Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to both the elder George Bush and Gerald Ford, is the quintessential Middle East “realist.” For decades he has advised that Israel be forced to make concessions to the Palestinians in the vain hope of achieving a grand settlement of all the region’s problems. The spectacle of a veteran analyst spouting the same failed formulas that have been disproved by events time and again is more pathetic than sinister. But since Scowcroft’s tired mantra remains popular with the chattering classes, the onetime mover and shaker does not lack opportunities to rehearse these patent nostrums in prominent forums.
Scowcroft’s article in today’s Financial Times takes account of the “Arab Spring” and the fighting in Libya as well as recent developments on the Arab-Israeli front. But it might as well have been written at any point since the Nixon administration. It repeats the demand that the president get personally involved in the Middle East peace process and summon the leaders of the two sides and persuade them to accept a peace deal that will make the Saudis happy and remove a threat to American security.
What this essay really accomplishes is to show that experience and settled belief in an outcome is no substitute for paying mind to events on the ground.
Scowcroft operates under the assumption that the conflict with Israel is central to instability in the Middle East, but as anyone who has been watching what has actually been going on in the Arab world—as opposed to, say, consulting old notes—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beside the question for Arabs and Muslims, who want the ouster of the very autocrats and monarchs that realists like Scowcraft have always liked doing business with.
Moreover, his belief that an Israeli-Palestinian deal can be achieved in the immediate future is the sort of magical thinking that has characterized American peace-processing since Scowcroft was advising Ford three and a half decades ago. The Palestinian leadership has dependably refused to sign an accord that recognizes Israel’s legitimacy within any borders and on any terms. That is not because they lack the will to do so, but because such a treaty is incompatible with the political culture they represent. Scowcroft can wave around any theoretical peace plan that he likes, including one put forward by left-wing Israelis whose ideas have been thoroughly rejected by that country’s electorate, but he cannot produce a two-state solution if the Palestinians don’t want one.
Scowcroft’s philosophy has been embraced by many in Obama’s administration who share the antipathy for Israel that often characterized the government led by the first President Bush. But Obama would be foolish to take Scowcroft’s advice. The president has already experienced his share of foreign policy failures in the last two years. Injecting himself into dead-end Middle East peace talks would be the sort of wound he doesn’t need to inflict upon himself. Realists have always wanted the United States to impose a settlement on the parties from above, but the foundations of such a plan are just as mistaken today as they were in the past. An Obama peace plan would be as dead on arrival as those of past administrations, and its inevitable failure would boost the stock of Iran and its Hamas and Hezbollah allies. Such recycled realism is an open invitation to disaster. The president needs to reject it firmly.