Commentary Magazine

Innocent Abroad by Martin Indyk

Innocent Abroad:
An Intimate History of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East

by Martin Indyk
Simon & Schuster. 512 pp. $28.00

Martin Indyk is very proud of the fact that he served as the first Jewish ambassador to Israel and the first Jewish assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs during the 1990’s. The Clinton years were, for men like him, a kind of golden era, as the last redoubts of the old WASP bureaucracy came tumbling down. Consider, for a moment, the astonishing list of Indyk’s co-religionists who also enjoyed responsibility for the region in that period—including Daniel Kurtzer, Robert Malley, Aaron David Miller, and Dennis Ross. What would such State Department panjandrums of yesteryear, the Loy Hendersons and Robert Murphys, have made of the ascendancy of this quintet, cruelly dubbed by one Arab journalist as the “five rabbis”?

The “five rabbis” weren’t even the most powerful Jewish players in the Clinton Administration. In his new memoir, Innocent Abroad, Indyk describes one scene at the White House in October 1998, with President Clinton’s impeachment looming. Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was there, resplendent in his great flowing robes and headdress, trimmed with the finest gold threading, flanked by similarly attired advisers. On the other side sat Clinton and Al Gore, flanked by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, national-security adviser Samuel Berger and his deputy Jim Steinberg, as well as Gore’s foreign-policy adviser, Leon Fuerth.

“Since the Saudis believed Albright and Cohen were Jewish,” notes Indyk, “it must have looked to them as if the President and Vice President were flanked entirely by Jewish advisers.” (Cohen had a Jewish father but was raised a Protestant; Albright was born a Jew but claims not to have known it until she was sixty years old.) 

No wonder Abdullah suspected the worst. He leaned across the table and, in hushed tones, revealed “information” to Clinton that Monica Lewinsky was Jewish and had been part of a Mossad plot to bring down the President because of his efforts to help the Palestinians. Abdullah told Clinton that he intended to share this “intelligence” with those Senators he would be meeting after lunch in an effort to forestall impeachment. But the Crown Prince need not have worried. Monica Lewinsky was not, of course, a Mossad agent—and Martin Indyk and the professional peace processors of the Clinton era were hardly members of the group Pat Buchanan once repulsively called Israel’s “Amen Corner.”



So who is Martin Indyk? A clever, humorous Australian immigrant, he came to Washington as a protégé of Max Fisher, the legendary Detroit businessman, and went to work at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In the 1980’s, he was thought of as something of a hardliner. But there is relatively little in Innocent Abroad about the man and his intellectual development and the reasons for his apparent change from hawk to dove. Instead, Indyk focuses on the high politics and diplomacy of his heyday in the 1990’s. 

There are many enlightening stories to be mined from Innocent Abroad. When newly elected President Clinton asks about the military effects of an Israeli-Syrian accord, Colin Powell—then in his last days as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—tells the Commander in Chief that “no military officer would want to give up” the Golan Heights. Indyk relates how Yasir Arafat exulted to the Saudi ambassador upon arriving in Washington for the first time for the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993: “Andrews, Bandar. We’re at Andrews!” And he writes about the phone call Clinton placed at the very end of the administration to the incoming Secretary of State, the self-same Colin Powell, to warn Powell away from Arafat: “Don’t you ever trust that son of a bitch. He lied to me and he’ll lie to you.”

There are some richly comic moments, too. Officials at the Clinton White House react with terror when Arafat insists on turning up to sign the Oslo accords dressed in combat fatigues as a symbol of his past struggles. Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, then the dean of the diplomatic corps, informs him that this is impossible: A respectable suit and overcoat will have to do, Mr. Chairman. But when Arafat tries the suit on, his bodyguards roar with laughter and the plan for a new wardrobe is swiftly abandoned. The whole world is kept waiting while a compromise is reached; Arafat ends up wearing an ill-fitting safari suit for the ceremony—without medals. One of the funniest moments is also among the most pathetic: Clinton tries to make common cause with Arafat by explaining to him that they are both “comeback kids.” Arafat simply looks at the President of the United States with blank incomprehension.



But despite the flashes of insight and entertaining anecdotage, Innocent Abroad is a largely bloodless work, seemingly lacking in passion. Indyk is certainly a master of the mechanics of elite inter-state negotiations, but to what end? Why has he devoted so much of his professional life to the region? After 400 pages, it’s not really clear. Indeed, he displays little warmth for either the Arab world or the Zionist project, and scant optimism that there can be improvements in the political culture of that part of the world any time soon.

Nor does Indyk appear to have much time for religion. There is a discernible tone of impatience with both Jewish and Muslim sensibilities during the negotiations over the Temple Mount during and after the Camp David summit of 2000. This is all the odder since the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution, of which Indyk is founder and director, holds an annual joint dialogue with the Qatari government on American relations with the Islamic world.

The lack of focus on religion and ideology is the book’s greatest weakness. And it raises a broader, very practical question: How can American diplomats deal successfully with radical Islam without a detailed understanding of its complexities? For instance, there is very little here about the growth of al Qaeda in the 1990’s—which, of course, occurred as the American administration of the day pursued many of the policies toward Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict that Indyk wanted. Perhaps the most depressing passage in Innocent Abroad is Indyk’s description of the emergence of a consensus among Clinton’s advisers not to retaliate for the murder of nineteen American servicemen in the 1996 Iranian terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia for fear that a response would weaken the newly emergent “moderates” from within the Iranian regime led by President Khatami. We know now that the failure to respond was one of the moments that emboldened Osama Bin Laden.

To bolster those supposed moderates, the Clinton Administration also apologized to the mullahs for the CIA’s coup against the Iranian leftist Premier Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953. Maybe the United States should have apologized. But as progressive Iranians pointed out at the time, the mullahs were the last people in Iran deserving of an American apology, since the clerical reactionaries of the time had been bitter opponents of Mossadeq and had been an integral part of the 1953 putsch. Indyk and his confreres allowed the mullahs to get away with misappropriating the legacy of Mossadeq for their own theocratic ends. History may not have mattered much in Clinton’s Washington, but it very much does in Tehran.

Such habits seem to be on the verge of a comeback in Obama’s Washington. But reading Innocent Abroad, one is left to wonder: why are Western policymakers tempted time and again by the prospect of tilting the balance within totalitarian systems in favor of supposed moderates? Why will a rational carrot-and-stick approach contain the mullahs any better this time around, with the Council of Guardians surely feeling cocksure after having survived the Bush years unscathed? And why would placing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back at the top of the new President’s agenda help bolster moderate Arab and European support for checking Iran—any more than it did in the 1990’s?

Perhaps, in the end, Indyk remains the “innocent” he dubs himself in his memoir’s title. There is something innocent in the conviction that engaging an irredentist regime working to secure the most dangerous weaponry in the world will lead it to a more moderate path.

About the Author

Dean Godson, a new contributor, is director of research at the British think tank Policy Exchange.

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