How Not to Host a Summit

The 2000 peace talks at Camp David offer three key lessons on how not to solve the world's most intractable conflict.

Twelve years ago this week, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat gathered at Camp David to launch a historic bid to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The historic nature of the gathering can't be denied. The discussions there began the excruciatingly painful process of coming to terms with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's toughest issues. Indeed, for nearly two weeks in Maryland's stunningly beautiful Catoctin Mountain Park, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators wrestled with the core issues of the conflict -- territory, refugees, security, and, of course, Jerusalem -- in front of a U.S. president. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is finally resolved, what happened at Camp David that summer will be viewed as an important part of the negotiating history.

There were movies -- Gladiator and the submarine World War II classic U-571 (wasn't this a peace summit?) -- and spectator sports (watching Israelis and Palestinians race around the narrow walking paths on golf carts at breakneck speeds chattering in Arabic and Hebrew). One of the carts went missing at the summit's end. We joked that maybe one of the Palestinians and Israelis had tried to drive it home.

There were crises (Barak nearly choked to death on a peanut, only to be saved by the youngest member of his delegation). There were comedic highs (Arafat watching the baseball All-Star Game and earnestly asking in the fifth inning when the game was going to start). And dramatic lows -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an effort to cheer up a brooding Barak, offered to move a piano into his cabin after he retreated there, sulking like Achilles at Troy over prospects that Arafat really wasn't interested in reaching an accord. And there was fantastic food, and plenty of it -- three squares and then some. Indeed, the food was about the only thing at Camp David Israelis and Palestinians seemed not to complain about.

What was not evident at the Camp David summit was a sustained, well-organized, and serious negotiation, let alone a directed effort, to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

The debate over who lost Camp David rages on still. Many blame Arafat (rightly) for failing to negotiate in any meaningful sense of the word; others, mostly the Palestinians, blame the Israelis for not putting enough on the table if what they sought was a conflict-ending agreement (true enough) and the Americans for siding with the Israelis.

As one of the dozen or so Americans at the summit, my view of these matters is decidedly less personal and moralistic. To put it bluntly, this summit should never have been held with the goal and expectation of reaching an agreement -- any agreement, let alone one to end the conflict. None of the big three -- Arafat, Barak, and Clinton -- were ready, willing, or able to pay the price for that.

Instead, Camp David represented the ultimate How Not to Summit -- a poster child for what to avoid, what not to do, and how not to think about reaching an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Let's be clear: America didn't cause the failure of the summit. The gaps on the big issues were simply too large to be bridged, and neither the Israelis nor the Palestinian were willing or able to do it. But it was our house, our credibility, and our good name. We invited them to only the second negotiating summit at the leader's level in the history of America's involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and thus we do bear a share of the responsibility as a facilitator of the failure. But as I look back now 12 years later, three mistakes on our side seem emblematic of the summit's fate.

Mistake 1: Don't issue the invites before you brief the president and gauge your chances.

To this day, the more I think about this, the more extraordinary it seems. Before we had a chance to actually sit down with Clinton to determine where the gaps on the key issues were, to assess whether they could be bridged, and whether the president was prepared to develop a strategy to bridge them, we had already issued invitations to the party.

To the president's credit, he resisted Barak's repeated calls for the summit at an earlier date, but in the end, he wouldn't or couldn't hold out against Barak's determination to plunge headlong into a last-ditch effort to achieve an agreement and test Arafat's intentions and his own desire for legacy. Having failed to achieve a Syrian agreement, worried about the possibility of violence and a collapsing ruling coalition, Barak was a man in a hurry.

Barak was bold and ready to take risks. The proposals he offered went further than any of his predecessors' (more land, more flexibility on Palestinian sovereignty on parts of Jerusalem). But they were nowhere near what was required to end the conflict. And from Arafat's perspective, as the weakest party, they were not nearly close enough. After all, Barak had offered Syria's Hafez Assad earlier that year all of the Golan Heights minus 300 meters off the northeastern shore of Lake Tiberias; the offer of 90 to 92 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians just wasn't going to cut it.

Clinton cared a great deal about the issue. He was emotionally affected by both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's murder and Jordanian King Hussein's death, and he saw Middle East peace as the altruistic legacy it was his obligation to forge. And saying no to a willful Israeli prime minister is never easy.

But none of this is a justification for not thinking things through. That none of his advisors made the counterarguments strongly enough, or much at all, didn't help much. There are no guarantees in this business. Risks are part of the job description, as are moving forward often with imperfect options. But gauging those risks honestly and weighing the consequences of failure are critical. And it wasn't done. I blame myself plenty: I remember how impressed I was by Clinton's comment after the briefings that trying and failing was better than not trying all.

But what was I smoking? This was a presidential summit. And while it was long on good intentions, it was short on honesty, clarity, and good analysis. The president's credo was appropriate for high school and college sports; it can't be the working assumption on which the world's greatest power bases its approach to negotiations or foreign policy.

Clinton had a great relationship with both Arafat and Barak. He should have said separately to each leader before the invitations went out: Give me your bottom lines in confidence on the core issues. And while both would have held something back, to be given up only in the heat of the summit, we would have had a pretty good sense of where the gaps were.

At that point, we could have assessed whether those gaps could be bridged and whether the president was willing to try. If the answer was no, they can't be bridged, Clinton could have said to both: We need more time; or he could have said: We'll have a different kind of summit, with the expectation that we can meet again if we can't work matters out. But neither of you will blame the other.

But Barak's desperation, combined with the president's own determination to try, made this impossible. The rest -- the summit's failure, blaming Arafat, the mounting frustrations of Palestinians under occupation, even resumed talks, and Arafat's decision in September to exploit Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and embrace violence -- is history.

Mistake 2: Don't coordinate with one side only.

America has a special relationship with Israel. You can hate that fact or revel in it, but it's unlikely to change anytime soon. A unique confluence of shared values, moral obligation, domestic politics, and strategic concerns have created a unique bond quite different from America's ties with just about any other country, with the possible exception of Britain.

Yet, to be an effective and successful mediator, even facilitator, you need detachment, credibility, and enough impartiality to get all sides to trust and do the deal. In every example of successfully brokered U.S. diplomacy -- Henry Kissinger's disengagement agreements of 1973 to 1975; Jimmy Carter's 1977 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; and James Baker's 1991 Madrid peace conference diplomacy -- the United States was able to play this role.

At the second Camp David summit, it didn't. Not only did we consistently coordinate our positions with the Israelis, showing them our negotiating texts first -- a practice I might add the Palestinians had come to expect -- but we saw the issues largely from Israel's point of view. I remember how impressed we all were when we learned that Barak was willing to concede 80 percent of the West Bank.

There were two parties to this deal, and while that registered on one level, it didn't really on another. In the end, our own views of the issues were guided by and large by what the Israelis would accept. On the security issues, this might have been understandable, but when it came to Jerusalem -- even borders -- we just weren't thinking clearly about factoring in the needs and political requirements of both sides.

The Israelis' red lines, which would later became pink ones, reflected our baseline, even if we were prepared to push them a bit further. We rationalized this of course by the historic nature of what Barak was prepared to give and by Arafat's refusal to budge much off his need for 100 percent of everything. But the idea that the Palestinians would have to come down to Israel's positions rather than the Israelis moving closer to theirs was built in to our negotiating DNA.

The irony, of course, is that if you look at the 10 years of on-again, off-again negotiations since Camp David, precisely the opposite has occurred, and most of the time without American involvement. During the last round of serious discussions, those between then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007 and 2008, Israel has moved much closer to the Palestinians on almost every issue.

Mistake 3: Don't lose control.

Camp David lasted 13 days, but the summit actually was over on the fourth day. That was the day we lost control of the negotiations and undermined our own credibility and respect as a mediator. Again, let's be clear: This conflict isn't owned by the United States, and the country isn't going to be in a position to force either side to do things it doesn't want to do. But to succeed, the American side requires the respect of both sides and a refusal to be pushed around at key moments.

One of those moments arrived on the summit's fourth day, and it involved something we never took seriously enough -- a negotiating text. Samuel Goldwyn, the great Hollywood producer, once quipped that a verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on. At the first Camp David summit, involving Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Carter, the Americans controlled the text -- incorporating changes from each side, working through compromises, accepting some, and rejecting others. That text went through 20-plus drafts before an agreement was reached.

On that fateful fourth day, July 14, we had prepared a text designed to identify where the gaps were on key issues. We showed it to Barak first. He hated it, and we changed it to accommodate him. We then showed it to the Palestinians, and Arafat rejected it too.

The exercise was dead -- and so, frankly, was our credibility. The president was reluctant to "jam" the Israelis, as he put it. Lead negotiator Dennis Ross reflected that we did have a substantive approach of our own, "but Barak says no, so we back off." The summit would go on for another nine days. That night, I concluded it was over.

In America, everything seems to begin today or yesterday. Maybe, we'll be more respectful of history's power and lessons next time around.

We also have to understand something else: Failure has consequences. There's no doubt that Clinton's successor -- George W. Bush -- and his advisors drew the conclusion that Camp David and the strategy of engaging Arafat (the most frequent visitor to the Oval Office in 2000) had been a disaster, sparking violence and making America look weak. And that, combined with the Second Intifada, persuaded them to walk away. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell -- without a doubt the most sympathetic voice in the Bush administration on the peace process -- couldn't believe that his predecessor had sat with Barak and Arafat for nearly two weeks (Albright really does deserve a medal for it). Powell quipped to me in early 2001: I'll be damned if I'd let my young president do that.

Had we bothered to take seriously the reasons why the 1977 Camp David summit succeeded, we might have understood why the 2000 Camp David gathering was doomed to fail. What made the earlier summit a success? Two strong leaders willing and able to make a deal, issues that were deemed to be manageable where the gaps were bridgeable, and a relentless mediator in Jimmy Carter.

There's no way to fairly compare the two experiences. Camp David 2000 was simply much harder -- with leaders who were more constrained and issues such as Jerusalem and refugees that were infinitely more complex than Sinai and airfields.

But that's exactly the point, isn't it? Jonathan Schwartz, our lawyer on the delegation and perhaps the most gifted mind in the negotiating business, said it best: We had no respect for the issues and how complex they really were. Perhaps, if there's ever another Camp David summit, we will.


Reality Check

No Dog in This Fight

Why Obama is playing it smart on Syria.

As Syria heats up, one guy is playing it cool. U.S. President Barack Obama may be up all night worrying about matters closer to home -- like his poll numbers -- but he's not losing sleep over what to do about Syria or Iran. He knows exactly what his priorities are.

Right now, the president is rightly concerned much less about the fall of the House of Assad and much more about the survival of the House of America, which he equates with his own re-election, or to put it more succinctly, the perpetuation of the House of Obama.

If there is any doubt, just look at the outcome of Kofi Annan's contact group meeting in Geneva this weekend. The Americans backed a highly questionable plan for a political transition in Syria that, to placate the Russians, failed to even mention Bashar al-Assad's removal. Obama just wants the situation in Syria to go away. With the options at his disposal, can you blame him?  

Unless forced by some spate of violence that qualitatively and quantitatively exceeds the horrors so far (a Syrian Srebrenica?), Obama will try to avoid risky, ill-considered military ventures or half measures on both Syria and Iran that would likely to lead to war that could prove even more detrimental to his re-election efforts than inaction. But he's not just thinking about November: However painful, this is one of those moments when politics and the right policy instincts actually coincide.

Governing is about choosing, and Syria is the poster child for tough choices. So far, Obama has made the right ones. In a conflict that pits a still-powerful regime against an opposition that is growing stronger but still lacks the resources and power to overthrow the Assads, there are no good options. Too much blood has flowed for neatly packaged diplomacy, and military options -- arming the opposition, safe zones, air strikes -- are risky and really don't answer the mail on what to do after the Assads depart. Who or what will provide the thousands of peacekeepers and billions required to preserve order and rebuild the country in an environment where Sunnis and Alawis alike will be looking for retribution?

The moral and strategic arguments for a more muscular U.S. role may be compelling. The killing goes on day after day and America watches. Bosnia redux? Syria is truly important; it is not Libya. Its unique geopolitical location -- with Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Turkey as neighbors and Big Daddy Iran just over the horizon -- make its future of critical importance.

Still, for an American president, there are other considerations that need to be weighed -- factors that speak to Obama's politics, the November election, and the mood of the country he is responsible for governing.

Diplomats, scholars, even politicians (usually of the opposing party) sometimes question the legitimacy of domestic politics, which they consider crude and cheap, particularly when moral or humanitarian issues are involved. Presidents don't have that luxury. An individual may well have the moral imperative to act in the face of evil and wrongdoing; a leader of a country may well too. But he or she has additional responsibilities to consider, which involve the country as a whole and his or her own political future, which -- let's face it -- is often conflated with the nation's interest.

On both Syria and Iran, Obama -- much to the dismay of both the liberal interventionists and the neocons -- will try to dance the multilateral tango (always act with others); avoid military action (who knows where it might lead?); and make sure others take the lead in any rebuilding efforts (we don't need to own another Muslim country). And yes, America's image abroad -- along with that of just about every other member of the international community -- will suffer as a result of continued inaction. But this president has more important priorities and constituencies.

Here's a politically incorrect guide to the president's thinking on Iran and Syria between now and November.

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The Hero of Detroit, Not Damascus

Most Americans don't even know where Syria is.  I'm not trying to demean my fellow countrymen, only to highlight a fundamental truth these days.

After watching the two longest wars in American history  -- with 6,000 dead and counting and more than a trillion spent and counting, not to mention the thousands of troops grievously wounded and the loss of credibility, Americans want the focus to be on fixing their own broken house, not repairing somebody else's.

The public, poll after poll suggests, doesn't want to withdraw from the world, but does want to be smarter about how the United States operates abroad, and wants above all to concentrate more on domestic priorities. And that goes for both donkeys and elephants: A recent Pew poll on partisan polarization suggests that 83 percent agree we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home -- the highest percentage expressing this view since 1994.

Despite his own initial "I am and can change the world" reveries, the president has known that from the get-go. And his policies so far have been pretty competent and smart in that regard: an early departure from Iraq, a responsible exit from Afghanistan, great caution on Libya, Iran, and Syria.

He knows from his predecessor that there's very little glory or political hay to be made in the Middle East. And he knows from his predecessor's father that there's much to be lost even in the winning. Remember: Bush 41 won a big battle against Saddam but lost the war at home because he wasn't in tune with the economic travails of ordinary Americans. This president is not going to make that mistake.


Foreign Policy Adventures: No Upsides...

Rarely has foreign policy -- outside of rising oil prices and terror attacks -- been less relevant to American voters. It figures almost not at all in a campaign focused on unemployment, disposable income, and mortgage woes. Republicans are having a hard time finding vulnerabilities in the Obama's foreign policies, I've argued elsewhere, and a consensus has emerged between the two candidates on some of the core foreign-policy issues.

What this means in practical terms is that success abroad -- even spectacular success -- won't mean much in election currency. As long as the administration doesn't allow the Republicans to outflank it on the one foreign issue Americans do care about -- fighting terror -- there's not much upside to risking military action or a big peace initiative that could be messy, costly, and worst of all seen as a failure. In political terms, Obama's Middle East policy has been pretty successful -- killing Osama bin Laden and whacking al Qaeda operatives from one end of the planet to the other, getting out of Iraq, and taking out Muammar al-Qaddafi without owning a mess in Libya. Other issues -- Israeli-Palestinian peace or the Arab spring turned winter -- really don't matter much in terms of the election, unless of course the president stumbles.


...But Plenty of Downsides

And that -- together with bad options on Iran and Syria -- is the source of the Obama's caution. I've never really understood the notion of the "October surprise" -- not in the world of foreign policy this president inhabits. The idea that any president would want to willfully plunge ahead into the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East looking for opportunities and glory to help him win re-election is an idea reserved for the conspiratorial and the interminably obtuse.

You can divide the Middle East Obama confronts in two: migraine headaches and root canals. There are no opportunities, only risks and dangers. And the president is resolved to avoid them for now, or at least minimize them.

On Iran, it's clear he and the mullahs share a common objective: avoid an Israeli attack anytime soon. A unilateral Israeli strike would inject tremendous uncertainty into the global economy, roil markets, raise oil and gas prices, and retard an already weak recovery. It could draw America into another Middle East quagmire. If things went badly, the Republicans would start hammering the president for not dealing with Israel's Iranian concerns earlier and charge weakness and incompetence.

The notion that Obama is more prepared to go to war with Iran because it's an election year and he must satisfy the pro-Israeli community or an Israeli prime minister is nonsense, given where the electorate is. At the same time, Obama isn't in much of a position to make concessions on the nuclear issue, either, because he knows he'll get hit with the appeasement charge faster than you can say the word "enrichment."

It's the fear of war, not the desire for one, that's driving the president, and this is very much related to his re-election. A war with the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards is the last thing Obama wants or needs now. It's much safer to keep the nuclear talks limping along and get through November without a crisis.

Syria is in many ways worse because of the killing and the costs to stop it. The Russians are blocking more meaningful collective action; the U.S. military has warned that intervention would be much more complex than Libya. There isn't even a good policy-by-committee option, as there was in dealing with Qaddafi. Syria's just too complicated for that.

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Romney Can't Hurt Obama on Syria or Iran

Still, there are no domestic pressures to intervene. Sen. John Kerry has urged a more muscular approach, as have Mitt Romney and John McCain. But none of this interventionist pressure has gained much traction. That's because nobody has a clue how to get rid of the Assads, let alone create a political transition to something better and stable. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has called for trying Assad in The Hague; the neocons and liberal interventionists talk about safe zones and arming the rebels. But I'm not sure they really believe in it. Despite an effort on the part of some to make Syria the fulcrum of Western civilization (weaken Iran, avoid regional war, etc.) these arguments aren't taking, as there's just no stomach or heart for another U.S.-led intervention. The Republicans have no better ideas on Syria or Iran than the president does, and all the militant rhetoric sounds hollow.

Amos Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images

But Hillary May be More Vulnerable

In little more than six months, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be a private citizen. During this period, if the Syrian situation worsens and America is seen to be watching from the sidelines, her own legacy as secretary cannot help but be tarnished. It is neither fair nor right -- Obama is in charge of Syria strategy. But he will have other opportunities to craft a foreign-policy legacy. As the point person on the Syria issue, she won't. And the last thing the Clinton legacy needs is another Rwanda.

In the end, this is not about individuals. Syria is not Barack Obama's or America's singular responsibility, nor is it America's primary fight. Unless pushed by a bloodbath on a massive scale, the president will act cautiously and always in the company of others. When it comes to Damascus (and Tehran too), he'll prefer pressure, process, multilateralism, and talking over shooting and risky unilateral intervention. It's not pretty and it's hard to watch. But it's not only necessary politics, it's in the national interest right now too.

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