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The Much Too Promised Land

Aaron David Miller’s The Much Too Promised Land was the first book we covered in our new book club at work (looking forward to more discussions on books about Israel and the Middle East with that group).   Miller spent decades in the State Department working on the Arab-Israeli peaces process and his book is a very interesting and readable account of those years.

In the first of the three chapters of “Part One:  America’s Promise Challenged” Miller recounts his personal history and the arc of his career, going from Dr. No to Mr. Yes to settling for “maybe.”  Chapter Two covers the difficulties related to the huge difference in size and power amongst Israel, Palestine and the US.  Miller invokes the Gulliver/Lilliputians metaphor and surmises that we (the US) are much more likely to foul things up and/or be duped, due to our overestimating our ability to help (amongst other reasons).   Chapter Three covers AIPAC (apologetically), the Christian Evangelical support of Zionism (for example) and the historical and current role of domestic political pressure and how it affects US foreign policy.

“Part Two: America’s Promise Kept” consists of separate chapters devoted to Miller’s “bad boys of Arab-Israeli peacemaking:”  Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and James Baker.  Kissinger the Strategist was successful due to his ego, his time spent on the ground and his known closeness to Nixon.  Carter the Missionary was boosted by his moralistic core, his strong relationships with the Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders and by a lack of concern for domestic political pressures.   Baker the Negotiator was successful due to then-recent history (the Gulf War), his known closeness to George H. W. Bush and his conviction to actually hit the ground and get something done (see Dennis Ross’ Statecraft for another very positive review of the Bush/Baker team).

“Part Three: America’s Promise Frustrated” covers the Clinton administration in two chapters.   In summary, Clinton was Mr. Nice Guy to a fault, loved everyone too much and did not have a Plan B (or even a Plan A sometimes).   Making things worse, the expectations of America’s role in the peace process changed during his presidency, from Israel wanting us to mediate to Israel wanting us to just facilitate.

“Part Four:  America’s Promise Abandoned?” covers the George W. Bush administration and Miller’s conclusions.   Miller says that Bush was uninterested in the Arab-Israeli peace process upon entering office (partly due to some sense of not pouring good money after bad, and partly due to not wanting to validate anything done by Clinton (ABC)) and unable or unwilling to focus on it post-9/11 until late in his second term.  Miller’s final chapter outlines his analysis of the current state of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the Middle East in general, and includes a to-do list (author’s capitalization below) that must be part of any US strategy going forward:

1.  Make the Issue a Top and Ongoing Priority…

2.  …But remember:  It’s a Long Movie.

3.   And Keep It Bipartisan.

4.  Negotiations Can Work but Only in the Right Environment.

5.  The United State and Israel:  Special but Not Exclusive.

6.  Offer Love, but Make It Tough Love.

Miller’s final word: “….although we remain vital to peacemaking, we can’t drive the train as much as I once believed.”   Way beyond my chapter-level summary points above, the book was filled with self-deprecatory humor, interesting anecdotes, lots of credit where credit was due and served as a good historical review of the role of the US in the Arab-Israeli peace process.  Given Miller’s self-professed enthusiasm for the peace process during most of his career and given his gloomy outlook now, it was also a very sobering read.   When the book was published in 2008, it was well received by the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and Foreign Affairs amongst others.  Philip “Mondoweiss” Weiss was one of the few critics of the book (although after several blog postings he appears to agree with most of the main message).  An NPR Talk of the Nation interview from March 2008 provides a good preview of the book.  Last week, Miller published a new analysis of the peace process in Foreign Policy.   Still gloomy.


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