American foreign policy Hamas Israeli settlements Middle East peace process Palestinian Authority

“Can’t anybody here play this game?”

In A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin’s history of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the making of the modern Middle East, we follow British statesmen and military leaders as they make one foolish miscalculation after another. They persistently misread the Middle East, made major decisions based on false intelligence and crackpot theories.

The British Ambassador in Constantinople, Gerard Lowther, and his aide Gerald Fitz-Maurice developed an absolutely fantastic theory that the Young Turks who rebelled against Ottoman rule in 1908 were controlled by “Jewish Freemasons.” The Foreign Office in London readily accepted the notion of Jewish control over the destiny of the Ottoman Empire. Later, that theory contributed to the ludicrous idea that “the world war could be won by buying the support of this powerful group” –i.e., the Jews.

These Brits were the supposed masters of the “grand game” of diplomacy. They did not know what they were doing, more often than not. Fromkin, writing in 1989, believed there was a stark contrast between their level of knowledge and that of modern diplomats:

“To a government official in the 1980s, accustomed to bulging reference libraries, to worldwide press coverage, and to the overwhelming supply of detailed information about foreign countries gathered by the major governments, British ignorance of the Middle East during the 1914 war would be unimaginable.”

I am not sure if the contrast is as stark as the one that Fromkin depicted. Whatever intelligence it possessed did not prevent the Clinton administration from dragging Arafat to the Camp David talks, even though he clearly didn’t want to go and was in no position to sign a landmark agreement on Jerusalem or the right of return. The results were disastrous. The Bushies marched into the inane second Iraq war based on flimsy intelligence and crackpot theories about the Shiites welcoming American troops as liberators.

For the past year, something in me wanted to cling to the childish faith that the current American foreign policy team was different. I wanted to believe that they knew how to play the grand game, and they were thinking five or ten moves ahead.

Perhaps it’s time to stop clinging. In the latest issue of the Jerusalem Report (STILL inexcusably unavailable online), Leslie Susser sums up the reasons why the Obama administration’s Middle East diplomacy has failed miserably. Obama made a “monumental blunder by demanding a total freeze in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem…No Israeli government could order a freeze in East Jerusalem and no Palestinian leadership could demand less than the Americans. Moreover, the emphatic nature of the building ultimatum had given the Palestinians the impression that a new, more sympathetic administration would deliver Israel without having to join a negotiating process or make any reciprocal moves. The result was deadlock…”

I am not convinced that pressing for a total settlement freeze was a bad idea, as long the administration had a coherent game plan if the Israelis refused to go along and kept allowing provocations by right wing settlers in East Jerusalem. If they had such a game plan, we would have seen it by now.

Susser’s account crystallizes the impression I have been trying to stave off for months: there is a good chance that Obama’s Middle East team does not know what it is doing.

I’ve poked around a bit and asked people who know the players what has gone wrong. Some blame individuals on George Mitchell’s staff. Others blame the mess on disagreements between the President’s cautious political advisors–e.g., the “Chicago boys”–and diplomats on the ground who have wanted more forceful American actions. But the problem might be deeper than the competence of individual staffers or political infighting. It may well be that the intelligence the Obama team has relied upon and its suppositions about conflict resolution have been deeply flawed.

As Casey Stengel said of the woeful New York Mets in 1962: “Can’t anybody here play this game?” I am not just sad about this situation. I am frightened.

Because if the state of diplomatic play on the Israeli-Palestinian front is so woeful, why should we trust that American foreign policy honchos know what they are doing in places where good intelligence is even harder to gather, like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen? Why should we believe Western diplomats are much more knowledgeable and effective than they were in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire?

Comments are closed.