Such forceful U.S. diplomacy succeeded in the past. Indeed, it's a stunning paradox that with the exception of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, every other successful accord came not out of direct negotiations, but as a result of U.S. mediation. The Oslo accords, often touted as the miracle produced by direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, proved to be a spectacular failure. All that's missing now, the argument goes, is the absence of American will.
I understand the logic of this view, and having spent more than 20 years in frustrating talks with the Arabs and Israelis, I can also see how it can be emotionally satisfying. But because I know a thing or two about failure and don't want to see the United States fail (yet again), I simply don't buy the argument. If I genuinely believed America could impose and deliver a solution through tough forceful diplomacy, I'd be more sympathetic -- but I don't. And here's why:
Ownership: Larry Summers, Obama's chief economic advisor, said it best: In the history of the world, no one ever washed a rental car. We care only about what we own. Unless the Arabs and Israelis want political agreements and peace and can invest enough in them to give them a chance to succeed, we certainly can't. The broader Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers that wrongly believed they could impose their will on small tribes. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran … need I continue? Small tribes will always be meaner, tougher, and longer-winded than U.S. diplomats because it's their neighborhood and their survival; they will always have a greater stake in the outcome of their struggle than the great power thousands of miles away with many other things to do. You want to see failure? Take a whack at trying to force Israelis and Palestinians to accept an American solution on Jerusalem.
The negotiator's mystique: It's gone, at least for now. When Americans succeeded in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, it was because they were respected, admired, even feared. U.S. power and influence were taken seriously. Today, much of the magic is gone: We are overextended, diminished, bogged down. Again Summers: Can the world's biggest borrower continue to be the world's greatest power? Our friends worry about our reliability; our adversaries, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, believe they can outwait and outmaneuver us. Nor does there appear much cost or consequence to saying no to the superpower. After Obama and Mitchell's fruitless first year, I worry that the mediator's mystique of a Kissinger or a Baker, or the willfulness and driving force of a Carter, won't return easily.
Domestic politics: The pro-Israel community in the United States has a powerful voice, primarily in influencing congressional sentiment and initiatives (assistance to Israel in particular), but it does not have a veto over U.S. foreign policy. Lobbies lobby; that's the American way, for better or worse. Presidents are supposed to lead. And when they do, with a real strategy that's in America's national interests, they trump domestic politics. Still, domestic politics constrain, particularly when a president is perceived to be weak or otherwise occupied. This president has been battered of late, and his party is likely to face significant losses in the 2010 midterm elections. Should there be a serious chance for a breakthrough in the peace process, he'll go for it. But is it smart to risk trying to manufacture one? The last thing Obama needs now is an ongoing fight with the Israelis and their supporters, or worse, a major foreign-policy failure.