Call me a foreign-policy geezer, a traditionalist from back in the day. But when it comes to conducting the affairs of the country abroad, particularly toward the seemingly endless, seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli peace process, one historically proven bureaucratic model trumps all others: the willful president empowering the strong secretary of state who, in turn, runs everything.
We don't have that structure now. And although what ails the United States in the Middle East certainly won't be fixed by rearranging the ship of state's deck chairs, it wouldn't hurt, might avoid needless failures, and may even set the stage for some success.
Nowhere is the need for more centralization from the top required than in the U.S. pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace. This issue is a perfect storm of headaches -- one giant root-canal operation that can bring sustained pain to any administration even under the best circumstances. The confluence of domestic politics; unruly Arabs and Israelis who believe they're locked into an existential conflict; sporadic or sustained terror and violence; and the need for a smart negotiating strategy and a tough, smart negotiator demands a focused organizational approach to avoid drift and confusion, let alone to produce success.
And what has worked in the past -- which really is prologue on this issue -- is a structure run by the secretary of state who (through an envoy with a team) is empowered by the president to craft a workable strategy and implement it. That empowerment must be real and direct: Friends and foe alike must know that it's the secretary of state who really is authorized to speak for the president. While it's his policy, she is the go-to address. Any daylight between them is bad for business.
They also need to know that the secretary is committed to this issue and can play both the good cop and bad cop. America's top diplomat doesn't just show up in the end to close a negotiation; he or she is involved at critically important points in setting it up. Indeed, well before the deal is done -- the secretary must and will become the repository of the anger, respect, and above all, the confidences and negotiating positions of the Arabs and the Israelis.
Finding the balance between being taken for granted and becoming part of the furniture while still commanding the respect of all sides is tricky. But it can and must be done. And no subcabinet envoy can do it because at times it will involve threatening to walk away and blame one or both of the parties for the blowup. For this you need star power and command and control -- and at critical points, the president's intercession as well.
The controlling secretary model also has the advantage of having history and success on its side. Both Henry Kissinger and James Baker owned the Arab-Israeli issue, and notwithstanding their own talents as negotiators and the opportunities in the region which they not only inherited but also helped manufacture, that ownership was vital to U.S. success. They had the confidence of their presidents, and they used that authority -- stretching it at times -- to build themselves up and persuade the locals that they were in fact the real powers on the ground. Each had the power to punish and reward; the Arabs and the Israelis knew there were no end runs to the White House around these guys. Both were also willing to take risks and put themselves in the middle of the mix -- shuttling, pushing, prodding, and bribing. Right now, Barack Obama's administration has at least four centers of power and influence on the Arab-Israeli issue that I can identify:
1. The president (together with his political advisors), who from the get-go tried to own this issue from a public-rhetorical angle but didn't seem to have a strategy, believing wrongly that he could use his own words and persona to Arabs and put the Israelis in their place; at least that was the plan.