried to make the Middle East democratic, and look at the result.
Of course, Bush had no intention of following in Clinton's wake. He was convinced he could achieve better results by setting course in the opposite direction. To make the Middle East over in America's democratic image, Bush stepped outside the bounds of traditional statecraft and deliberately eschewed time-honored American concerns for stability in a volatile region of vital interest.
Like Clinton, Bush had some important successes along the way, removing Saddam Hussein, one of the most effective practitioners of the Middle East's violent ways, and pressing Bashar alAsad, one of the most ineffective, to end Syria's thirty-year occupation of Lebanon. But the unintended consequences of Bush's ambitions are already in plain view: the chaos and sectarian warfare in Iraq, the paralysis and rising tension in Lebanon, an Iranian bid for hegemony in the Arab world backed by its defiant pursuit of nuclear enrichment, a Sunni-Shiite divide opening up across the region, and the filling of the political space that George Bush helped open by armed Islamist groups, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both of which reject Israel's right to exist.
What is it about the United States that its leaders feel obliged to sally forth with such virtuous determination to transform the bazaars and back alleys of the Middle East? And what is it about the Middle East that holds them up, sets them back, and sucks them down into its swamps? My purpose here is to answer those questions, illuminating them with my own experience during the Clinton years.
By dissecting the successes and failures of Clinton's diplomacy in the Middle East, by examining what happened when American and Middle Eastern cultures, values, and power met on the diplomatic battlefield, my purpose is to provide an understanding of why this region is so resistant to the transformational change that America is so insistent on promoting an understanding that has practical applications for any future effort.
In one sense, Clinton's use of traditional statecraft was inadequate to the task of transformation because it meant that he had to work within the existing Middle Eastern order. On the rare occasions when Arab and Israeli leaders chose to break with that order, Clinton's diplomacy could achieve breakthroughs. But most of the time he had to work with Arab leaders paralyzed by their lack of legitimacy or preoccupied with their own survival rather than the well-being of their people, and elected Israeli leaders constrained by the dictates of fractious coalition politics and a suspicious public. That was the heart of the problem, notwithstanding the missteps of Clinton and his peace team.
In another sense, however, the conclusion George W. Bush reached that the only way to effect the transformation is through regime change was more fundamentally mistaken than any of Clinton's errors. A new Middle Eastern order could not be created merely by the ripple effect of the removal of one of its most egregious leaders. War-making could reshape the strategic context and thereby create opportunities for the United States to attempt the transformation we seem bound to seek. But agile and astute American diplomacy must be used to exploit it, as Bush learned the hard way.
In the process, all hope of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict through negotiated compromise seemed to evaporate. Years of blood-soaked confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians, while Bush lectured from the sidelines, generated the opposite of the peace process that Rabin had championed and Clinton had relentlessly pursued. Instead of the "separation because of respect" that Rabin foresaw, Israelis and Palestinians are separating out of the very hatred that he sought to expunge.
Future American administrations will have to devote a good deal of their energies to digging out of the crater left by the Bush administration's dangerous and costly war. However, peacemaking must also be an urgent priority because seven years of neglect have led to such a deterioration that the chances for peace are now receding at a dangerous pace. And pursuing Arab-Israeli peace, as Clinton's experience demonstrates, can have a broad and positive impact across the region. If taken up effectively by future American presidents peacemaking could do much to reverse the deleterious impact of Bush's mistakes.
The success of such efforts will depend heavily on the resurrection of U.S. diplomacy. Neglected for much of the last decade, it will be sorely needed in the years ahead. The Iraq experience has demonstrated the limitations of force while severely straining the U.S. military. The U.S. recession and the vast transfer of wealth to oil-producing countries have also reduced America's economic leverage and left its people wary of new commitments. That leaves diplomacy to bridge the gap between U.S. interests and ambitions and the means available to protect and promote them. Working with allies, building coalitions, resolving conflicts the stuff of statecraft will have to take precedence over an arrogant insistence on the American way. In his second term, George W. Bush's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, came to understand this reality, repairing transatlantic relations, rebuilding an Arab-Israeli peace process, and pursuing negotiations with North Korea and Iran on their nuclear programs. Even Bush, after criticizing Clinton's peacemaking efforts, convened his own Arab-Israeli peace conference at Annapolis, Maryland, in November 2007 to endorse the relaunching of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
With the time therefore upon us again for serious diplomatic endeavors in the Middle East, the Clinton administration's experience will be important in illuminating the way forward. The lessons detailed here point to a strategy that depends less on the use of force and more on backing diplomacy with the threat of force. They point to a course that tempers America's instinct to spread democracy with its interest in preserving stability. It will need to be a way that is less naïve in its assumptions, more modest in its ambitions, more humble in its approach, and more imaginative in its anticipation of what can go wrong; a way that takes into account the region's tardy tempo, unsuited to the calendar of American presidential terms; a way that is cognizant of the reactionary undertow that operates beneath the surface; a way more sensitive to the crosscurrents of internecine and sectarian rivalries that reach across the region.
Clinton's experience also demonstrates that future presidents will not be able to achieve America's vision of a peaceful Middle East absent leaders with the courage, vision, and statesmanship of an Anwar Sadat, a Menachem Begin, a Hussein bin Talal, or a Yitzhak Rabin. The United States cannot create such statesmen but it can use its immense power to alter the strategic context in which Middle Eastern leaders function and thereby influence their motivations. Should those leaders emerge to take advantage of the moment, future presidents must be ready to grab their outstretched hands and guide them to a safe shore with a firm and steady grip. That is when they will most need America's help but it is also when the United States will be in the best position to achieve the peace it seeks for those troubled lands.
In deriving the lessons of Clinton's attempt to use diplomacy to transform the Middle East into a peaceful realm, I was much influenced by Barbara Tuchman's seminal analysis, The March of Folly. In that book she drew on the concept of "the lantern on the stern" to illuminate the causes of history's major foreign policy disasters. Sharing my experience of what occurred, I have tried here to use the lantern on the Clinton administration's stern as a guide to those who will have to deal with the roiling wake generated by the Bush administration's mistakes.
Copyright © 2009 by Martin Indyk