Forging peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, dissuading Iran from going nuclear, and withdrawing from Iraq are just three of the goals President Obama has set in the Middle East. In Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East, Martin Indyk, twice U.S. ambassador to Israel and now the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, details the successes and failures of the Clinton administration's approach to the Middle East. Indyk sat down with U.S. News to discuss the challenges that await Obama in the Middle East and the lessons the new president should keep in mind. Excerpts:
What were the motivations behind writing this book?
I was very much involved in the efforts to achieve a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict during the Clinton administration. And so there was a real sense in Israel that we were actually going to achieve it. And [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated—the whole process cratered. And then, in Clinton's last year, he sent me out again, because [Ehud] Barak was elected in Israel and we were going to try, again, to get the whole comprehensive deal. And, for me, it looked like a second chance to fulfill Rabin's legacy. And it all collapsed again in failure. And I came home and felt very strongly. I should say I felt a very keen sense of disappointment and failure. And I tried in this book to deal with that. To understand what went wrong. What held us up. What turned good intentions, or the best of intentions, into such bad results. And what could be learned from that.
Is there any particular obstacle you confronted that you think will be as difficult or worse for Obama?
Clinton pursued a policy of peacemaking to transform the region, and Bush pursued a policy of war-making, regime change, and democratization; they both wanted to transform the region. This was a quintessentially American approach to the Middle East. We didn't go in there, as previous American presidents had done in an earlier time of the Cold War, and try to play a balance-of-power game. We went in there to change the whole region, to transform it, to make it over. It was part innocence, this desire to do good—which is a wonderful part of the American value system. It's part ignorance, this assumption that Americans, even at the highest level, tend to have that everybody is like us or wants to be like us. And it's part arrogance, this sense that we know better. And it's that combination which connects, or I should say collides, with the Middle East that has its own preferences.
How might Obama be tested by leaders in the Middle East?
The Middle East is completely unpredictable. By the way, that's part of the getting of wisdom, that you cannot know, no matter how good your intelligence is, and our intelligence is not very good when it comes to this region. What we take less account of is the fact that when we go in with a certain approach, we're like a dominant system in the weather forecast—when we come in, everybody adjusts to what we do. Now, those who are threatened by us will then seek to trip us up. Obama comes in, and he's already a huge threat to those bad actors, those guys [who] have been riding a wave of anti-American anger in the region and the broader Muslim world that has been generated by the missteps of George W. Bush. And Obama is deeply threatening to them because his personal narrative, his middle name, and his ability to communicate are all a part of a phenomenon that threatens to take away all that anti-American anger. And so they have an intense interest in demonstrating that he's no different to George W. Bush.
Do you think he will be tested soon?
You can't predict how it's going to happen, whether it will be a terrorist attack or something else. But, yes. Unfortunately, it's the nature of the region that that will happen. He may have a respite partly because [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is facing an election in Iran in June, and he's sending out signals that he would like, rather than to test Obama, would like to be the one that embraces Obama. So, instead of being the one who opposes the United States, he might actually surprise us by turning around and trying to embrace us.
What role will America's allies have?
The problems in the Middle East are so big, and our hard power is now tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our soft power has been badly tarnished. And so, if we are to meet the challenges, we are going to have to rely on like-minded leaders. But the reality is that when it comes to this region, the United States is uniquely positioned to lead this coalition because of its power, even though that power's been reduced, because of its relationship with Israel that no other country has, which is a relationship of trust that enables the United States to influence Israel in a way that's very hard for others to do.