American foreign policy in the Middle East has reached one of those moments at which almost everyone agrees that things are going badly but no one can agree what to do about it. Passionate disputes regarding the American approach toward Iran make this lack of consensus abundantly plain. On one extreme, neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz demand war with Iran at once, some even saying it is long overdue. On the other side, a growing chorus, both liberal and conservative, argues that war with Iran is not an option given its high costs and limited benefits; instead, they counsel containment or a foreign policy aimed at rapprochement. The second-term Bush administration, especially since the departure of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, has steered an ambiguous course. White House and State Department officials have hewed to the bellicose rhetoric of “not taking anything off the table” and have maintained a heavy military presence in the Persian Gulf—but they have also engaged Iran in direct negotiations on Iraq, as well as multiparty nuclear talks, and are seriously considering opening an interests section (i.e., a sub-embassy permanent diplomatic presence) in Tehran to station US diplomats there for the first time since the 1979–81 hostage crisis.
Former CIA officer Robert Baer comes down firmly in the accommodationist camp in his new book, The Devil We Know. The only alternative to acknowledging Iran as a major power in the Middle East, he argues, is a protracted, costly, and probably unsuccessful struggle to eliminate its influence in the region. He is largely correct about the big picture: Iran has long shed its revolutionary fervor in pursuit of power and regional hegemony (which Baer plausibly describes as imperialism). And he provides a reasonably acute description of the evolving strategy that Iran has developed, beginning with its involvement in southern Lebanon in the 1980s, to bring “order out of chaos” and to promote its influence through strategically positioned proxies.
Unfortunately, in the details, The Devil We Know is a prodigious mess, lurching from lucid observation to hyperbole to factual error. To make his case, Baer distorts Iran’s successes and regional clout—for example, he asserts that “the Iranians have effectively annexed the entire south, fully one third of Iraq.” It’s hard to overstate Iranian influence in Iraq, but Baer manages to do so. Indeed, the book’s very title is an overheated exaggeration: Iran is an emerging regional force, not a “superpower.” Such overstatements undercut the logic of Baer’s own argument—for if Iran has arrived at superpower status already, what incentives would it have for accommodation with the West?
And then there are the howlers. According to Baer, in Arabic a kafir is “an atheist,” rather than a misbeliever or infidel. The fifteen Saudi 9/11 hijackers are laughably described, via an approving quote from a former aide to the Ayatollah Khomeini, as “the most Americanized Saudis, the crème de la crème of Saudi society.” Sunnis lack discipline, he asserts, because they have no pope. The savior figure known as the Mahdi is bizarrely said to have originated from a prophecy by Zoroaster, where it is actually a (mainly Shiite) Muslim concept from an entirely different era and source. And so on.
Still, Baer’s broader case for engaging Iran is a welcome reality check in a field of foreign-policy debate given to far more damaging—and often delusional—errors and exaggeration. He maintains, on solid empirical grounds, that Iran’s present strategy does not rely on developing a nuclear weapon, a view consistent with the National Intelligence Estimate late last year that held that Iran halted its military nuclear program in 2003. Just as important, Baer is able—unlike many top policy makers in the Bush era—to identify the central factor justifying Iran’s regional ambitions and rationalizing its self-image as a force for justice: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestine, he writes, is “an essential vehicle for dominion over the Arabs” and gives Iranian hegemony a cause “bigger than itself,” since “without the Palestinians, Iran is just another country with raw territorial ambition.” Baer wisely urges the United States to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and end the occupation, “taking it away from Iran as a rallying cry.”
That point, of course, opens onto perhaps an even more divisive, epically unresolved item on the foreign-policy establishment’s Middle East agenda. It is beyond dispute that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict inflicts great damage on American interests throughout the Middle East and beyond. But what exactly the United States can and should do about it is another question entirely. In The Much Too Promised Land, Aaron David Miller supplies an indispensable guide to the recent history of American peacemaking efforts in the defining conflict of the Middle East. Miller spent almost twenty years at the forefront of US negotiating efforts and describes in detail his own journey from a nay-saying “Dr. No,” to an overenthusiastic “Dr. Yes,” to finally, as he puts it, settling for “something in between.” That leaves him acutely aware of the crucial importance of the issue but equally haunted by the obstacles to resolving it.
Miller’s book combines nuanced and careful analysis of successes (he lists Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, and James Baker as the only three American diplomats who were able to find ways of making progress) with unsparing—and often self-directed—criticism of failures. Through a litany of usually dispiriting anecdotes illustrating how delicate, and fraught, the US-brokered peace negotiations have been, Miller retains a hardheaded determination for the United States to press forward. As he convincingly argues, “the Arab-Israeli issue is now more vital to our national interests, and to our security, than at any time since the late 1940s.” Like Baer, Miller recognizes that a stalemated status quo in Palestine hands an invaluable weapon to American enemies like al-Qaeda and rivals like Iran. It is, surely, impossible to disagree with Miller when he argues that “to ignore or address ineffectively an issue that fuels so much rage and anger against us is irresponsible in the extreme.”
Miller knows, from his long tenure at the Department of State, that there are few realistic expectations under current circumstances for a dramatic US-backed breakthrough in assembling a lasting peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. But he’s also aware that the United States cannot afford to walk away—either for the sake of its own interests or to help promote some desperately needed stability and social progress in the region. After he left government service, Miller published an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that American diplomatic efforts were often fatally flawed, especially at the 2000 Camp David talks, when the United States assumed the position of “Israel’s lawyer.” He reiterates the point here but also emphasizes that the United States needs to clearly delineate and aggressively pursue its own interests in advancing a peace accord, and thereby actively avoid creating the impression of being a compromised advocate for either Israel or the Palestinians.
Some neoconservatives and others argue that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a sideshow, which America can effectively ignore as it attends to other crises in the Middle East. After all, they argue, an Israeli-Palestinian end-of-conflict agreement would not solve all the problems in the region—the war in Iraq would continue, al-Qaeda and its ideology would not evaporate, democracy would not suddenly blossom. But from very different vantages, both Baer and Miller have seconded the view that’s long been apparent to nearly every sensible observer of the Middle East: Ending this conflict, and the occupation that drives it, would do more to advance American aims in the region than any other achievable development. And as is equally obvious in this dangerous part of the world, simply allowing the conflict to fester is a tremendous gift to both our enemies and our rivals.
Hussein Ibish is executive director of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership and a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.