Commentary Magazine


Back to the Future

In The New York Times Book Review, David C. Unger, who writes foreign policy editorials for the Times, reviews Martin Indyk’s “Innocent Abroad:  An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East.” (Click here to read Dean Godson’s review of Indyk’s book in the February issue of COMMENTARY.)

Unger calls the book a “timely and valuable history” by one of the Clinton administration’s top Middle East specialists.  He thinks Indyk’s assessments are all the more relevant in view of the return of Clinton administration people to top foreign policy jobs, after the “disastrous mistakes” of the Bush administration.

The book may be valuable, but not for the reason Unger thinks.

As the old peace processors return to the not-so-new Obama administration, to start multiple new peace processes with Iran and Syria and the truncated Palestinian Authority, we seem to be headed down an old road, driven by the same people who previously failed in those efforts and want to try them again.

But consider this passage from Indyk’s book, about the mindset of the Clinton administration as it decided to put Arab political reform on the back burner, in favor of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”:

We calculated that once we had put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, these Arab authoritarian regimes would be deprived of their excuse for delaying much-needed domestic reforms. . . .  Conversely, if Clinton pushed hard for political change at the same time as he sought to promote peace, we feared that he might only succeed in generating instability in what were deeply repressed societies. . . .

It would prove to be a flawed approach . . . At the time, we thought 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.  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.

We were wed to an idealistic vision of a new, more peaceful Middle East.  The leaders of the old Middle East had something else in mind for us.  [Page 58]

Yesterday the Iraqis held another successful election, with one of the worst of the old Middle East leaders long gone as a result of American military action.  It was a potential milestone on the road to political reformation in the Middle East:  even rarer than genuine elections in the region are genuine elections that happen more than once.

If the Iraqi experiment in representative government succeeds, it may eventually be recognized as an historical turning point – the beginning of the real change necessary for a different Middle East.  On the other hand, the return of the old “peace process” mindset to the Obama administration may turn out to be a disastrous mistake.