Obama should replay Nixon to China and begin secret preliminary talks with Iranian leaders in Geneva to figure out our shared interests, says William Quandt, the Middle East expert who played a role in the Camp David accords.
“In the current atmosphere in Washington and perhaps the United States more generally, Iran is still toxic. It’s like Red China used to be when I was a kid. So someone has to come along like Nixon going to China,” Quandt said on Sunday in Cape Cod. Nixon had campaigned his entire life against communism, but he recognized that dealing with China was a strategic necessity. No one regrets his doing so– because he lowered the temperature on the cold war.
“I find it hard to imagine that our current president and secretary of state have that in the back of their mind. But I want them to,” Quandt said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Quandt spoke on the Arab Spring and other developments in the region to an audience of about 200 people gathered at an Episcopal church in Woods Hole, MA, at the invitation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Peace and Justice in the Middle East.
His forecasts on Egypt, Syria, and Israel/Palestine were all bleak. “It’s a nice sunny afternoon. I don’t want to ruin your weekend, but I didn’t make you come here,” he said.
He was most optimistic re the change in leadership in Iran. The US and Iran have common interests on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the risk of an Iran-Israel war. An overture by Obama would have to take place “out of the limelight,” by which Quandt seemed to mean, secretly. While he avoided any discussion of the Israel lobby, he said that people in the U.S. are too “crazy” about Iran to have a public discussion of the opening.
The Iranians won’t have talks about the nuclear program without putting everything on the table, and the U.S. has to be willing to have such open-ended discussions, even though neither public is ready for them. So you get people “with real knowledge and authority and responsibility” and “shut them up in a room somewhere in Geneva and let them have a serious preliminary round.”
“To me it’s a no brainer, give it a try.”
The former peace processor had these other observations:
–The US is a bystander on Egypt. “Egypt is in full gear to revert to military rule and perhaps a harsh time for a while.” What does the U.S. have to say about that? “Maybe not much… The United States has by and large been a bystander for some very big changes. That’s one of the things we have to get used to…”
–al-Sisi aspires to be another Nasser. “To me… we’re going back to Mubarakism with a general who looks more like Nasser than Mubarak. This is a man [Abdul Fattah al-Sisis] who wants to be I think a very strong popular military leader, and he has the potential to be that, a popular leader for a sizeable percentage of the Egyptian populace. And he will be exactly the opposite to another sizeable percentage of the Egyptian public.”
–Clinton failed to achieve an Israel/Palestine deal in 2000 because of a lack of pressure (on Israel, Quandt implied). “We did not use our A team on the diplomatic front. Clinton had his charm, he had his abilities, but he was backstopped by a fairly weak team, I believe, and at the crucial moment, he was unwilling to push hard for the kind of deal that was doable.”
–Bush left a potential deal in Obama’s hands. Quandt said Obama had attempted to revive the peace process in ’09 because he’d been briefed by Bush administration officials who told him that PM Ehud Olmert had in 2008 offered more than any other Israeli leader but that Bush had declined Condoleezza Rice’s urging to expend the energy to try and clinch the deal. He’d leave that to the next president. “You could imagine with a little more effort it could have been done,” said Quandt. But within a month of Obama’s inauguration, there was a new Israeli prime minister. “Mr No.”
On the latest I/P talks, Quandt was pessimistic. Kerry devoted an awful lot of energy to getting the talks restarted, but “I do have this uneasy feeling that the next stage hasn’t been really very well thought through.”
Quandt was insistent on a two-state solution. ”People will tell you the two state solution is dead, it’s not going to work any more. Ask those people what the alternative is… it turns out to be a fuzzy notion of, ‘What about a one state solution?'” He characterized this view as Arab progressive, “Why do you buy into this nationalist rhetoric?” approach. But Quandt said that under a binational state, Palestinians would have more power than Jews eventually, “and Israel did not come into existence in order to be voted out of office by an Arab majority in a binational state. Believe me it will not happen. And they’re not willing to trust that they can live safely in a binational state.” So: “one state is way off there in some distant future at best.”
On the special relationship, Quandt diplomatically made no reference to the Israel lobby. The U.S. is “stuck with the relationship with Israel, whether we like it or not.” It is built into our “genetic” and “political” code that we are going to support Israel. Netanyahu’s 29 standing ovations in the Congress were driven in some measure by the bloc that wants Obama to fail (no mention of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz leading the cheers). And so, our only friend in the Middle East is a country that’s occupying another people in a nasty way, and taking more of that people’s land all the time, in the name of security, at a time when our friend has never been more secure.
When a questioner urged Quandt to cease referring to Israel as a democracy because of its discrimination against Palestinians, Quandt agreed that Israel’s democracy served Jews, but he said that the U.S. had been a democracy even when it was discriminating against blacks and women, and it had had to address those injustices. “Democracy is not a switch that’s either on or off.”