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Foreign Policy: The False Religion of Mideast Peace

Author: Aaron David Miller
April 19, 2010

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Former Secretary of State advisor Aaron David Miller recounts is 'loss of faith' in the Middle East peace process.

On October 18, 1991, against long odds and in front of an incredulous press corps, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin announced that Arabs and Israelis were being invited to attend a peace conference in Madrid.

Standing in the back of the hall at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that day, I marveled at what America had accomplished. In 18 months, roughly the time it took Henry Kissinger to negotiate three Arab-Israeli disengagement agreements and Jimmy Carter to broker an Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the United States had fought a short, successful war -- the best kind -- and pushed Iraq's Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And America was now well-positioned to bring Arabs and Israelis across the diplomatic finish line.

Or so I thought.

Baker, who lowballed everything, was characteristically cautious. "Boys," he told a few of us aides in his suite after the news conference, "if you want to get off the train, now might be a good time because it could all be downhill from here." But I wasn't listening. America had used its power to make war, and now, perhaps, it could use that power to make peace. I'd become a believer.

I'm not anymore.

Etymologists tell us that the word "religion" may come from the Latin root religare, meaning to adhere or bind. It's a wonderful derivation. In both its secular and religious manifestations, faith is alluring and seductive precisely because it's driven by propositions that bind or adhere the believer to a compelling set of ideas that satisfy rationally or spiritually, but always obligate.

And so it has been and remains with America's commitment to Arab-Israeli peacemaking over the past 40 years, and certainly since the October 1973 war gave birth to serious U.S. diplomacy and the phrase "peace process" (the honor of authorship likely goes to a brilliant veteran State Department Middle East hand, Harold Saunders, who saw the term appropriated by Kissinger early in his shuttles). Since then, the U.S. approach has come to rest on an almost unbreakable triangle of assumptions -- articles of faith, really. By the 1990s, these tenets made up a sort of peace-process religion, a reverential logic chain that compelled most U.S. presidents to involve themselves seriously in the Arab-Israeli issue. Barack Obama is the latest convert, and by all accounts he too became a zealous believer, vowing within days of his inauguration "to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors."

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