George Mitchell was appointed to bring about Middle East peace, but he has returned from the region empty-handed -- no peace in the Middle East. His mission is clearly a total failure. The Obama administration has been humiliated! There's obviously no difference between Obama and Bush! His failure will embolden America's enemies, making it imperative to stop the stimulus package! It's time to... um, ahem, sorry. Thought I was writing for a newspaper op-ed page for a minute there. Let's try again.
Middle East envoy George Mitchell's maiden trip to the region was an important first step, but it also contained some troubling signals. It was extremely important for the Obama administration to demonstrate immediate, high-level engagement with the issue after Bush's near-total disengagement. It was also a good step to announce that Mitchell will be returning to the region before the end of the month and will spearhead a sustained, ongoing and high level engagement. A listening tour was appropriate, both because of Obama's repeated stressing of the importance of listening and because the half-staffed administration isn't ready to put forward its own initiatives yet.
But there were some ominous signals too. Mitchell's itinerary apparently only included meetings with one side of the great Arab divide: the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Fatah. Little surprise, then, if he heard few new ideas. What's more, in his comments with Secretary Clinton on his return he signaled no new thinking on the Hamas question. Her remarks about Hamas -- "Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth" -- could have been delivered by Condoleeza Rice. The Arab "moderate" camp followed his trip with a gathering in Abu Dhabi which could have been held in the Bush years: demonizing Iran, bashing Hamas, and promoting the schism between the "moderate" and "rejection" camps.
Iconic image of the Arab faux-reconciliation at the Kuwait meeting
Mitchell is not going to be able to break through this stalemate with the old playbook. He needs to engage both sides of the great Arab divide, and he needs to take the lead in bridging rather than exacerbating those divisions. Obama's approach to the Middle East during the campaign was built upon serious dialogue with adversaries and upon a holistic regional conception which captured the relationships among the various issues. But Clinton and Mitchell's first moves instead run the risk of reverting to the Bush style of sharpening regional divisions.
That has to change if Mitchell hopes to find new paths through this mess. The intensity of the intra-Arab divisions will only make this harder, and it doesn't make sense to encourage them either intentionally or unintentionally. The wounds of last month's dueling summits have not healed, and the official Arab order appears to be even more disconnected from popular opinion than normal. The leaders Mitchell went with are caught up in nasty political and personal arguments. They are hunkering down into their mutually hostile bunkers, and are likely in no mood to advocate an American outreach to the other camp.
But a strong signal from Washington that the time has come to bridge regional divides rather than stoke the divisions could change that in a hurry. I think that much of the Arab public is hungry for such a move, and so are a lot of the Arab "fence-sitters" who fear getting caught up in the diplomatic cross-fire. My strong sense is that Mitchell understands this, and sees his mission as part of Obama's conception of a wider regional restructuring. But he needs to avoid getting trapped by the business-as-usual instincts that others bring to the table.
So what should he do?
First, go to Doha. If Mitchell isn't going to talk to Hamas, he should at least talk to the only close American ally which does. Talking to Sarkozy, who talked to the Qataris, is good but doesn't have quite the same impact because it doesn't send the same signal. If he doesn't go to Qatar, then he implicitly validates the current lines of division and sends a strong but possibly unintended signal endorsing the Arab lines of division.
Second, pay attention to the whole Arab public. Mitchell needs to recognize that the leaders he's meeting represent only one side in a sharply divided region, are out of touch with broad swathes of public opinion, and have only limited ability to shape public attitudes. There's a reason that al-Jazeera dominated the Arab coverage of Gaza and not al-Arabiya -- and Washington needs to understand the reasons for that.. and the implications for successful diplomacy. If he doesn't see what al-Jazeera viewers see out of Gaza, he's just not going to understand why they feel the way they do right now -- so watch.
Third, be open to a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. If the attempts (in Cairo or elsewhere) to broker a Palestinian national unity government succeed, the U.S. shouldn't veto it or work to destroy it as the Bush administration did. This doesn't look likely right now, with acrimony running high and Hamas leaders talking about the formation of an alternative to the PLO. It's even less likely if regional actors think that the U.S. will reject it. But if regional players thought that the U.S. might be supportive of such a unity government, their calculations could quickly change.Finally, don't give in to the status quo. There's going to be strong pressure on the Obama administration from inside and outside to revert to standard practice on all of these issues. Doing so is a recipe for failure. I don't think that's why George Mitchell took on this assignment. Making progress will require a long, hard slog but at this stage at least let's hope that he's slogging in the right direction.