“We Can’t Fix It, and We Can’t Leave”: An Interview with Aaron David Miller

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Aaron David Miller is currently the Vice President for New Initiatives and a Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Between 2006 and 2008, he was a Public Policy Scholar when he wrote his fourth book The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace (Bantam, 2008). His other books include The Arab States and the Palestine Question: Between Ideology and Self InterestThe PLO and the Politics of Survival, and The Search for Security, Saudi Arabian Oil and American Foreign Policy.

For the prior two decades, he served at the Department of State as an advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State, where he helped formulate U.S. policy on the Middle East and the Arab-Israel peace process, most recently as the Senior Advisor for Arab-Israeli Negotiations. He also served as the Deputy Special Middle East Coordinator for Arab-Israeli Negotiations, Senior Member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and in the Office of the Historian. He has received the department’s Distinguished, Superior, and Meritorious Honor Awards.

YRIS: You’ve written a great deal on the Syrian crisis already, and you recently had a column in Foreign Policy diagnosing “What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East,” so the first question I was hoping to ask is: to what degree do you think the Syrian civil war is a familiar tragedy for the Middle East, and what do you see happening there that’s nationally specific?

ADM: I think it’s the poster child for a lot of the dysfunction and disaffection throughout the entire region, and it reflects a trend of – not necessarily fragmentation but decentralization of power. Between 1970 and the Arab Spring or Arab Awakening, that period was a period of consolidation by strong minded Arab authoritarians. They came in two varieties: there were the acquiescent authoritarians, the Mubaraks, the Ben Alis, the Abdullah Salehs of Yemen, the Arafats, with whom we dealt, and then there were the adversarial authoritarians, the Saddams, the Qaddafis, the Assads. They were our enemies, even though at times we cooperated with the Assads, and the Saddams and in the end even the Qaddafis. That whole structure was washed away by the Arab Spring.

You don’t have concentration of power, with the possible exception of Iraq where you have a Shia strongman that we implicitly installed, emanating from our invasion of Iraq and our occupation. You have decentralization. In Libya, too many guns and grievances and really no central authority. We lost the first sitting ambassador since 1988 because in large part the central government couldn’t protect our diplomatic facilities, and we relied on militias to do it. Syria, you have a full-blown civil war, overlaid with ethnic and sectarian tensions plus external manipulation and intervention. Palestine is just divided, three ways. Abbas controls 30% of the West Bank, Israel controls the rest, Hamas controls Gaza. Lebanon’s been a non-state for years. It continues to have only the illusion of real sovereignty; it doesn’t control its borders, and there’s no effective compact between government and those that it governs. And even Iraq is highly decentralized: an aggrieved Sunni minority, very unhappy; a more or less privileged Shia majority, which rules; and Kurds that are making their own arrangements.

So Syria is the worst manifestation of this trend. This isn’t decentralization in Syria, it’s full-blown civil war and it could end – I’m not predicting it will – but it could end in fragmentation. Sectarianism, external intervention by powers that have their own interests – Iranians, Hizbollah, the Russians, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Americans. No central authority capable of re-imposing its control. An opposition that’s fundamentally dysfunctional and divided, and whose most effective elements are Islamists, in large part because they’re better motivated, better disciplined, and better supplied by other Islamists. And an international community that is too disinterested, divided, and preoccupied to mount anything akin to an effective intervention.

Civil wars end when one side or another triumphs, or alternatively when an external power throws its weight into the equation, which then tips the balance to one side or the other. None of that is happening right now. You have a slow grind in which the opposition won’t be defeated and the regime is still far too strong. At one point I thought this was an addition and subtraction problem. That the regime would be subtracted and attrited, the opposition would become stronger and more effective, and at some point these arcs of addition and subtraction would cross at a proverbial tipping point. Well, none of that’s happened, and as far as the US is concerned, my own view – and I feel very strongly about this – is we should be extremely risk averse when it comes to this issue for many reasons.

Number one, there’s no end state that we can clearly envision. Number two – the Iraq/Afghanistan metaphor or analogy, is not an exact one when talking about boots on the ground, no one is talking about the deployment of thousands of American forces in Syria. Where Iraq and Afghanistan are apt by comparison is in the relationship between how we apply military power to achieve a political end. And not only is there not precision or certainty in this, it’s in some respects chaotic. What is our objective? Is our objective to use force to defeat the regime outright? And then what? Or is our objective to put enough pressure on the regime to bring it to a negotiation? Where we are, what, going to sanction Assad’s semi-permanent status in Syria? So we don’t have a clear vision. And finally, I think the President is 100% right. His major – and Presidents get to do this – his major focus is not the Middle East, it’s the middle class, and his own legacy. Our house is not in the greatest of shape, and I just don’t believe after the two longest wars in American history that we ought to be chasing windmills, and expending resources to fix somebody else’s broken house when our own is sadly in need of repair. I’m with this guy, even though on many other issues he’s been a disappointment. But I support this, this foreign policy, no spectacular achievements no spectacular failures. That is an appropriate policy given his predecessor, given where the American people are – and I’m one of those – and given what we can accomplish abroad.

We don’t have the capacity any longer to use our own diplomacy and our conventional military power to do what we used to do. There are many reasons for that. Partly the world’s gotten more complex; partly, frankly, I don’t think there’s anybody that I’ve seen that’s up to this, in terms of being capable. We haven’t had a truly effective Secretary of State since Jim Baker or a foreign policy president who really understood not only the strengths but the limitations of the American role since George H. W. Bush. I worked for every Secretary of State from Schultz to Powell, so I don’t see anybody who’s capable of being willful and skillful enough to do this. Plus we have our own travails here at home.

Now, that’s the general proposition. A lot about Syria is idiosyncratic, it’s unique to Syria. Syria, under Assad, the father and now junior, remained a very curious state, a minoritarian structure that tried to project its values, Arab nationalist values, beyond its borders in a very critically important part of the Middle East. Syria is the only state in the Middle East with whom we never had a truly – well, I guess you would have to add Iraq – but even with Qaddafi we managed to cooperate. We haven’t had a real relationship with the Syrians, ever, and that reflects a certain dysfunction in the way the Syrians see the world and also the way we do. So no, for me it’s a trap for the United States.

YRIS: And you’ve said all the same that you think history is going to be very unkind to Obama, and I follow your reasoning on that. What I’d like to ask in that regard is: do you think history is a particularly good judge of these things? And as a historian, what are you trying to bring into the dialogue when you add that perspective, the notion that history is going to be unkind in legacy terms to Obama as regards the Syrian crisis? 

Making tough calls for reasons of your own conception of the national interest is not always appreciated by history’s judgment. I didn’t say it was fatal. I mean, this isn’t LBJ in Vietnam. History was very unkind to Lyndon Johnson. He was a prospectively great president on the domestic side, but Vietnam was his undoing, and that was clear at the time. When he chose not to seek the presidency in March of 1968, he knew. Right now, you have a situation in which the vast majority of the American public agrees with Obama on this. All the polls, quite consistently, suggest they don’t want an American intervention in Syria. When he leaves the White House, assuming the Syrian crisis continues unabated, I’m not sure people will be as respectful or as understanding, because the argument will be, as it was in Rwanda after Clinton, why couldn’t you have done more? The sense of how messy this was, and what a trap it was, will fade, and what will be left given the number of people who will presumably be dead by then, and the number’s now well over 100,000… I don’t think the judgment will be a kind one on Obama.

The other player we have here who’s very aware of his legacy is Secretary Kerry, and he’s staking his place in history on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He was instrumental in trying to set up these Geneva peace talks for Syria, but he just said the other day those probably aren’t going to happen until September at the earliest. Meanwhile, he’s having marathon sessions with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Do you think that’s the right balance of his attention right now?

I think our policy would not be different one whit if Kerry weren’t chasing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Some people think the priorities are completely out of whack. That assumes that if Kerry wasn’t devoting time to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he’d be devoting time to something more important, and what would that be? I don’t think there’s much that we could or should be doing on Syria right now. So what is he supposed to be devoting his time to? He’s reflecting Obama’s priority, which is risk-aversion, and what he’s trying to do on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resume talks on a sustainable basis. Now, whether or not he’ll succeed at that is anyone’s guess. I’ve been predicting that he’ll succeed at getting talks going, but talks have been re-launched, you know, seven or eight times, since permanent status negotiations began. At no time did they consummate, and they didn’t consummate for many reasons, but one fundamental reason, which has nothing to do with us, is that neither side is prepared to pay the price that is required to resolve the four or five core issues. Full stop.

There’s no reason you can’t have an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, it’s just that the Israeli leaders and the Palestinian leaders have to be prepared to pay for it. And they haven’t been able to, because they haven’t been invested in it to the degree that they need to be. They haven’t been invested in it because there’s no urgency, and urgency is driven by pain and gain. No pain, no gain, no movement. And right now, as bad as the situation may appear, or as good as Kerry would like to promise that it will become – disincentives and incentives, pain and gain – it’s not the way Abbas and Netanyahu see it. The risks of maintaining the status quo are still less frightening than the risks of trying to change it.

So you’ve spent, obviously, a great deal of your career on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. There’s a school of thought in all that that if only this conflict could be resolved, we’d see this positive ripple effect, that maybe we wouldn’t see so many conflicts in the Middle East, that maybe the region would become stable. Do you buy that? 

Well, I think that if you could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict our image would be better, the Palestinians would have a state, which they deserve, the Israelis would be freed from a tremendous burden of occupation, their own public image would improve. And that particular piece of this broken angry and dysfunctional region would be more stable. Do I think that resolving that is going to fix the Iranian bid to be a preeminent regional power and a nuclear power? Do I think that’s going to solve the political crisis in Egypt between Islamists and secularists, between institutions that are exclusive and those that are inclusive? Do I think that solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem is going to fix the problem of central authority in Libya? Or end the Syrian civil war? Or make Sunnis and Shias any more… – no. I never believed that. I believed it was more important than other issues, but that may well be because I was working on the issue. And it’s also because it resonates, the Israeli-Palestinian cause, resonates ideologically and emotionally in a divided and kind of broken Arab world more than any other issue. But no, there’s no key here. There never was. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to manage this, and do what we can to resolve it, and look for opportunities to do so, maybe even try to create opportunities.

The only cost of doing what Kerry is doing is that he will fail. And once again we will be tarred with responsibility for the failure. Once again, the negotiating process will be proven to be bankrupt. Once again, people will be disheartened and despairing of the possibility of resolving this. To me, this is not a land of opportunity. This is a region where we’re stuck. We can’t fix it, and we can’t leave.

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