What's Plan B in the Middle East? Or maybe it's Plan C ...

The good news is that the Obama administration has withdrawn its humiliating attempt to bribe Israel into accepting a 90-day extension of the (partial) settlement freeze. Not only was this negotiating ploy one of the more degrading moments in the annals of U.S. diplomacy, it also had scant chance of success. To their credit, Obama's Middle East teams finally figured this out -- a few weeks later than most observers -- and pulled the plug on the deal.

The bad news, however, is that it's not clear what their next move is. Everyone now realizes that the United States cannot play the role of a fair-minded mediator in this conflict, and the early hopes that Obama would adopt a smarter approach have been repeatedly dashed.  

This situation isn't good for anyone -- not the United States, not Israel, and not the Palestinians.  It is increasingly likely that a genuine two-state solution isn't going to be reached, and as I've noted before, the United States will be in a very awkward position once mainstream writers and politicians begin to recognize that fact. Once it becomes clear that "two states for two people" just ain't gonna happen, the United States will have to choose between backing a one-state, binational democracy, embracing ethnic cleansing, or supporting permanent apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to a two-state solution, and no future president will relish having to choose between them. But once the two-state solution is off the table, that is precisely the choice a future President would face.

This failure will further complicate our efforts elsewhere in the region. As former President Bill Clinton remarked a few weeks ago, solving the Israel-Palestine problem "will take about half the impetus in the whole world -- not just the region, the whole world -- for terror away. . . It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done." It is also clear from the recent WikiLeaks releases that our Arab partners want the United States to do something about Iran, but they remain deeply concerned by the Palestinian issue and they recognize that progress on Israel-Palestine would go a long way to reducing Iran's regional influence. 

Unfortunately, there's little reason to expect any sort of breakthrough, which means that local forces and dynamics are going to be exerting greater weight. When others believe that the United States is in charge of the "peace process" and leading it in a positive direction, they sit back and let Uncle Sam do the work. But now that Obama's team has failed, local actors will take matters into their own hands and U.S. influence is likely to diminish further. Why wait for Washington to deliver a deal when it is obvious that it can't?

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the events of the past two years have done a lot to clarify both where we are and where we are headed. One can take no joy from that, because the current path is bound to produce more needless suffering in the short to medium term, and maybe beyond. But dispelling the myths and illusions that have obscured our vision is of some value, and in this case, one didn't even need WikiLeaks to figure out what's going on.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

What to do on your summer vacation

For years a number of political scientists have been complaining about the propensity for scholars to study topics that are of little real-world value or of interest only to a handful of fellow scholars. We've come to call this the "cult of irrelevance." At the same time, many academics cloud their analyses in obscure jargon or a fog of methodological "sophistication," and rarely bother to offer up translations for the busy policy-maker. To make matters worse, although academics defend the institution of tenure fiercely, most of them do not use the protection it affords to pursue topics that might be politically controversial.

These unfortunate tendencies are not universal, however, and a number of us have tried to address the broader issue in various ways. You can read about the general subject here, here, here, or here. In that spirit, I'm also happy to pass on the news that a group of political scientists have organized a week-long summer institute designed to tackle the problem head-on. Under the guidance of Bruce Jentleson of Duke, Steve Weber of UC-Berkeley, and James Goldgeier of George Washington, a new International Summer Policy Institute will "deliver an intensive curriculum designed to teach participants how to develop and articulate their research for a policy audience, what policymakers are looking for when they look to IR scholarship, whom to target when sharing research, and which tools and avenues of dissemination are appropriate." The Institute is part of a larger effort to "bridge the gap" between academia and policy, and you can find out more about its activities here.

Needless to say, I think this is a worthy enterprise. Together with efforts like the Tobin Project, it may encourage more academics to focus their research efforts on policy-relevant topics and teach them how to communicate their results in ways that policymakers will find more accessible. The point here, by the way, is not to "dumb down" scholarship or to imitate the plethora of partisan think tanks now located inside the Beltway. Academic scholars should be independent researchers first and foremost, and seekers of truth above all. But the topics that they choose to address can be chosen to illuminate important policy issues more directly, and devoting some time to figuring out how to communicate their results more broadly would surely be a good thing.

What is also needed is a change in academic practice, including the criteria that are used to make key hiring and promotion decisions. The standards by which we assess scholarly value are not divinely ordained or established by natural law; they are in fact "socially constructed" by the discipline itself. In other words, we collectively decide what sorts of work to valorize and what sorts of achievement to reward. If university departments placed greater weight on teaching, on contributions to applied public policy, on public outreach, and on a more diverse range of publishing venues -- including journals of opinion, trade publishers and maybe even blogs--then individual scholars would quickly adapt to these new incentives and we would attract a somewhat different group of scholars over time. If university departments routinely stopped the "tenure clock" for younger academics who wanted to do a year of public service, that would enable them to gain valuable real-world experience without short-changing their long-term academic futures. It would also send the message that academia shouldn't cut itself off from the real world. And it probably wouldn't hurt if deans, department chairs, and university presidents welcomed controversy, encouraged intellectual diversity, and defended the slaying of sacred cows. As I've said before, academics really shouldn't count it a great achievement when students have no interest in their classes, and when people outside the ivory tower have no interest in what we have to say.