Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Power and the Rationalists

The illusions and realities of American foreign policy in the Middle East from Oslo to Cairo to Trump and beyond

Martin Peretz
July 01, 2019
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Image
President Barack Obama waves goodbye from the steps of Air Force One as he departs for Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009, from the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Image
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Image
President Barack Obama waves goodbye from the steps of Air Force One as he departs for Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009, from the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Image

It’s 27 years since the Oslo Accords, but their memory lives on. Most famously in recent years, their 25th anniversary was celebrated with an imperious drama at Lincoln Center riveted on the summit’s original movers: Terje Rod-Larsen, a Norwegian diplomat, and his wife, Mona Juul, later state secretary in that country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Historically, Rod-Larsen’s and Juul’s Oslo venture was a failure, the first of many such diplomatic zeroes, but theatrically Oslo has been a hit—so it fits that Marc Platt, the producer of La La Land (no kidding!) will bring Oslo to the big screen, carrying on the forced narrative of brave peaceniks out to heal a broken land.

All this artistic hype isn’t accidental: A quarter century back, against all the available evidence, the Oslo “achievement” was already being hyped by European diplomats, by adjuncts to then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, by the cortege of Yasser Arafat, and by the confection of rationalist policymakers and commentators that elite American universities had just started to produce. In hindsight, their haughty insistence on the ideal over the reality was an early sign of things to come.

That insistence was one I never bought into. I was invited to the Clinton White House for the Oslo fest in 1993 but I did not go. Thirty years of seeing Arafat in action—the trampling on civilians’ rights in Lebanon, the lobbing of rockets into Israel, the reliance on terror, the chokehold over decaying Palestinian institutions—had persuaded me that he was the wrong person, actually an impossible person, for peace. I began to ponder whether any of the top Palestinian leadership were candidates for a settlement with the Jewish state. Even during the heightened festivities I realized that some of the Israeli principals secretly agreed with me: Hard-headed Yitzhak Rabin saw the event for what it was and left after the ceremony; saintly Peres believed the hype and stayed around after for the photo shoots. And yet for years even after the failure of Oslo and of the 2000 summit at Camp David, D.C. notables and even some prominent Zionists had photos with Arafat displayed on their credenzas.

That sociology stuck in my mind. It testified to the tenaciousness in certain left-liberal circles of an idealizing impulse—one that altered the judgments of normally lucid people, leading them to make heroes of figures like Arafat who didn’t fit the bill. They justified this impulse with the old progressive belief in rational political improvement—a respectable belief when it’s applied in context, a misleading one when the context is altered to fit the wish. Their willed naiveté struck me, and not just on Oslo, as the place where effective progressivism goes to die.

In ’90s America, the effects of these idealizations were minimal when it came to the Middle East (remember, Oslo was a Norwegian fantasy, not an American one). This was mostly thanks to the efforts of a generation of post-McGovern Democrats raised on World War II and respectful of the lessons of Vietnam but not paralyzed by them. They held the party to a foreign policy center. I was, full disclosure, one of those Democrats, and 20 years ago I thought that center was relatively secure. But with the collapse of our credibility by backing the Iraq War—a mistake I participated in: Under better management I think it could’ve turned out differently—a 15-year vacuum opened, one into which left idealizations proliferated.

The first formal statement of these idealizations was, fittingly, at the start of President Obama’s first term, in his address at Cairo University, co-hosted by the ancient Al-Azhar Mosque, titled “A New Beginning.” The speech was authored by Ben Rhodes, and the Middle East it conjured startled those of us who’d watched the region for years. It was no longer Bush II’s tabula rasa amenable to confident American action; now it was “the Arab world” which shared historical similarities with the United States, the span of history matched only by the shallowness of the linkages—John Adams remarking that the United States has “no enmity against … Muslims” and Thomas Jefferson keeping a copy of the Koran in his personal library. And the President emphasized the theme running underneath his strained connections: “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace.”

This wasn’t the liberalism I recognized, the liberalism I’d been raised with: a contextual liberalism rooted in the firm cultivation of an individuating politics. This new liberalism didn’t acknowledge that differences are as important as similarities, and that appreciating differences is a sign of respect to an entity as textured and historically intricate as Islam. It didn’t recognize that the Middle East was so deeply layered with discordant religious and ethnic groups living cheek by jowl in imperial misarrangements made by the British and French, that even a cosmopolitan leader operating in a globalizing landscape would struggle with its differences. It didn’t care about ethnic or religious or cultural specifics: Jews were jarred when we heard an American president tell the world that the justification for Israel was the Holocaust—this is not what our ethnic, cultural or religious loci of meaning teach us to believe. And what, I kept thinking, about Iran, whose autocratic policymakers’ main aim was, and remains, preserving their power by inflating the bogeyman of America? Go to an art house movie theater and you’ll see that Iranian culture is deep and flourishing, but how would the murderous hardness of Iranian politics get folded into this new declared world of cooperative similarities?

In short, the speech marked the migration of left-liberal foreign policy idealizations from Georgetown credenzas to the White House. Liberated by Bush II’s failure, Democrats would forgo the ties of reality and lead with their ideal: the one that holds that rational political solutions can resolve situations whose incongruities render them unresolvable in their current form. And the speech wasn’t feel-good rhetoric. The president’s method for sowing peace rather than hatred, Rhodes told us in his memoir a few years later, was the flip side of Bush II. The Obama approach was institutional rather than unilateral: Rather than “going it alone” and isolating “rogue actors,” Obama would bring them into the international order through treaties and outreach. This way, the U.S. could play less of a role in the Middle East, leaving it to our enemies-turned-allies to put the region on better footing. The target of Obama’s commitment was the main regional disrupter, Iran: His strategy was a six-and-a-half-year string of policy adjustments aimed at keeping that country reasonably friendly.

Obama followed through: He knew what he wanted to do from the beginning, and on-the-ground realities got adjusted to fit his ideal. He gave tepid support to Iranian protesters in 2009 when they took to the streets and the government responded by mowing them down. He moved to effectively accommodate Iran’s growing influence in Iraq—he’d wanted to withdraw troops anyway. He backed the corrupt “perfume soldiers” in the Lebanese Armed Forces, an indirect proxy for Iran, against the urgings of secular democratic activists there—which gave Hezbollah, Iran’s direct proxy, even more power in Lebanon. He stood by while Iran’s ally Bashar Assad killed 400,000 Syrians and drove 4 or 5 million more out of the country. You have to go back to the worst days of Stalin to see an atrocity like that where the West sat back and watched. And he compromised with Iran to tamp down the most immediate regional threat, ISIS, rather than digging to address its proximate cause, Assad.

In 2015, he got what he wanted: a nuclear deal with Iran that left it without nukes for 10 years, while leaving it with its much more tangible spoils from the last six—as the main influencer in Iraq and Lebanon, with its ally Assad still firmly in power in Syria, and its patron Russia in the background for support. Ironically, even though the danger of Russian influence has been the topic of conversation in worldly circles since Nov. 9, 2016, Russian influence had already hit a new peak by Nov. 8: Via its client state Iran, for the first time in decades, Russia had achieved a sphere of influence extending to the Mediterranean Sea.

The counterpoint to this accommodation of Iran was the marginalization of Israel—the cutting-down-by-proxy of the country to what Obama saw as its physical and psychological size. True, it wasn’t a financial marginalization—as his defenders have said ad nauseam, Obama allowed Israel to buy more weapons than any other president before him. But by centering his policy on compromising with Iran, the one major Mideast power that had yet to reach some détente with Israel, and allowing Israel’s other enemy Assad to murder unimpeded, Obama shifted the strategic ground under Israel’s feet. Rhetorically, he did even more: He used the president’s bully pulpit to dramatically change the terms on which conversations about Israel would be conducted among Democrats and the world.

You can draw a line from his tepid 2009 justification of Israel to the speech he sent his towering shikying’l John Kerry to give to the United Nations in 2016: a refusal to block a U.N. resolution condemning Israel for its support of right-wing settlements in the West Bank. A lot of people—myself included—oppose some of the outlier settlements, without seeing them as a major cause of the current impasse. But Kerry’s speech made them equal—or greater than equal—problems to the Palestinian leadership’s endemic corruption, its weakness in the face of Hamas and refusal to accept peace offers made by four Israeli prime ministers from 1993 to 2009. (Actually, the Palestinians haven’t made a territorial compromise in 52 years—that is long enough for the Israelis to grow impatient.) Kerry’s speech, itself an instance of sacrificing the reality to the ideal through the principle of making Israeli and Palestinian histories equivalent, shifted the terms of the debate.

That rhetorical shift, coupled with Obama’s highly publicized, ultimately corrosive enmity towards Bibi Netanyahu—a partisan leader with a surer grasp of regional realities than the American president had—helped create the Democrats’ current political condition, which is not just counterproductively idealizing but supportive of the party’s most destructive foreign policy impulses. A party that defines itself by the chances it gives to marginalized groups always has, on its edges, radicals pushing in toward the center who define their politics by the principle of marginalization: the boiled-down Marxist dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed. When the center of the party shows weakness, the radicals naturally move in, and that’s what Obama’s rationalists allowed them to do: By shifting the party from its center and creating a rhetoric of false equivalence, they gave the hard leftists an opportunity they were only too happy to take.

We’re living now with the results. Anti-Semitic rhetoric from candidates who reject pluralism and speak in moralisms—who promise both nothing and everything—is now a prominent feature of Democratic “debate.” National leadership figures like Nancy Pelosi have compromised with the rhetoricians—and there is a radical vanguard that, given the speaker’s narrow window of influence, could easily overwhelm the center. Candidate Bernie Sanders won’t be the one to win the nomination; but he could very well win on the issues and that would be enough for the left to think that it had won. And it would have in a sense.

Which leaves the strange reality that Donald Trump, with all his incuriosity about geopolitics, with all his tone-deafness to history, with all his scattershot policymaking, with all his sloppy disregard of groups and their histories, is more accurate and reliable about the Middle East and Israel than the current crop of Democrats. His zero-sum approach to international relations is as skewed as Obama’s institutionalist one, but in the context of eight years of accommodation, Trump is a corrective. He’s certainly right in his read of Iran, whose leadership doesn’t think in terms of an “international order” but, like Putin, in terms of power maximization. And, whatever Trump’s vagaries when it comes to Russia—which aren’t, incidentally, affecting U.S. foreign policy, if the Times is to be believed—he sees that Iran needs to be contained. Maybe not through war, which he’s wisely reluctant to enter into, but through a policy that strengthens our historical allies in the region—Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and the several emirates—at Iran’s expense.

He’s also right, if only by happenstance, about the Middle East and its larger historical incongruities. The most telling move he’s made vis-a-vis this reality was the recognition that the Golan Heights is no longer a part of Syria, Indeed, this has been true for years, even when Syria was “cohesive”: Countable pieces of ostensibly Syrian territory, other “Golans,” that are not actually governed by Damascus, and that are hostile to and victimized by central rule, have been a fact of life. In contrast, the Democrats have created an intellectual structure where the Golan Heights is a recognizable part of Syria, and where Syria is a recognizable functioning state—both of which are demonstrably absurd. But it’s what happens when you try to bend reality to an ideal.

Which leads me to wonder about the next 10 years: Yes, there will eventually be a Palestinian state of sorts; I support a Palestinian state. But what will the state be like? Sometimes bad things happen under cover of good language: And if, in 2021 or 2025 or 2029, a Democratic administration pressures an Israeli government into a peace with the Palestinians while Hamas, backed by Iran and Russia, still exercises the whip hand, it will be one of those bad things cloaked in good feeling. The outcome will hurt Israelis and Palestinians alike—maybe irreparably. And that might be where we’re headed.

This leaves Jews like me, historic Democrats like me, in an ahistoric place. The fact is that from the beginning Zionophilia was a province of the Democrats. From Justice Brandeis and President Woodrow Wilson on. Yes, Sen. Robert Taft, conservative Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, was to be sure a passionate gentile Zionist, and he drew other Republicans to the cause. But it was Harry S. Truman who recognized the Jewish state within a quarter hour of its declaration of independence.

But that was a Democratic Party differently comprised—with more politicians from the middle classes more formatively influenced by the flux of ordinary life and less by the elite-high-school-to-Ivy-League pipeline that generates political notables today. This made it, perceptively, a pluralistic party, filled with people who were less swayed by abstract ideals—who saw human differences as deeply rooted things to be accommodated not regimented by the powers that be. Characterologically, it was a diverse and jostling party: Harry Truman grew up the son of farmers in Independence, Missouri, where he was a Shabbos goy for his Jewish neighbors, and he succeeded Franklin Roosevelt of the Hyde Park Roosevelts, whose cousin Theodore of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts was a president, too. Tangibly, it was a crazy party—or, in Norman Mailer’s words when he watched the 1960 Democratic convention where Lyndon Johnson went up against John Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, with Eleanor Roosevelt and Sam Rayburn the presiding eminences, “crazy family good.” Intellectually, it was a liberal party—Reinhold Niebuhr’s liberalism, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s, and Bayard Rustin’s, which held that policy could solve many things but not everything. Historically, it was a resolute party, one that was still alive in the ’90s, even as its buy-in to trial balloons like Oslo showed that it was beginning to shift.

For reasons more sociological than intellectual, more structural than political, that Democratic Party has been on its way out ever since. Obama was the new Democratic Party’s immediate creator, but Tocqueville, Weber, and Freud are its explicators. Indeed, the reasons for the Democratic constrictions are as big as they are hard to correct: the slow self-perpetuation of an upper-middle-class elite; the growing influence of corporate and government shibboleths in how that elite thinks; the encasement of both parties in ideological cultivation mechanisms in universities, special interest groups and think tanks; the demise of local mediating institutions that rooted idealizing left and right impulses to facts on the ground. A look at our domestic politics attests that the effects of the constrictions encompass much, much more than Israel and the Middle East, even though the Israel-Middle East debate both reflects and illuminates them.

Looking at the gloomy tangle of idealizations and idealizers that comprise the 2020 Democratic field, I wonder whether the pluralist Democratic Party is gone for good. This was a party that believed in the fundamental reality that human goods were multiple, and so were human values, and any solution to human problems that didn’t take this reality into account was destined to make the problems worse. Their replacements pay lip service to “diversity” while they move to put a single value, equality, in its place. It is something of an accomplishment for a party consecrated to diversity to make an enemy of pluralism. But this is not the first time that the progressive ideal of inclusion has shown itself to be highly selective.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Martin Peretz was Editor-in-Chief of The New Republic for 36 years and taught social theory at Harvard University for nearly half a century.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.