Aaron David Miller’s lost faith

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Aaron David Miller delivered a lecture at the American University of Beirut last week entitled “Gulliver’s Troubles: Barack Obama in the Middle East.” The talk focused on many of the same points he made recently in a Foreign Policy article; mainly that American policy on Palestine and Israel has been guided by a misdirected faith, a religion, whose mantra is ‘two states for two peoples.’ Miller’s 25 years of experience in the American establishment also yielded some good anecdotes that provide insight, I think. I’ll get to those later.

Steve Walt does a thorough job of addressing the issues with Miller’s arguments so I won’t focus on them. Instead, I want to convey how I perceived Miller and why his professed loss of faith is worth paying attention to.

Miller spoke at a lectern for forty five minutes and then sat at a long table at the head of the meeting hall to take questions. He did not speak about the one-state solution, but instead said that the two-state will not come about. The majority of questioners were students, many of whom were not receptive to Miller’s point of view.

In one memorable exchange, a graduate student challenged Miller on the hegemonic and basically destructive impact of American foreign policy in the region. Miller responded by explaining that policy arises both out of individual presidential prerogative and competing systemic forces (lobbies, bureaucrats, etc…). He then expressed wonder that the American political system could empower George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama four years later. According to him, it was a sign of political flexibility and reactiveness. The student was not convinced, and replied that George W. Bush and Barack Obama were not so different (something I agree with in many respects). I think most of the hall agreed with Miller on this point, however.

Miller took a very realist and pessimistic view of the state of the Middle East. When asked by a journalist about why State Department officials cannot speak to members of Hezbollah or Hamas, Miller replied that at present, there is nothing to be gained from dialogue alone. He continued to say that in the context of a broader strategic vision, it may make sense to engage these groups, but not now. I disagree with Miller on this point. Taking all of his assumptions about the perception of prestige at face value, it still makes sense to speak to Hamas and Hezbollah in the absence of a broader ‘peacemaking’ strategy. How else is one supposed to identify opportunities around which one can build a greater strategic vision?

I asked Miller the same question I asked former Florida Senator Robert Graham when he was here several weeks ago: in what way does the Gaza siege and collective punishment of the Palestinians there enhance American strategic interests in the region? He didn’t prevaricate or dissemble and gave me a straightforward answer. America is not served by the siege in any way. One can hope that American career diplomats will internalize this message: the immoral and illegal siege of an occupied people will not make America safer or more successful in any way.

While I found Miller to be refreshingly honest about many aspects of his career and the history of American peacemaking, his discussion of Palestinian divisions was weak in its omissions. While he didn’t engage in historical revisionism, he avoided speaking about Dayton’s coup and America’s role in encouraging the failure of the Saudi reconciliation talks. I asked him about that also, and he replied that he didn’t know anything about Dayton’s role.

My last question to him was about Palestinian-Israeli civil rights and whether he supported their equal representation in Israeli society. Here he surprised me. According to Miller, Israel is a ‘preferential democracy’ and he does support their equal rights. He compared it to America in the early nineteenth century before women’s suffrage or the abolition of slavery, noting that societies have the capacity to shift. I thought the comparison provided insight into the way some in the State Department view Israel and its minority issues. Also very interesting is the anecdote he told in answering the question. He recalled that his 30-year-old daughter had a long argument with him about whether Israeli society is discriminatory, and it was she who eventually convinced him that Israel is a ‘preferential democracy.’ While not necessarily representative, his daughter’s views are an indication that young people in America – people who will one day control the establishment – have a markedly different perspective of the situation.

It is tempting to say that Miller should have awakened to the reality of Palestine/Israel while he was still in a position to do something about it. But he has suffered some consequences resulting from his late theistic intifada. Right now, he’s writing a book about presidential greatness. He told the audience that he interviewed all of the living presidents for research, except one. Someone in Bill Clinton’s camp still holds a grudge against Miller for spilling the ‘Israel’s lawyer’ beans, and he did not get the interview as a result. It’s not a big blow, but it demonstrates that even retired officials may suffer blowback from speaking truthfully about the ‘special relationship.’

I don’t know if Miller’s losing his religion is an indication of a tectonic shift in the American diplomatic conceptual framework. But I have hope that others who occupy his former roles will employ a reality-based, rather than a faith-based approach to the conflict. His speaking out now may empower them.

Finally, I got the impression that Miller is deeply disillusioned. He seems as hopeless as any man who’s relinquished a core set of beliefs with nothing to fill the vacuum. This may seem like a strange comparison, and I hesitate to make it, but Miller reminded me of Malcolm X when he broke with Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam. After spending 25 years of his life worshiping and promoting a false idol, at 61, he has come to see things for what they are. Malcom X later filled the vacuum with orthodox Islam. One can hope that Miller finds the cause for equal rights in Palestine/Israel.

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