How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The Trump administration’s Middle East policies have been roundly attacked by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. There are various lines of criticism, including ones concerning its approaches to Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, but the administration’s gravest sin is generally held to be its support for Israel. By moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, blessing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and other gestures, the Trump team is said to have overturned half a century of settled U.S. policy, abandoned the Palestinians, and killed the two-state solution.
These are serious charges. But on close inspection, they turn out to say more about the hysteria of the prosecutors than the guilt of the defendant. Some of President Donald Trump’s policies are new, some are not, and it is too early to see much impact. So why all the hue and cry? Because the administration openly insists on playing power politics rather than trying to move the world beyond them. Trump’s real crime is challenging people’s illusions—and that is an unforgivable offense.
Israel’s conflict with the Arabs has long functioned as a screen onto which outsiders project their own psychodramas. Actual Middle East politics, meanwhile, churns on relentlessly, following the same laws of political physics as politics everywhere else: the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.
The United States entered the regional geopolitical game in earnest during World War II, drawn in by the strategic importance of the oil recently discovered under the Arabian Desert and elsewhere. With postwar power came regional responsibility, however, and Washington eventually had to decide how to deal with the messy residue of the British mandate for Palestine.
In 1948, U.S. President Harry Truman came under domestic political pressure to recognize a soon-to-be independent Israel. The foreign policy establishment opposed the move, arguing that U.S. support for Zionism would alienate the Arab states and drive them into the arms of the Soviet Union. Many of the voices making these arguments were diplomats and experts with deep ties to the Arab world and little sympathy for Jews, however, and Truman was not persuaded by their analysis, so he went ahead and recognized Israel anyway. The establishment considered it a major blot on his record—a gross mistake driven by the intrusion of amateur domestic politics into professional foreign policy.
Stepping in once again to punish the victor and reward the vanquished was unthinkable.
With the British gone from Palestine, the Arabs attacked, and when the dust cleared, Israel had not just been granted independence by others but won it on the battlefield. This demonstration of strength did not change any official minds, however, and the Arabist camp continued to see the United States’ commitment to Israel as a strategic liability—a sentimental luxury that interfered with serious policy. In 1956, Egypt lost a second war to Israel, which was joined in the fighting by France and the United Kingdom, and the Israelis captured the Sinai Peninsula. Reluctant to be identified with either Zionism or imperialism, the administration of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower hastily stepped in to force its European allies to back down and Israel to withdraw, quickly and nearly unconditionally. For Eisenhower, at least, the decision was business, not personal. He was trying to fight a regional and global Cold War, and the oil-rich Arabs had a lot to offer. Weak little Israel, in contrast, had to take one for the team. A decade later, things heated up again. Moscow encouraged the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser to start a crisis with Israel, as explained in a CIA summary of intelligence from a Soviet official, “to create another trouble spot for the United States in addition to that already existing in Vietnam.” Moscow even passed him fake intelligence claiming that Israel was massing troops on its northern border in preparation for an attack against Syria. Nasser quickly learned the intelligence was false but decided to act on it anyway, choosing to see Moscow’s move as an invitation to heat up Israel’s southern border in the name of Arab solidarity.
So in 1967, purporting to come to Syria’s aid, Nasser expelled the UN peacekeepers separating the former belligerents, placed the Egyptian military on high alert, moved troops into the Sinai, cut off Israel’s maritime access to Asia, and linked up with the militaries of Jordan and Syria. Israel responded with a preemptive strike against its enemies and gained another victory, a lightning triumph that left it in control of territories captured from all three: Egypt (the Sinai and Gaza), Jordan (Jerusalem and the West Bank), and Syria (the Golan Heights).
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson now faced the same dilemma as Eisenhower: Should he let Israel keep what it had won? Some officials might have pined for the traditional policy of appeasing the Arabs at Israel’s expense, but the case was increasingly hard to make. Israel had now won three straight wars against its supposedly stronger Arab opponents, the last one a blowout. The defeat of powerful Soviet proxies by an underdog American proxy had embarrassed the Soviet Union and boosted the United States’ regional standing along with Israel’s. Egypt and its Soviet patron had been recklessly provocative, and Israel had made them pay for it, dearly. Stepping in once again to punish the victor and reward the vanquished was unthinkable.
Yet if forcing Israel to disgorge the conquered territories was not an option, neither was allowing it to annex them outright, which appeared to risk provoking yet another war. So the Johnson administration chose a third course, turning the crisis into an opportunity by linking the settlement of this particular war with the broader regional conflict.
Its plan was sensible: the Arab combatants would get back much of the territory they had lost, but only in return for recognizing Israel within secure boundaries and ending the violence. After months of talks, U.S. negotiators convinced the Soviets to accept something close, and the result became the famous formula enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 242, a call for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”
The wording was deliberately ambiguous. The Arab states later insisted that the sentence meant that Israel must immediately withdraw from “all of the” territories occupied, but the Americans had taken pains to ensure that the official text read only “from territories.” The United States had demanded language that clearly supported its policy: bilateral negotiations between Israel and each of the belligerent states would determine the extent of Israel’s withdrawal. In the meantime, Israel would retain and administer the territories.
At this point, eager to turn its attention back to Vietnam and the home front, the Johnson administration delegated matters to the Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring, serving as the UN special representative for negotiating a deal. Unfortunately, the talks quickly broke down over the irreconcilable interpretations of Resolution 242. The United States and Israel called for direct negotiations between the belligerents over the terms of a settlement, while the Soviet Union and its Arab allies insisted on an Israeli commitment to full withdrawal as a precondition for any talks—even as Moscow scrambled to rebuild the Egyptian military. A newly emboldened Nasser soon challenged Israel along the Suez Canal, the Israelis retaliated with airstrikes, and skirmishing escalated into what is now referred to as the War of Attrition.
Watching Israel more than hold its own, U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, decided that the Jewish state had earned respect as an ally and eventually built Israel’s new strength into the administration’s strategizing. Kissinger saw Israeli power as a tool for changing the geopolitical map, a lever that could flip Egypt, then the most powerful Arab state, from the Soviet camp to the U.S. one. To regain its lost territory and reopen the Suez Canal, he reasoned, Egypt had to negotiate directly with Israel. The Soviets could help Cairo make war, but only the United States could help it make peace. Washington could deliver the Israelis and broker a lasting settlement—but only if Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat would abandon Moscow.
Kissinger saw Israeli power as a tool for changing the geopolitical map.
After yet another major war in 1973, the strategy worked. The Sinai Interim Agreement, signed by Egypt and Israel in 1975, included a withdrawal of Israeli forces from land bordering the Suez Canal—the recent grand reopening of which had included, at Sadat’s insistence, an American warship. The “interim” part of the deal was a pledge by both sides to negotiate a final peace deal without resort to war. It laid the groundwork for the historic peace between Egypt and Israel that would eventually be signed at Camp David in 1978.
Had U.S. President Gerald Ford defeated his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, in 1976, Kissinger would surely have been the one to seal the deal. He would have been regarded as a diplomatic wizard: ending the Egyptian-Israeli conflict while simultaneously bringing Egypt into the Western bloc. As it turned out, however, it was the Carter administration that brokered the Camp David accords, and that fact greatly influenced the lessons that subsequent generations learned from the triumph.
Getting the parties to commit to a final settlement was a huge diplomatic accomplishment that required single-minded presidential focus and enormous reserves of patience and tenacity, for all of which Carter deserves immense credit. In the process of finishing what Kissinger started, however, he embedded his own ideas about the region’s true problems and solutions into the U.S. position—ideas that were less accurate than Kissinger’s but would end up sanctified as gospel because they coincided with the success of the earlier, more hard-bitten strategy.
Carter and his team were contemptuous of the diplomacy that had led to the Sinai Interim Agreement. They believed it was necessary to solve the entire Arab-Israeli conflict all at once, in a single, grand, multilateral forum. It was Kissinger who had first convened such a conference in Geneva back in 1973, but purely in order to raise an international umbrella over his personal diplomacy. Carter wanted to reconvene the Geneva conference, this time for real, with the Soviets playing the role of true partners.
The underlying problem in the Middle East, Carter passionately believed, was the Israeli suppression of Palestinian nationalism. He was certain that if Israel could be compelled to give back the occupied territories, the Arab states would make peace—even Syria. So his administration turned Kissinger’s Bismarckian balancing into a driven quest for a comprehensive peace, one in which the Arab states bordering Israel would negotiate a lasting settlement in return for Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders and the creation of a Palestinian homeland.
Washington’s embrace of the Palestinian cause threatened to derail progress on important bilateral concerns.
This policy put all the local parties into an awkward situation. Whatever they loudly proclaimed, the Arab states had little interest in the Palestinians. Washington’s embrace of the Palestinian cause gave them some leverage against Israel, but it also threatened to derail progress on important bilateral concerns. Sadat’s two goals in coming to the negotiating table, for example, had been to reclaim the Sinai and join the American camp. Now Carter, hung up on the Palestinians, was bringing the Soviets into the talks as equals and wanted to add Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization to boot—nothing that would advance Sadat’s agenda. So the Egyptian leader stole a march and reshaped the diplomatic landscape. On November 19, 1977, he became the first Arab leader to visit Israel, delivering his message of “no more war, no more bloodshed” directly to the Knesset.
Carter felt blindsided, and he was angry that his dream of a comprehensive peace was receding. He eventually turned his attention back to the bilateral Egyptian-Israeli negotiations. But he chafed at the effort. And although the administration scrapped plans for a new Geneva conference, it never changed its mindset. Even as they supported the Egyptian-Israeli track, U.S. negotiators pined for a comprehensive peace and a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, called it a “concentric circles approach.” The idea, he explained in his memoirs, was to begin working for “the Egyptian-Israeli accord, then expanding the circle by including the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza as well as the Jordanians, and finally moving to a still wider circle by engaging the Syrians and perhaps even the Soviets in a comprehensive settlement.”
The Carter team built the concentric circles concept into the Camp David accords, which contained both a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli agreement and the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East.” This second document called for “the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects” and “full autonomy” for the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, with the establishment of “a self-governing authority” that would then participate in final-status negotiations. Thus was born the peace process that would continue forward for decades, all the way to Oslo and beyond. Imprinted in its very DNA was a utopian impulse to settle all the conflict in the Middle East by starting with the Palestinian question.
The Carter administration believed that the “Framework for Peace” was a crucial part of the overall plan, providing political cover to the Egyptians for making peace with Israel. Sadat played along with the “comprehensive settlement” game so long as he needed the Americans to pressure Israel to return the Sinai to Egypt, but once he got that, he displayed little interest in the Palestinian issue. And a close reading of the Carter administration’s internal documents shows that it was the Americans, not the Egyptians, who were obsessed with the “Framework for Peace,” none more so than the president himself. When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin fought him on granting the Palestinians autonomy and refused to commit to a freeze on Israeli settlements in the territories, the president became livid. Because Carter had much grander ambitions than Kissinger, the successful completion of an Egyptian-Israeli settlement left him deeply frustrated—to him it was a glass half empty rather than half full. He blamed Begin for the failure on the Palestinian track and never forgave him. When Begin and Sadat received the Nobel Peace Prize, Carter wrote in his diary, “I sent Begin and Sadat a congratulatory message after they received the Nobel Peace Prize jointly. Sadat deserved it; Begin did not.”
The peace process languished during the 1980s, as U.S. President Ronald Reagan cared more about East-West issues than Arab-Israeli ones and his administration was divided between the Israel-as-liability and Israel-as-asset camps, frustrating bold initiatives. A year after Camp David, moreover, the Iranian Revolution upended regional politics, shifting the geostrategic center of gravity (along with attention and resources) eastward to the Persian Gulf. But the George H. W. Bush administration came into office favoring the Carter administration’s goal of a comprehensive peace, and in 1991, it found a uniquely promising opportunity to reach for it.
By this point, the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, Iraq had been roundly defeated in the Gulf War, Iran was still recovering from its eight-year slugfest with Iraq, and Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization were weak and broke. With all the rejectionist spoilers of previous peace efforts hors de combat, the road was clear to pursue a regional settlement on U.S. terms. The effort began with the Bush administration’s 1991 Madrid conference, continued with the Clinton administration and the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995, and for a few years really seemed to be getting somewhere: a temporary deal between Israel and the Palestinians, an Israeli-Jordanian treaty, tantalizing prospects of success on the Syrian track. As so often in the 1990s, a beautiful future seemed just around the corner.
And then things ground to a halt. In 1995, trying to derail the process, an Israeli right-wing extremist assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Negotiations bogged down as neither side made deep enough concessions to satisfy the other’s concerns. And then, in 2000, the Palestinians turned back to violence. The second intifada’s grisly campaign of terrorist attacks directed against cafés, pizza parlors, discotheques, and other civilian gathering places killed over 1,000 Israelis and injured many thousands more, leaving deep scars in Israel’s national psyche. The median Israeli voter became convinced that ceding land to the Palestinians brought conflict rather than peace, and unsatisfying withdrawals from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 only reinforced the feeling.
In retrospect, the ultimate failure of the Oslo process should not have been surprising. The successes of the peace process have come not from Carteresque dreams but from Kissingerian realpolitik. Egypt made a private side deal with Israel in the 1970s, and Jordan did so in the 1990s, but both were hardheaded, materialistic transactions: Egypt made peace to get back the Sinai and a place within the American system, and Jordan did it to keep its place in that system and insulate itself from the vicissitudes of the peace process. Both sought to extricate themselves from the Palestinian problem, not solve it.
The successes of the peace process have come not from Carteresque dreams but from Kissingerian realpolitik.
Since 1994, the main parties without a deal have been the Palestinians and the Syrians, and it is difficult to say whether they were ever serious about making peace. They certainly convinced their U.S. interlocutors that they were, and they parlayed that success into decades of continued power, status, and international largess. And yet somehow the final settlement was always six months away—and always would be. Thus did the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat start the 1990s exiled in Tunis yet end them as a king in Ramallah. And thus did the Assad dynasty in Syria survive down the decades.
When the peaceful democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring broke out in late 2010, the Assad regime came under fire just as its counterparts elsewhere did. But instead of increasing pressure on the Syrian dictator, Washington cut Bashar al-Assad a lot of slack. Why? In part because he yet again dangled before them visions of the elusive Israeli-Syrian peace. As Frederic Hof, the official then handling Syria policy at the U.S. State Department, would later write, “Assad told me in late February 2011 that he would sever all anti-Israel relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and abstain from all behavior posing threats to the State of Israel, provided all land lost by Syria to Israel in the 1967 war—all of it—was returned.”
For 70 years now, many American (and European) policymakers have seen it as their mission to stabilize the Middle East by constraining Israel’s power and getting the country to give back at the negotiating table what it has taken on the battlefield. Over the decades, however, Israel has grown ever stronger and more able to resist such impositions. It has become a modern industrial power center, with a thriving economy and a fearsome military backed by nuclear weapons—even as the Palestinians have remained impoverished wards of the international community, with threats of terror their chief negotiating tool. Most Arab states moved on long ago. They now treat Israel as a normal player in the eternal great game of regional power balancing. So now has the Trump administration. And for that, it has been excoriated.
The administration’s approach is a disaster, critics say, because it concedes so much to Israel upfront that the Palestinians will never agree to negotiate. The critics are correct about the unlikely prospects for a deal anytime soon. But that makes the Trump administration different from its predecessors how? U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry squandered more than a year of the Obama administration trying in vain to jump-start peace talks, a quixotic effort that even his own negotiators knew would not succeed. Is that the benchmark against which Trump is to be judged? If so, he will end up failing a lot more cheaply.
The awkward truth that Washington is only gradually beginning to admit to itself is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not, in fact, be solved with a two-state solution. It might once have been, and phalanxes of negotiators over half a century tried everything they could to bring it off. But the local parties to the conflict were never quite ready. The moment never got seized, and somewhere along the way the opportunity passed.
During the Israeli election campaign in September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention “to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the area of the northern Dead Sea upon the establishment of the next government.” To the ears of a U.S. diplomatic establishment raised on dreams of Oslo, this sounded like the ravings of a right-wing extremist. But even Netanyahu’s centrist rivals call for the retention of the Jordan Valley, a united Jerusalem, and Israeli control of major settlement blocs.
It is not obvious how the United States should deal with this new reality, and the Trump administration’s plans for solving the problem are no more likely to succeed than those of its predecessors. But give the president his due. He looks at the Middle East like any other region, and respects power. Without the ideological blinders of the professional peace processors, he has recognized that the Palestinian issue is not a major U.S. strategic concern and has essentially delegated its handling to the local parties directly involved. He can see that Israel, having conquered the staging areas its enemies regularly used to attack it, will never give all of them back. Observing an emerging regional tripolarity, he has pulled two of the poles, Israel and Saudi Arabia, into a de facto alliance to contain the menacing third pole, Iran. In short, he seems to be embracing an updated version of the “twin pillars” Middle East policy that Washington adopted in the 1970s, with Israel taking Iran’s place as the second pillar.
This may advance U.S. interests effectively in the long run, and it may not. But the idea that the administration’s approach is a travesty of professional diplomacy by a bunch of bumbling amateurs is just a story that veterans of lost wars tell to comfort themselves.