Security Studies Program Seminar

Gulliver’s Troubles: America, Obama and the Middle East

Aaron David Miller
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

May 6, 2009

There is still not much hope for the prospect of a negotiated settlement in Palestine, for the following reasons:

Advice to Obama:


Q. You say the U.S. needs to focus down on its interests in the region — so what are they?
A. With respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan, nation-building is not in our interest. With respect to Iran, no one knows how the story will end. Sanctions do not work; we have not yet tried diplomacy, but it is not clear the Iranians are interested in meeting us in the middle anyway. We need and do not have a Secretary of State who has the deviousness, toughness and relationship with the President to make a run at an approach in the region that offers a chance of success. There is no indication we have a clear understanding of what our interests are and how best to protect them.

Q. A more optimistic view of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that many pieces are in place for a comprehensive settlement, and that we are better off now than we were 20 years ago. There is no more radical rejection; now majorities of the publics on both sides want the same terms. The most important element missing is an American-defined peace plan, which would deal with the extremists on both sides by applying both carrots and sticks.
A. It is hard to get anything done on this issue. A comprehensive American plan such as the one you proposed would go beyond anything we have ever done; for instance, the administration is probably not prepared for what it is going to be like to deal with Jerusalem and the Golan Heights simultaneously.

Q. Your analysis of the past highlights how many factors were weighted toward success, and yet there was failure. Now many of these factors are gone (i.e., a coherent Palestinian government). So what are the most important obstacles to progress now?
A. First, an absence of leaders who are masters rather than prisoners of their politics. Secondly, there does not appear to be a way to bridge the gaps on the two identity issues (Jerusalem and refugees). The second constraint could be alleviated with an American plan, but Obama should first work internally with Israelis and Palestinians to see whether the gaps can be bridged.

Q. You say the U.S. is not really an honest broker but that we could still be an effective broker. Is it possible that we need another party operating on behalf of the agreement in this process, such as Russia?
A. Negotiations survive because they are based on a balance of interests. When we understand how to use the Israeli relationship, which is to be reassuring but equally tough-minded, we can be successful. Other countries can add value with respect to several off-the-table benefits; they can provide money, technical expertise, etc. But on the core issue, you need a lawyer whose client is the agreement.

Q. You note a lack of unity on Palestinian side; what should be the U.S. role in trying to foster that unity? Should we prop up Abbas, establish a security force in the West Bank, or keep our hands off?
A. Our capacity to play an active role is probably limited. This is an internal affair — perhaps we could find a way to help repair it but not by intruding. For instance, if we opened a dialogue with Hamas, the government of Israel would have a justifiable and ready-made issue on which to distract, divert and derail any American initiative.

Q. What is the best solution to the refugee issue?
A. It is hard to look at these issues in isolation because there are tradeoffs between them. In addition, it is not known how many Palestinians are actually left who, between 1947 and 1949, found themselves outside of their homes.

Q. Earlier you offered the Japanese occupation as a missed history lesson. Had we not already paid the price for Japanese occupation during World War II?
A. The broader point is that prior to the invasion of Iraq, we did not look at the nature of the situations in which we had been involved on the one hand and were about to be involved on the other. Germany was also successfully occupied. In a war of discretion like Iraq, a greater premium is placed on competency, and we just did not think this through.

Q. Someone might say George W. Bush initially had the same hands-off attitude toward the Israeli-Palestine conflict as Obama — due, analogously, to Bill Clinton’s failure — but that eventually, in 2008, he had to rush to put an agreement together that also failed. Maybe there will be something not of our choosing that is going to happen, and we will need a plan.
A. I am only arguing that if this administration goes forward with a more comprehensive approach, they need to keep in mind some of the lessons of the past. Every administration emerges throwing out the advice of its predecessors. In this case Obama ought to throw out the past 16 years, but should still look back to an earlier time.

Q. Surely U.S. domestic politics will have a lot to do with the outcome.
A. Governing is about choosing, and you only care about what you own. Obama has to find a way to set his priorities, and the Arab-Israeli conflict is a slow-moving one. He has bigger campaign commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Iran. But, given the hopelessness of these other situations, the “100-year headache” of the Arab-Israeli conflict might be a fruitful issue area for him.

Rapporteur: Nathan Black

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2009