In This Review
Innocent Abroad: An Intimate History of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East

Innocent Abroad: An Intimate History of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East

By Martin Indyk

Simon and Schuster, 2009, 528 pp.

Innocent Abroad treats the United States' Middle East policy and performance in the region during the eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency. It is an "intimate" -- or, better, an insider's -- account written by a former senior official. And rather than a history of "peace diplomacy," it is a history of agreements made, agreements missed, the aftermath of a war that left in its wake an untidy resolution, and covert actions gone awry -- all within the context of the sole post-Cold War superpower's defining its role in the Middle East.

Rather than titling this book Innocent Abroad, it would perhaps have been better to evoke directly Mark Twain's plural -- The Innocents Abroad. Americans, Martin Indyk asserts, are the innocents, seeking to "make the Middle East over in America's image." This generates "a troubling naivete in the American approach to the Middle East that is part innocence, part ignorance, and part arrogance."

Yet Indyk's account does not in fact exhibit the dominance of innocence or ignorance, and arrogance is simply the usual attitude of great powers in dealing with lesser states. There are, however, different lessons to be learned from Innocent Abroad, some asserted by the author and others to be gleaned from a careful reading of the book.


Indyk, born in London and raised and educated in Australia, where he earned a Ph.D. in international relations, came to the United States in the early 1980s. For a time, he worked as a researcher at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which calls itself "America's Pro-Israel Lobby." He left AIPAC to found the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank that he directed for some seven years. From there, he was recruited into the Clinton administration, where he served first as a senior official concerned with Middle East policy on the National Security Council and then twice as U.S. ambassador to Israel (April 1995 to September 1997 and January 2000 to July 2001), filling in the intervening years as assistant secretary for Near East affairs in the State Department.

Given Indyk's background in WINEP -- which is generally viewed as pro-Israel and thus anti-Arab (the former is fair enough, the latter not necessarily) -- was his an inappropriate appointment? This much can be said (although it will satisfy no one): a research organization, or think tank, is not a lobby. Think tanks come in all political hues; consider the Brookings Institution (where Indyk is now) or the American Enterprise Institute. And Indyk was in no way a stealth candidate for an appointment. The Clinton administration must have liked his resumé -- the White House even hastened the process of getting him U.S. citizenship -- and his take on the issues. One could argue that a more neutral candidate might have come from the career foreign or intelligence services, but career officials can be equally politicized, deliberately or in spite of themselves. (Think of "those Arabists in the State Department," "Arabist" being a misleading label but one that at one time had gained considerable traction.) Choosing outside specialists, especially from universities and think tanks, to fill high government positions has long been an accepted practice of presidential administrations. Such an appointment was as appropriate as, say, recruiting an Arab American specialist in Middle Eastern studies from an Ivy League university might be. And Indyk, in any case, is quite up-front about his attachment to Israel -- an attachment that he sees as consistent with U.S. policy. He supported the Clinton administration's efforts to bring about a negotiated and just settlement between Israel and its neighbors.

Innocent Abroad tackles the key developments in U.S. Middle East policy during Clinton's presidency. It discusses the inauguration and subsequent fate of the "dual containment" policy, which was announced in May 1993 by Indyk himself in a WINEP meeting. This policy statement, which rejected balance-of-power politics, proclaimed that the United States would contain both Iran and Iraq, adding that Saddam Hussein's regime was "irredeemable." Indyk also recounts the first try at a "Syria first" policy -- giving priority to seeking an Israeli settlement with Syria rather than with the Palestinians. This was derailed by the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which reversed the priority. He goes on to address the frustrating U.S. efforts to hem in Saddam, with the ultimate goal of his removal, which included an ill-fated covert action in 1995 and then Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. The latter brought four days of U.S. aerial attacks against Iraq after Saddam had yet again stymied the United Nations inspectors seeking to carry out their weapons-monitoring duties. Meanwhile, efforts to achieve a breakthrough in U.S. relations with Iran (before and during the presidency of the reformer Muhammad Khatami) proved fruitless, roiled by such actions as those by U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who led the fight to get passage of the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). Finally, Indyk addresses the second effort to orchestrate an Israeli-Syrian settlement, which also came to naught, in early 2000, and then the dramatic negotiations, pushed by Clinton through the last half of 2000, that came so close to achieving a grand bargain between Israel and the Palestinians at Camp David.

Indyk follows the events of these eight years through the activities of the handful of individuals who were designing the United States' Middle East policy. His narrative serves as a reminder that the hammering out of policy is never without a clash of ideas. Two examples: the Syria-first policy emerged from a bureaucratic battle lost by those who favored a policy of putting the Palestinians first, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, soon after the Gulf War, proposed considering some kind of accommodation with the defeated Saddam. Indyk is also well aware of the part played by contingency in history -- when events that could not have been anticipated transform the diplomatic landscape. In this case, these include the February 1994 massacre of Muslims at prayer in Hebron by the Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein, the flight to Jordan of Saddam's son-in-law Hussein Kamel in August 1995, and the assassination in November of that same year of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Innocent Abroad even has its comic touches. Before the September 1993 White House meeting between Rabin and Yasir Arafat, Clinton and his team went through frenzied efforts to make sure that Arafat did not kiss the president at the public ceremony to inaugurate the Oslo peace process.


Throughout the book, Indyk offers maxims about what works in diplomacy and what does not. Persistence is critical. When the United States demonstrates serious intent in addressing Arab-Israeli problems, and works hard toward that end, it reaps advantages even if the immediate issue is not resolved. Indyk also argues that pushing for multiple Arab-Israeli negotiations (put crudely, playing off one Arab state against another) can be effective. Much is made of the way the timing of King Hussein's opting for a peace treaty with Israel was pegged to his desire not to be at the end of the queue, as he was hearing peace rumblings from Syria and the Palestinians.

Some of Indyk's maxims seem a bit off target. He maintains, for example, that "American presidents can be more successful when they put their arms around Israeli prime ministers and encourage them to move forward, rather than attempt to browbeat them into submission." Would an embrace have worked wonders with that hard-edged realist Rabin? Would a little tough talk not have been useful with the slippery Benjamin Netanyahu?

Overall, Indyk comes across as a team player, offering the most positive possible appraisal of Clinton's Middle East policy. At the same time, he does criticize aspects of the Clinton administration's performance, including that of Clinton himself. The most telling example concerns Clinton's behavior following the breakdown of the negotiations between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the last days of his presidency. Clinton openly blamed Arafat and told the incoming U.S. president, George W. Bush, that negotiating with Arafat was useless. If Clinton had instead abstained from blaming Arafat and let his own celebrated parameters (included in the book in an appendix) stand as a possible basis for later negotiations, Bush might have attempted to revive the talks. Instead, Bush concluded -- as he told Indyk when, as outgoing U.S. ambassador to Israel, Indyk accompanied Ariel Sharon, who had just been newly installed as Israel's prime minister, to the White House -- "There's no Nobel Peace Prize to be had here."

That Indyk manages to get in a jab at Bush even in the context of criticizing Clinton illustrates a rhetorical touch used throughout the book: burnish the Clinton record by holding it up against the eight years of the Bush administration. It is surely easier to make the Clinton administration look good in a book written in 2008 than it would have been eight years earlier.


Rather than follow Indyk's lead of contrasting the Clinton years with the Bush years, it may be more useful to ask whether the Clinton administration's policies and performance made the missteps of the Bush administration more likely. At the time of the 2000 presidential election, the Clinton administration's record in the Middle East was seen as a failure. Yes, an Israeli-Jordanian treaty had been achieved, but that had been early on. Of more recent memory was the bleak reality that there had been no progress with Iran or Syria and that, devastatingly, no Israeli-Palestinian settlement had been reached. (The many informed appraisals of the failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations throughout the last months of the Clinton administration may be roughly broken down into a majority view that places ultimate responsibility for the failure on Arafat and a minority view that faults Barak and Clinton in varying degrees. Indyk's account fits into the majority view, but he does detail many mistakes by Barak and Clinton.) And Saddam, nine years after Desert Storm, remained in power -- weakened by sanctions and restrictions on his control of the Kurdish north and the Shiite south but still defiant and apparently dangerous. Nothing that the Clinton administration had tried during its eight years seemed to have worked.

How all this factored into the public mood and U.S. political dynamics at the time is evident in the party platforms for the 2000 U.S. presidential race. This is from the Republican platform: "The anti-Iraq coalition assembled to oppose Saddam Hussein has disintegrated. The administration has pretended to support the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, but did nothing . . . and failed to champion the international inspectors. . . . When, in late 1998, the administration decided to take military action, it did too little, too late. . . . We support the full implementation of the Iraq Liberation Act, which should be regarded as a starting point in a comprehensive plan for the removal of Saddam Hussein." The Democratic Party platform, more laconic and reserved, offered this: "We are committed to working with our international partners to keep Saddam Hussein boxed in, and we will work to see him out of power. . . . As President, Al Gore will not hesitate to use America's military might against Iraq when and where it is necessary." By 2000, in short, Saddam was not the only one "boxed in." Both U.S. political parties were boxed into a Saddam-must-go policy. Dual containment posited that both Iran and Iraq were to be contained, but whereas Iran was offered the prospect of a changed U.S. policy in exchange for a change in its own behavior, Saddam faced no such incentive. "Iraq," Indyk had said in his dual-containment speech, "is a criminal regime, beyond the pale of international society and, in our judgment, irredeemable." As Indyk explained, Clinton would try a mix of carrots and sticks in seeking to change the behavior of other rogue regimes, but "there would be no carrots for Saddam Hussein -- only sticks designed to debilitate him to the point where he could eventually be toppled." Indyk notes that there were only two occasions when the idea of offering carrots to Saddam was even raised. The first was when Clinton, before being sworn in, stated in an interview that he did not rule out a "deathbed conversion" by Saddam, which could prompt changes in U.S. policy. The second was in January 1998, when the State Department's chief spokesperson, James Rubin, mentioned possibly offering Saddam "a little carrot" in exchange for compliance. "In both cases," Indyk sardonically adds, "the remarks were immediately corrected."

Why was the doctrine of dual containment adopted? It was intended, Indyk points out, to block trouble from both Iran and Iraq that might frustrate efforts to achieve negotiated settlements in the Arab-Israeli arena. (Other sources have suggested a linkage between dual containment and the emerging thinking in Israel that Iran now loomed as Israel's principal threat.) In any case, diplomacy by unilateral pronouncements, however mixed the results, was hardly unprecedented in U.S. policy toward the Middle East: witness the Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter doctrines.


Indyk reports that Tehran interpreted dual containment as "a declaration of hostile intent" and that that interpretation, on top of Iran's typical "paranoia and mistrust," left the Iranians inclined to believe that Clinton sought regime change in Iran. It seems fair to conclude that dual containment, which was announced in the early months of the Clinton administration, cast a dark shadow over the later efforts by the United States to pursue détente with Iran.

Another effect of proclaiming policies publicly and unilaterally is that they then shape the thinking of the domestic, as well as the foreign, audience. Indyk argues that the pressure from Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and AIPAC to pass ILSA in 1996 surely set back any efforts to achieve a possible opening between the United States and Iran. The forces advocating ILSA might well have gotten this legislation passed in any case, but being able to point out that ILSA was consistent with the United States' stated policy, that is, dual containment, surely eased matters.

If dual containment vis-à-vis Iran contributed to the derailment of whatever chance there might have been for détente with Iran, the consequences in the case of Iraq were even more serious. There, a policy positing regime change offered Saddam no inducement to do anything other than dig in his heels. Any wiggle room that might have been read into the dual-containment statement was removed by the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which made it official U.S. policy to seek to remove Saddam from power.

That said, it must be noted that U.S. relations with Iraq throughout the Clinton era were caught up in the actions of another "regime" with its own problems with change. This was the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), which was charged with overseeing the destruction of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Set up in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, UNSCOM had a mandate that involved an elaborate and, to the United States, frustrating exercise of multilateral diplomacy, which is captured well in Indyk's chapter "Saddam Resurgent." Washington found itself being manipulated by the cat-and-mouse game Saddam played with the UNSCOM inspectors, and both international and domestic support for continued inspections and sanctions seemed to falter as it became clear that neither threats nor limited force (such as Operation Desert Fox in 1998) was having much effect on Saddam.

Concurrent with these policies were inept and failed covert actions to topple Saddam. A covert action is a deus ex machina invoked by a government when overt pressures have not worked against the target and outright military action is ruled out as being too expensive and too unpopular. Covert actions are supposed to be secret, with no trace of the hand involved (thus allowing for "plausible deniability"). In the past, such U.S. actions were often kept secret from the American people, but they were almost never kept secret from those being targeted. In the case of Iraq, one enters an Orwellian world in which proposals for funding covert actions were overtly aired in the media and approved in Congress. These abortive covert actions, together with the frustrating results of overt actions against Saddam, created the impression that no option was left save war.

Sustaining this interpretation is Indyk's observation that "President Clinton and most of his senior advisers supported President Bush's decision to use force to topple Saddam Hussein." Admittedly, Indyk goes on to insist that they "did not believe Saddam posed an imminent threat. . . . This meant that Bush had time: time to finish the job in Afghanistan, time to put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track, time to plan properly for overthrow's aftermath, and time to secure international approval before he launched the necessary ground invasion of Iraq." This amounts to an argument over timing, and that argument was largely overcome by the (inaccurate) reports of Saddam's weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities. The Clinton team had long since conceded the basic premise that only war would work, and its own record of struggling with Iraq had led to a policy of regime change. Even without the shock of 9/11, the Bush administration might have opted to invade Iraq -- and the record of the Clinton administration would have eased Bush's task of persuading Congress.


What can be learned from the eight years of the United States' Middle East diplomacy described and interpreted in Innocent Abroad? First, policy positions presented unilaterally, such as dual containment and its successors, are more likely to provoke resistance than concessions. This is especially the case when a superpower is confronting regional powers such as Iran and Iraq, states with a long history of seeing themselves as pawns in great-power politics. Second, strong unilateral foreign policy statements can be red meat to domestic political forces seeking to lock in even more hostile policies. Third, if you are not prepared to get rid of opponents immediately, then it is prudent to leave them some prospect of escaping your wrath. And finally, covert actions have a high rate of failure. Even successful attempts usually prove detrimental in the long run. (Consider the 1953 coup against Iran's Mohammad Mosaddeq.) Washington would be wise to get out of the business of covert regime change altogether. The resources saved could be used to make the CIA the world's best at gathering and analyzing intelligence and engaging in counterintelligence (for the sake of, among other things, taking on terrorist networks).

Would a policy embracing these lessons have produced satisfactory solutions for U.S. relations with Iran or Iraq during the Clinton years? I suggest a cautious likely in the case of Iran and a bleak unlikely in the case of Iraq: not all stories have a happy ending. Still, such a policy just might have nudged the Bush administration away from its more aggressive policies. Indeed, an alternative title for Indyk's book might have been From Dual Containment to Axis of Evil.

Innocent Abroad is a well-constructed insider's account, one sure to be mined by historians (my working copy is dog-eared and heavily annotated), of the United States' Middle East policy during the Clinton years, with important lessons -- some explicit, others implicit -- for U.S. Middle East policy going forward. Now, with another presidential transition under way, is a good time to consider these lessons -- with the hope that this time, they may be more likely to be followed. In a sense, the transition from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration offers a mirror image of that from Bush to Barack Obama. In the former, the prevailing sense was that there was a need to take more aggressive action to remedy the poor performance of the past. This time, the situation is reversed, with a perceived need to take more prudent action to repair the damage caused by the missteps of the Bush years.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • L. CARL BROWN is Garrett Professor in Foreign Affairs Emeritus at Princeton University and the author of International Politics and the Middle East: Old Rules, Dangerous Game.
  • More By L. Carl Brown