By Nir Boms
The Obama administration should learn the lessons of Bill Clinton’s experience in the Middle East, as expounded in Martin Indyk’s new book.
Innocent or not? Indyk’s lessons to a new American Administration
Thoughts about Martin Indyk’s new book, Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East ( Simon & Schuster. 494 pp)
Peace in the Middle East appears to be advancing, at least in popularity. The past few years have seen a flurry of published personal accounts on the troubled Middle East and with the long and winding road for peace and stability in the region. The headlines of most of them gives an unfortunate good indication to our current state of affairs: Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy under President Clinton, wrote about the “Missing Peace;” Charles Enderlin, Israel’s correspondent for French II television, wrote about “Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East .” Aaron David Miller, an advisor to six Secretaries of State and a current peace activists wrote about ” The Much Too Promised Land; and Daniel C. Kurtzer, US former Ambassador to Israel and another future key player in the Obama team titled his account “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace.” This list of former negotiators and experts is now joined by Indyk’s account, “Innocent Abroad”
The original “Innocents Abroad” was published by the American author Mark Twain who documented his trip east to the Old World – Europe and the Holy Land, in 1869. Twain saw that world for the first time, something that cannot be said about Indyk, a British-born diplomat who grew up in Australia and ended up becoming an American Ambassador to Israel. In his rather detailed account (494 pages), Indyk, who was a key policy player during the Clinton years, describes the failures in the Palestinian and Syrian track and, more importantly, the lessons that might be learned from the Clinton administration’s failures and frustrations. Obama’s recent victory and the return of a number of Clinton advisors veterans to key jobs in the Obama administration makes his account timely and his conclusions relevant and worth noting.
Indyk was a key player in the Clinton administration’s dual containment policy that led to increased sanctions and to a policy of isolation against Iran and Iraq. Another component of that policy was a certain linkage between “containment of Iraq and Iran in the east” and the “promotion of Arab-Israeli peace in the west.” This was a change of focus and priorities that led to increased engagement of the Clinton administration in the Israeli Palestinian track while attempting to disengage with Iran and Iraq that were perceived us “unsympathetic” to the US (but not as states that posed a threat to it). The policies success was limited.’ The containment of Iran, which is about to manufacture a nuclear weapon, was not that successful and the containment of Iraq turned to military invitation under another president. In the mean time, no progress was seen on the Israeli Palestinian track and the Israeli-Syrian tracks remained likewise in a “stand still.” Nevertheless, it is true to say that American prestige and influence in the region were far greater when Clinton left office than they are today.
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During his inaugural address, President Obama said his administration sought a “new way forward” with the Muslim world, “based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” In this sense, Indyk’s book contain some insights that might be useful for new/old American Middle Eastern teams it attempt to reengage the region. The first one has to do with American expectation and the scope of American involvement. Five weeks into Clinton’s presidency, Indyk recalls, “Middle Eastern peacemaking was the only item on the agenda.” Clinton was keen on achieving peace not only between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but also between the Israelis and the Syrians, the Jordanians and the remaining Arab world. Clinton spoke about the Middle East often, perhaps too much. While reviewing the white house dynamics during the Israeli Syrian talks in 2000, Indyk notes that “There was a clear feeling that the people of the Middle East were not only on the threshold of a new millennium, but also the start of a new age in Israeli- Arab relations,” no less. Obama, who had not mentioned the Middle East in his inauguration address, might have taken this point to heart, at least for now.
The second and more salient point has to do with a more realistic American assessment of the region and its dynamics. Indyk admits that “We were wed to an idealistic vision of a new, more peaceful Middle East” while ” the leaders of the old Middle East had something else in mind for us.” Indyk admits in the failure of President Clinton to assess the real intention of Hafez al-Assad, then the Syrian president, and that of Ehud Barak. Clinton also took too literally the multilayered messages and coded assurances he got from Yasir Arafat. A British Ambassador in Teheran once explained the logic of the Middle East when he said “What I say does not definitely reflect what I think. What I do does not necessary reflect what I say. Therefore, not everything that I do necessary contradicts everything that I think. ” President Obama should better pay attention to that langue note.
That last point might be the most crucial for a new American Administration seeking a new round of engagement in the region. Indyk reminds us that the prevailing policy thinking at the time was that “making peace would end the terrorism because we would be turning the key sponsors of terror in the Middle East heartland – Arafat and Asad – into peacemakers.” He admits that ” this was another example of our naïveté. Just as Mubarak and Fahd had an interest in diverting American attention to peacemaking rather than internal reform of their societies, we would discover that Arafat and Asad were quite capable of talking peace and encouraging terror at the same time.”
Obama’s new team – with many of the Clinton era players included – can no longer claim “innocence” in this regard. These lessons are there to be learned, with the hope that future books will have less to say about another round of policy mistakes.
Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East