Two years ago, I wrote a cover story for Foreign Policy that received a great deal of attention.
The article, titled "The False Religion of Mideast Peace," argued that for too long too many American officials (myself included) had embraced assumptions and propositions about Arab-Israeli peacemaking that were not grounded in reality. My argument was not that Arab-Israeli peace couldn't be achieved, but only that the elemental conditions for success were simply not in place. In an effort to do something, anything, and always with the best of intentions, U.S. policymakers -- presidents and secretaries of state -- and their advisors had either ignored the realities on the ground or tried to fashion new ones out of whole cloth that could never sustain a successful negotiation, let alone an agreement.
My essay was widely applauded by the anti-peace process crowd as one galactic we-told-you-so and was broadly dismissed by the peace-process establishment (a waning but still determined constituency) as the musings of a frustrated and annoyingly negative former government negotiator who was no longer in the business.
My point in writing, however, was neither to bury the peace process nor praise it, never mind find a suitable rationale to justify 20-plus years of failure; it was designed as a cautionary and highly personalized tale to demonstrate what happens when people in positions of influence persist in seeing the world the way they want it to be rather than the way it is. Successful policy, of course, requires the blending of both, however hard and inconvenient that may be.
The tendency for U.S. politicians and policymakers to distort the reality they inherit -- willfully or unintentionally -- is not exclusive to either Democrats or Republicans. I worked for both, and neither had a monopoly on bad analysis or bad policy. Indeed, reality distortion is a truly bipartisan affair, perhaps even a pathology. And it's certainly not unique to Americans, though they bring a special set of traits to it. In the final years of Bill Clinton's administration, on matters pertaining to peacemaking, we followed our illusions instead of looking at the world the way it was, with predictable results. Throughout much of George W. Bush's administration, we did the same on matters relating to war, with consequences far more disastrous.
What is it about the way Americans look at the world that seems to skew it for us so? Why do we seem so often to wobble in our policies -- like a drunk careening from lamppost to lamppost -- either trying to do too much or not doing enough? Why can't we seem to find the right balance between our interests, ideals, and policies? And why haven't we had much success in the Middle East these many years when it comes to war or peacemaking, key elements in the job description for any great power?
These are tough questions that have preoccupied scholars, pundits, journalists, and practitioners of foreign policy for a very long time now. Wrestling with them -- and we must -- is very much akin to what Dutch historian Pieter Geyl said about history: that it was an argument without end. So let's argue. Today, as we launch Reality Check, a weekly column that will test and examine some of the basic assumptions of America's broader Middle East policy, as well explore how U.S. presidents cope with both the process and substance of foreign policy, here are four propositions very much worth pondering.