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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Review: Myths, Illusions and Peace

On Friday I received my free reviewer's copy of Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky.

This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the possibilities of diplomacy in the most intractable conflicts of this decade, those between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs and those between the US and Iran. Ross and Makovsky's goals are to find and support a clear-eyed but sober diplomatic means to manage these conflicts, and they take on both the neoconservative viewpoints of people like Norman Podhoretz and the "realist" viewpoints of Walt and Mearsheimer.

Myths, Illusions and Peace is a work of nuance, of recognizing that problems are not easily solved and of the importance of looking at context. It is difficult to review the book properly as the authors develop their arguments over many pages and anything I write will be necessarily simplistic representations of those arguments. It is not easy to find important concepts that they skipped.

The book starts off with a tour de force in demolishing the idea of "linkage," that is, the utterly fallacious idea that solving the Israel/Palestinain Arab conflict is the key to solving all the problems of the Middle East. Ross and Makovsky call it "the mother of all myths" and demonstrate that it has been used by the Arab world to deflect responsibility and for Arab leaders to deflect criticism.

They then go on to show how the US has traditionally approached a related linkage argument, going back to FDR and Saudi king Abdul Aziz al-Saud, that US relationships with the Arab world would be irreparably damaged by supporting Israel. Ross and Makovsky prove that Arab regimes tend to act in their own self-interest and not at all in concert with this linkage argument, and prove that even the high-water mark of the concept - when OPEC embargoed oil to the US in the wake of the Yom Kippur War - actually disproves linkage, as the embargo was lifted before the US did any concrete moves to placate Arabs. Arabs have consistently acted in their own self-interests and not in the interests of Palestinian Arabs, and the US should have no fear that this would ever change, although Arab nations will be sure to ratchet up their rhetoric to make it appear so - as this has been one of their more effective levers.

This chapter is also a very good overview of Israel/US relations through the years, from the nadir of 1956 to the close relationship between the two allies in more recent decades. It includes fascinating details about major events, such the Nixon/Kissinger maneuverings in choosing not to send weapons to Israel during the crucial early days of the Yom Kippur war, a strategy that was nearly catastrophic for Israel. We also learn that Jimmy Carter was so smitten with the idea of a comprehensive Arab/Israeli peace agreement - an idea that gives any Arab regime effective veto power over the entire package - that he almost publicly criticized Sadat for his unilateral decision to go it alone in making a peace treaty with Israel. The book has a wealth of such details.

In the end, the authors show that the idea of linkage has harmed US interests in the region, not enhanced them.

Ross and Makovsky then go on to take on the myths that the neocons and the "realists" have about the peace process. Their arguments are fearless and they take on each point of both sides honestly. For example, they look at the neocons' conviction that the Palestinian Arab moves towards peace are only an illusion, a manifestation of Arafat's "phases" plan to take whatever land they can get and use it to leverage gaining more. The authors ask, if Arafat was really so committed to the phased destruction of Israel, why he spurned the Camp David offer which would fulfill that plan? And they go into more details of Podhoretz' answers and their rebuttals. They similarly look at the mistakes of the Bush administration in its hands-off approach to Middle East peacemaking for much of its term and its muddled approach towards the end. Other neoconservative arguments are similarly tackled.

Similarly, they take on the "realists" arguments that Israel is primarily responsible for the conflict, that the US should impose a solution from without, and that the US friendship with Israel is costly and that the US does Israel's bidding and does not offer its own solutions.

Finally, the authors offer their own solution, which they call "engagement without illusions," that the US must act as go-betweens in order to clarify what each side's beliefs and red lines are to the other side. Fatalistically assuming that peace is impossible is unacceptable to Ross and Makovsky, as is the myth that we can impose a solution without caring about or even understanding what each party really wants.

They go one to address other critical issues. They believe strongly that Iran needs to be engaged but, again, with our eyes open. Ross and Makovsky place much faith in a fax that the US received from Iran in 2003, said to have been approved by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini. That fax seemed to show panic at the prospects of US military action against Iran and offered to work with the US on disarmament, regional security and economic cooperation, as well as agreeing to end development of WMDs if given access to Western technology. This is evidence that Iran can be motivated by other than purely ideological considerations, and that means that a system of carrots and sticks can be devised to steer the Iranians to go in a productive direction. Again, Ross and Makovsky are not willfully blind and they address the very significant concerns about these ideas; in some ways they are more hawkish than the Bush administration that backed off of some red lines in accepting Iran's relentless push towards the bomb. They also astutely note that not only must we understand Iranian thinking - difficult enough as that may be - but we must also understand how Iran thinks about us. A particularly scary point they make is that it is unlikely that Iran is developing fail-safe mechanisms at the same time they are developing the bomb, although for some reason they think that a European country talking to them about that might somehow be an incentive for them to slow down their nuclear weapons program.

Ross and Makovsky also add a welcome chapter to describe the importance of Israel to American interests, and conversely the problems that would ensue if the US would abandon Israel - not only for Israel but for the world that depends on America to act consistently and stand by her friends. They include another chapter that discusses the importance of promoting democracy throughout the world, and how the Bush administration fumbled that ball badly.

It is understandable that Dennis Ross would believe so strongly in diplomacy. He was directly involved in the heavy-duty negotiations between Israel and the PLO during Oslo and the last-gasp attempts in the dying days of the administration. He is clearly emotionally invested in both the idea that peace is possible and that diplomacy is the most effective way to solve the conflict. (He also completely skips over the Clinton years in his history of US/Israel relations when talking about linkage.) His attachment to these ideas causes him to make a single false argument that I could detect, in which he compares the number of Israel fatalities during the Oslo process with those during the first years of the intifada, concluding that the fact that there was an active peace process is what kept the fatalities comparatively low during the 1990s as compared to the 2000s. This is a shocking misinterpretation for at least two reasons: the second intifada started while negotiations were still taking place, and the number of fatalities on both sides in the years before Oslo were significantly less than during Oslo. To his credit, this example is the only bad argument I noticed in a book that is chock-full of arguments. But his bias does mean that one needs to be especially careful in evaluating their merits.

I am not as optimistic as Makovsky and Ross about the prospects of real peace. They believe in strengthening the PA, in the US pushing a thoughtful bottom-up and top-down approach towards Palestinian Arabs, and in not engaging with Hamas and Hezbollah unless they change their goals and belief systems. They address some but not all of the elephants in the room but the ones they address they seem to believe are not as significant a roadblock as others do.

My biggest problem with the book is that, as comprehensive as it is, it seems to look at peace treaties as the ultimate prize. No one should discount the importance of those treaties but once that goal is achieved, there seems to be no incentive to work for true peace. Two countries that have peace treaties with Israel are the most anti-semitic countries in the world, according to a Pew poll a couple of years ago: Egypt and Jordan. This is not just a problem; it is a reflection of the divergence between peace treaties among states and real peace among countries. It means that while Israel may not be under any existential threat from its neighbors at the moment, nothing is being done to address the underlying problem of real Arab antipathy towards Israel even as they grundgingly accept it as reality. Arabs (and Jews) tend to look at things in terms of centuries, not years, and it is hard to think that Arab nations have any incentive to work towards real peace and acceptance of Israel. The treaties make sense now; but they are tactical.

Diplomacy doesn't care much about real peace; after agreements are signed there are other crises that need to be addressed. Diplomacy cannot truly affect the attitudes of hate that still come out of the media in Jordan, Egypt and the PA. Carrots and sticks can convince states to act rationally but they cannot change their beliefs.

One sad example brought in the book is that of the Qualified Industrial Zones between Jordan and Israel. The QIZ's allow Jordanian textile workers to use Israeli content and sell the products to the US without tariffs. The result is that there is now a new $1.5 billion Jordanian industry, some 15% of Jordan's GNP, creating over 30,000 jobs - all due to peace with Israel. And yet, the authors note that Jordanians never hear that this is a peace dividend. Facts that could materially affect the quality of the relationship between Arabs and Israelis are kept silent. While pan-Arabism is dead as a political philosophy, it still lives in this shared antipathy towards Israel and the very idea of a Jewish state.

One other issue that is all but ignored are how to fight radical Islam on a philosophical level. The authors say that only Muslims will be able to convince other Muslims not to act in extreme ways, and again a system of carrots and sticks can push populations towards the more moderate side (for example, Palestinian Arabs seeing that the West Bank is prospering and Gaza is foundering.) But this does not address the actual belief systems, just today's situations. If Hamas gains ascendancy in its social services it will again have the upper hand, and no one is trying to see if radical Islam can be discredited from within the framework of Islam itself. This is again outside the realm of diplomacy but it is no less important if true peace is going to be lasting. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether such a Quran-based opposition to radical Islam is feasible.

The same can be said for the honor/shame mentality in Arab society. It is not mentioned in the book; while presumably the authors feel that this is part of understanding the grievances of the Arab side the very existence of that mindset is a barrier to true coexistence. To put it bluntly, the idea that Arabs could accept an Israel that humiliated them so thoroughly is as foreign as the idea that an Arab would become co-husbands with his wife's lover. Diplomacy can theoretically manage such attitudes but it cannot solve them.

One other thought came to mind as I was reading this book. In two separate contexts, the authors mention where the United States backtracked on its commitments to Israel: once in 1967 when the Johnson administration didn't even seem to even be aware that the Eisenhower administration has pledged to keep the Straits of Tiran open to Israeli boats, and once when the Bush administration started to backtrack on promises made to Sharon (a move that has accelerated under Obama.) It brings up the question - if allies cannot be trusted to stand by their own commitments to each other, how much trust can one have with one's enemies? This is another problem with the diplomacy-based approach that is not addressed in a book which is, in many ways, a paean to open-eyed and skillful diplomacy.

I need to stress that these criticisms are minor in the context of this book's goals. Myths, Illusions and Peace is on almost all levels a brilliant treatise and I fervently hope that it becomes a part of the White House and State Department reading lists.