Wooing the Gods of the Peace Process

Obama is poised to become increasingly entangled in the Arab-Israeli conflict during the next year. Here's how he can avoid his predecessors' mistakes.

If the peace process gods have a sense of humor (and history), sometime around next summer -- the 11th anniversary of Bill Clinton's failed Camp David summit -- another Democratic president's peace initiative will be tested.

Right now, the arc of President Barack Obama's peace process efforts (and the other Clinton's, too) is leading inexorably to American "bridging" proposals -- ideas on the core issues meant to literally bridge the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions -- if not a U.S. plan to reach a framework accord on all the big issues, which would constitute an extraordinary breakthrough. Currently, neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are able to bridge the gaps on Jerusalem, borders, security, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But with the Obama administration's inability to resist engaging, the president might end up in another make or break summit.

But Obama shouldn't rush toward another disaster so quickly. A faltering, struggling peace process with some hope is far better than a failed one that leaves everyone hopeless -- and without a fallback option. When the time comes for big American moves (and, sadly, it will come given the Israeli and Palestinian lack of ownership over their own process), Obama should pay careful attention to the lessons and circumstances of the last big American effort to resolve the core issues.

Much has changed in the past decade since Clinton asked Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak to come to only the second presidential summit at Camp David in 50 years of American involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some of the changes have inspired observers to believe the time is right for a big American move: both Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, unlike Arafat, are well-intentioned, practical men with no history of involvement in terrorism and violence; Palestinian security performance is much improved; and the Arabs have put their own 2002 peace initiative on the table. Much good work has indeed been done on the core issues since Camp David in 2000. If the Untied Statesdoesn't act on this progress soon, say some analysts, there will be no two-state solution to negotiate. And those are the optimists talking.

But there's plenty of bad news, too. The Palestinian national movement faces its deepest crisis since its inception. It has become a kind of Noah's ark with two of everything: two security services; two different leaderships (Hamas and Abbas's Fatah) controlling two separated populations; two different sets of patrons and funding streams; and, above all, two different visions of Palestine's future. Netanyahu has the power to lead Israel into a deal, but maybe not the incentive; Abbas has the incentive, but not the power. And Iran and those it supports -- Hamas and Hezbollah -- have the capacity to weaken and undermine the efforts of would-be peacemakers.

As Obama weighs his peace process strategy in the new year, he will be told four things by those who are pushing him to be bold and decisive. First, the parties were "this close" to an accord at the last Camp David, they will say, thumb and first finger almost touching. Second, that a tremendous amount of work has been done in the past 10 years by Israelis and Palestinians on the core issues which have brought the parties closer than they've ever been. Third, that everyone knows the broad outlines of an agreement. And, fourth, that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all.

Myth merges uneasily with fact here, and bad analysis and logical lapses seem to rule the day. Let's address these four points, one at a time. First, on no issue were the two sides "this close" or even nearly so at Camp David in 2000. Second, yes, a great deal of fine work has been done on the core issues -- but by negotiators who risked very little either because they knew the hour was late and there was no real chance of success, or because they were unempowered to negotiate. Third, the fact that we have a better idea of what a solution might be in no way makes it easier to get there. And, fourth, as for the old college try, that's no substitute for the foreign policy of the world's greatest power. Failure costs, and sometimes, it makes matters worse.

As Obama weighs his approach to Arab-Israeli negotiations in the new year, he should certainly know that on some issues -- territory and security -- the two sides have moved closer, at least on paper. No doubt he is aware that, even on issues such as Jerusalem, the Israeli and Palestinian publics may be more conditioned to accepting an agreement. How any of this would actually play out in the cruel and unforgiving world of Israeli and Palestinian politics -- where Abbas and Netanyahu actually have to make decisions -- is another matter. Presumably, the goal of the next several months will be to have the quiet diplomacy of envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton test out all this.

But far more important to Obama's calculations should be the two unasked questions of Camp David: questions that Bill Clinton and those who advised him (including myself), never asked critically or comprehensively enough. This is particularly important for Obama who, much like Bill Clinton, believes that through the force of his personality, he can act as a transformative agent in international politics.

First, are the two leaders willing, able, and ready to make the big decisions on the big territorial issues and on the identity issues of Jerusalem and refugees? And, second, is Obama himself willing, able, and ready to do what's necessary to be tough, reassuring, and fair -- using ample amounts of honey and vinegar to try to make the deal?

If the answer to the first question is yes, Obama's in business. If both are yes, he might even -- with the help of the peace process gods -- get an agreement. But he must ask these questions before he commits because, if he doesn't, he will surely fail. And in failing he will be hanging a "closed for the season" sign on American efforts in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. And far from being the architect of a negotiated two-state solution, Obama will end up being the American president whose administration presided over its demise.

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The Ambassadors-as-CEOs Model

How the U.S. State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review rethinks the career path and needed skill sets for America's top diplomats.

On Dec 15, the State Department unveiled its first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). The QDDR, modeled on the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review, was conceived by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a broad policy and organizational review -- designed to bolster diplomacy and development efforts and to better align policy, strategy, authorities, and resources in foreign affairs.

Most of the media reaction has understandably focused on a few big-ticket items. These include the call to add 5,500 new foreign service and civil service personnel in order to "reassert the State Department's role as the primary agent of Washington overseas"; an increased emphasis on "smart power"; and a wholesale shift by the State Department toward preventing global crises (i.e., by asking foreign service officers taking a much more explicit role in directing programs such as post-conflict reconstruction and early warning systems).

While the 18-month-long process of producing the QDDR was a very difficult and oft-delayed bout of sausage-making, the final product does represent an enormously important effort by Clinton and her team to bring our foreign-policy apparatus into the modern age. For years, far too much of our approach to diplomacy and development relied on what was essentially a Cold War organizational model that simply no longer works in today's economic and political landscape. For instance, the idea of centralized embassies reporting back through carefully cleared cables to central offices in Washington seems outdated at a time when CNN broadcasts news of an event long before a cable is written. Visiting the average U.S. embassy overseas often feels like a trip back through a time machine because communication systems are often sub-par and diplomats often seem dangerously disconnected from local realities as a consequence of being trapped behind layers of security precautions.

The QDDR's answer is to suggest thinking of ambassadors "as CEOs," which would mean giving them a stronger voice in decision-making in Washington and more muscle in coordinating the inter-agency activities that are run out of embassies. The ambassador-as-CEO model has an appealing logic. There desperately needs to be greater order and coherence between all the different arms of the U.S. government operating on foreign soil; often the programs of different agencies seem to have been designed with little in the way of common strategy or purpose.

Yet, understanding the dynamics of why U.S. ambassadors have lost much of their authority over recent decades also reveals the central challenges in bringing the vision of the QDDR to life. The reason why other department and agencies have steadily encroached on State's turf is that their programs bring specific expertise to the table; the State Department has often lacked that expertise. Most ambassadors are generalists, and about 30 percent are political appointees; most are thus are not particularly knowledgeable about the intricacies of development, health, trade, or law enforcement in the countries where they serve. It will be difficult for them to act as genuine CEOs without extensive training that would give them greater topical authority.

The authors of the QDDR seem to understand the shortcomings of the current model. If there is one powerful theme throughout the document, it is the need for enhanced training and career development. One recommendation of the QDDR is that foreign service officers receive more training in such areas as economics, development, conflict prevention and response, interagency cooperation, risk management, grassroots consultation, counter-threat training, and public diplomacy. If we want better diplomats, their training in such areas will need to be much more substantial than just a few classroom hours at the Foreign Service Institute.

If anything, the QDDR may not have gone far enough in suggesting changes in how we train our ambassadors. The QDDR does not recommend a fundamental change in how foreign service officers are introduced into their work and the profession as a whole. Although calling for more mid-level foreign service officers to enter the system, junior officers, who make up the bread and butter of the service, are still expected to serve initial tours as consular officers stamping visas. Yet, if we want ambassadors to function as true CEOs, this approach to career development and training may no longer make sense. Yes, we need visas to be processed, and foreign officers need to understand the process, but the tedium of such entry-level jobs probably also turns away a lot of talented young people with the skills that the country needs.

The QDDR also puts a remarkable emphasis on conflict prevention and mitigation; this represents an important shift for State. The QDDR makes clear that State will have the lead in responding to complex emergencies (i.e. humanitarian crises involving conflict) and USAID will take the lead in responding to natural disasters. Yet, State has never successfully been an operational organization and its ranks of people who actually understand how to execute programs and projects in conflict settings are very thin. There is no reason State can't manage complex crises, but the department must be willing to recognize that it needs an infusion of people with new skill sets, and create an environment where conflict experts, who are often less risk-averse than most career foreign service officers, are rewarded for being entrepreneurial and effective.

That brings us to perhaps the greatest stumbling block to implementing the suggestions in the QDDR: limited resources. It's true that the United States now spends more on defense than the rest of our NATO allies combined -- and that the Pentagon's leadership lately has been a very vocal advocate of making diplomacy and development stronger pillars of our international engagement. Sadly, that won't necessarily shift the debate. Many in Congress will look at State and USAID as easy places to make budget cuts. That's why the White House will have to be very strategic in trying to rally moderate Republicans and Democrats to support building a new foreign-policy architecture, one that will be able to effectively advance the national interest now and in the future.

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