- Innocent Abroad
Almost a decade after Bill Clinton's departure from the White House his ambitious effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and its failure remain the focus of considerable attention and an acrimonious debate. The problems addressed by the Clinton administration—the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian conflicts—remain acute issues on the Middle Eastern and international agendas, and the Obama administration's decision to assign a high priority to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to try early on to open dialogues with Iran and Syria have raised fresh interest in the failure of an earlier Democratic administration to implement a similar program. Some of the actors in the diplomacy of the 1990s are still in place and some are back—Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's Prime Minister and Ehud Barak as Minister of Defense. And if Bill Clinton is not back, his wife, as Secretary of State, is designated to play a major role.
Martin Indyk's Innocent Abroad is the latest account of Clinton's policy in the Middle East. Indyk chose to focus his book on Bill Clinton, his team, and his effort to restructure the Middle East, to resolve the Arab Israeli conflict, and to describe and analyze from his unusually rich perspective—Senior Director for the Middle East at the NSC, Ambassador to Israel (twice), and Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Near Eastern Bureau—what was attempted and what went wrong during that extraordinary period. The outcome is not yet another peace process memoir but a well written, absorbing, and insightful book, enhanced by Indyk's frankness in depicting his superiors and colleagues and by his willingness to digress every so often from the narrative to provide an in-depth analysis of an important issue.
As the title of his book suggests, Indyk believes that U.S. presidents like Bill Clinton (and in a different fashion, George W. Bush) had to be disabused of a great deal of innocence (and in fact also hubris) when they encountered the complexity of the region. But tough or insurmountable as the challenge may be, U.S. presidents feel that they cannot ignore such major problems in a [End Page 157] crucial part of the world and are often fascinated and tempted by the unusual stage and the characters who populate it, only to find out that even the world's most powerful leader is unable to overcome an awesome set of obstacles:
They will run up against the same structural impediments described in this book: the resistance of Arab leaders to change; the factiousness of Israeli politics; Palestinian dysfunctionalism and the vulnerability of any political process to endemic violence and terrorism.(p. 393)
In order to understand fully what Indyk means by these "structural impediments," it would be useful to take a closer look at his account and interpretation of three of the most controversial episodes of that period.
The first concerns one of the most important turning points in the evolution of the Madrid Process: Rabin's decision in August 1993 to sign the Oslo Accord rather than proceed with the Syrian track after having deposited with Secretary of State Christopher a conditional willingness to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for a package of peace and security comparable to the one given at the time by Anwar Sadat to Menachem Begin. As Rabin's negotiator with Syria and ambassador in Washington, I attributed the failure of this gambit to Rabin's disappointment with Asad's response to his bold move (yes in principle but a very low counter offer) and with Christopher's decision to pass on this response rather than tell Asad that it was unacceptable. Indyk has an entirely different interpretation. As he sees it, Rabin intended all along to make his first deal with the PLO, and the whole purpose of the Syrian gambit was simply to put pressure on Arafat in order to extract from him a better deal. Small wonder, then, that the Secretary of State and his team felt used and angry.