Debunking Commonplaces About a Singular Region

Books of The Times
A review of MYTHS, ILLUSIONS, AND PEACE: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky
Published: July 7, 2009
It is the common occupational hazard of the nonfiction writer to have events move beyond the scope of one’s work by the time of publication.
This is a particular risk in the field of diplomatic writing, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the shifting and unpredictable sands of the Middle East, where conventional wisdoms come and go as quickly as national unity governments. Washington’s longtime Middle Eastern diplomatic negotiator Dennis Ross and the former journalist David Makovsky have written a book that reaffirms such caution as well as any in recent memory.
If not explicitly announced as such, “Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East” reads very much like a foreign-policy blueprint for the region for a new administration. And yet so much has happened in the presumably brief interval since the authors completed their manuscript that much of the text and many of its prescriptions seem surpassed by events.
Foremost among these, of course, are the formation of an unwieldy conservative coalition government around Benjamin Netanyahu, a second-time prime minister of Israel with a long history of right-of-center politics. Then there are the first strong stirrings of a fresh diplomatic approach to the region by the new administration in Washington. Add to this Iran’s election and the sociopolitical effervescence it has engendered and the landscape looks substantially different from even a few months ago.
Only time will tell whether President Obama’s approach succeeds, but it has already bypassed some of the notions most central to Mr. Ross and Mr. Makovsky’s writing. Here one thinks especially of the series of unusually strong statements in which Mr. Obama has very publicly pressured Israel to halt all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, calling it illegitimate.
For its part, “Myths, Illusions, and Peace” begins with a lengthy attack on the diplomatic concept of linkage, which the authors initially define, in ways that seem somewhat overstated, as “the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all other Middle East conflicts would melt away.”
The authors’ formulation attempts to debunk the notion that resolving the Palestinian question could pay dramatic dividends elsewhere, whether in dealing with Iran’s rising power and influence in the region or in defusing rage around the issue that ostensibly fuels Islamic radicalism more broadly. Curiously, though, late in the book, Mr. Ross, who has served until recently as special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, and Mr. Makovsky themselves seem to at least partially allow for this.
After an opening section interpreting the diplomatic failures in the Middle East policy of past United States administrations going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the authors set up two models of thought as virtual antipodes, the neoconservatives and the realists.
The book begins and ends with scathing evaluations of the neoconservatives who drove policy under President George W. Bush and whose disengagement from the region and “fatalistic optimism,” the authors assert, did “great damage to America’s standing in the Middle East.”
Its greatest intellectual energy, however, is expended attacking the so-called realists, who believe, the authors say, that the United States has been “too close to Israel,” and for whom, in what sounds like another overreach, “it is largely inconceivable that Israel could have a case or that the Arabs and Palestinians might not be living up to their side of the bargain.”
The authors go on to denounce “the realist concept of external blueprints, of pressuring Israelis while offering inducements to the Palestinians,” as “strangely divorced from reality.”
The authors rely excessively for foils on John J. Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, and Stephen M. Walt, a political scientist at Harvard, who wrote “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” (2007) and who are cited frequently. But with the warnings in “Myths, Illusions, and Peace” about pressuring Israel, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Obama administration’s initial moves in the Middle East would also fall under the authors’ realist banner.
For many readers another issue that will arise is one of balance. Mr. Ross has led a distinguished career that is all the more remarkable for his staying power in Washington during both Democratic and Republican administrations — as a high-level Middle Eastern troubleshooter, envoy and policymaker. (He was recently transferred to the National Security Council.) At virtually no point in this book, however, are Israeli actions depicted as problematic or troublesome.
The closest the authors come to this is a passage describing mounting Palestinian disbelief in the peace process, in which they write, “They saw Israeli obligations under Oslo flouted — prisoners not released, withdrawals not taking place as scheduled, and the status of the territory constantly being changed to Israeli advantage, in effect prejudging the negotiations and their purpose.”
Elsewhere, speaking of an increase in the Israeli settler population on the West Bank from about 5,000 around the time of the Camp David accords in 1977 to over 300,000 now, the authors employ a counterfactual, saying “things could have been different if the Arabs had chosen a more pragmatic course.”
Given Mr. Ross’s recent position as an adviser on Iran policy, many readers will be drawn to this book out of curiosity about his views on relations with that country, and in particular, how to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.
The authors advocate secret, high-level diplomacy with Iran, while working in concert with other Middle Eastern countries, the European Union and Russia. And they suggest a short time frame: 90 days. More specifically, they say, beyond that 90-day period “dissuasion steps” should begin. At a minimum, Mr. Ross and Mr. Makovsky conclude chillingly, “the use of force against Iran will look dramatically different should good faith, direct negotiations be tried and fail.”
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