Aaron David Miller
Foreign Policy (Opinion)
January 5, 2011 - 1:00am

Call me a foreign-policy geezer, a traditionalist from back in the day. But when it comes to conducting the affairs of the country abroad, particularly toward the seemingly endless, seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli peace process, one historically proven bureaucratic model trumps all others: the willful president empowering the strong secretary of state who, in turn, runs everything.

We don't have that structure now. And although what ails the United States in the Middle East certainly won't be fixed by rearranging the ship of state's deck chairs, it wouldn't hurt, might avoid needless failures, and may even set the stage for some success.

Nowhere is the need for more centralization from the top required than in the U.S. pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace. This issue is a perfect storm of headaches -- one giant root-canal operation that can bring sustained pain to any administration even under the best circumstances. The confluence of domestic politics; unruly Arabs and Israelis who believe they're locked into an existential conflict; sporadic or sustained terror and violence; and the need for a smart negotiating strategy and a tough, smart negotiator demands a focused organizational approach to avoid drift and confusion, let alone to produce success.

And what has worked in the past -- which really is prologue on this issue -- is a structure run by the secretary of state who (through an envoy with a team) is empowered by the president to craft a workable strategy and implement it. That empowerment must be real and direct: Friends and foe alike must know that it's the secretary of state who really is authorized to speak for the president. While it's his policy, she is the go-to address. Any daylight between them is bad for business.

They also need to know that the secretary is committed to this issue and can play both the good cop and bad cop. America's top diplomat doesn't just show up in the end to close a negotiation; he or she is involved at critically important points in setting it up. Indeed, well before the deal is done -- the secretary must and will become the repository of the anger, respect, and above all, the confidences and negotiating positions of the Arabs and the Israelis.

Finding the balance between being taken for granted and becoming part of the furniture while still commanding the respect of all sides is tricky. But it can and must be done. And no subcabinet envoy can do it because at times it will involve threatening to walk away and blame one or both of the parties for the blowup. For this you need star power and command and control -- and at critical points, the president's intercession as well.

The controlling secretary model also has the advantage of having history and success on its side. Both Henry Kissinger and James Baker owned the Arab-Israeli issue, and notwithstanding their own talents as negotiators and the opportunities in the region which they not only inherited but also helped manufacture, that ownership was vital to U.S. success. They had the confidence of their presidents, and they used that authority -- stretching it at times -- to build themselves up and persuade the locals that they were in fact the real powers on the ground. Each had the power to punish and reward; the Arabs and the Israelis knew there were no end runs to the White House around these guys. Both were also willing to take risks and put themselves in the middle of the mix -- shuttling, pushing, prodding, and bribing. Right now, Barack Obama's administration has at least four centers of power and influence on the Arab-Israeli issue that I can identify:

1. The president (together with his political advisors), who from the get-go tried to own this issue from a public-rhetorical angle but didn't seem to have a strategy, believing wrongly that he could use his own words and persona to Arabs and put the Israelis in their place; at least that was the plan.

2. The Middle East envoy, the tenacious George Mitchell, who believed that if only he could get a negotiation going he could crack it, not understanding fully that a presidential strategy was required first to address the high politics, particularly with the Israelis.

3. The secretary of state, who is a superstar and knows more about the Israeli-Palestinian issue than anyone else (and has the Clinton name and mystique to boot) -- but still doesn't know whether she wants to own this issue, how far she is willing to push the president, and whether she wants to risk failing herself.

4. The National Security Council (NSC), first under advisor James L. Jones, who understood the importance of the issue but couldn't identify a workable approach to offer the president and was unwilling or unable to warn him off the approaches that couldn't work. As for Dennis Ross, whom many wrongly blame for the failure of U.S. policy (it's Obama's responsibility), he's likely to advise caution, particularly when it comes to beating up on the Israelis -- a view that will likely be shared by Tom Donilon, the new NSC head.

This four-part structure -- or more accurately absence of structure -- hasn't served the United States well. It's not that these centers of influence are in ferocious competition; everybody -- or almost everyone -- seems to get along. It's just that there appears to have been no adult supervision to differentiate what might work from what absolutely wouldn't. Had there been, the Obama administration may not have solved the Arab-Israeli conflict these past 20 months, but it wouldn't have run off the highway so badly.

And the mark of that dysfunction is the stunning fact that 20 months in there's still no real sense of who or what was responsible for several false starts -- the search for a settlement freeze, the much-touted hyperlaunch and rapid breakdown of the talks last September, the effort to bribe the Israelis into accepting a freeze, and the more generic problem of why the U.S.-Israeli relationship has resembled (with a lot of help from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) a roller-coaster ride at Wally World.

All this of course raises the truly scary possibility that the administration's failures weren't a result of confusion or of too many cooks in the kitchen, but came about because everyone involved actually agreed with the approach taken.

Let's be clear again: Fixing the bureaucracies won't overcome the huge challenges standing in the way of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. But if it's to be fixed (and even if it can't), there has to be a change. Somebody -- the secretary of state -- has to take charge. And there's no doubt she is capable of doing it.

If, as it appears, the administration is going for the endgame on the big issues -- proposals to bridge the gaps between the parties or even a U.S. plan -- then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton needs to identify and fight for a strategy that reflects the needs of both Israelis and Palestinians, and get the president not just to allow her to take the lead, but to watch her back at home and abroad. Indeed, if this gets to another summit (and it might) Obama himself will have to do the heavy lifting.

And if the administration isn't going for the endgame, Clinton needs to do her best to avoid any more embarrassing false starts and failed promises, particularly as the president focuses more and more on his reelection. Palestinian/Arab efforts to introduce a U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements will provide ample opportunities for another administration stumble/bumble. Failures at home and abroad won't help the president; more adult supervision will; it's what you get paid the big bucks for in government; and on this issue, it's needed now more than ever.


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