Kevin Peraino: How We Got to This Point (Re: Middle East)

Roundup: Media's Take

Barack Obama said virtually nothing last week about the fighting in Gaza. We only have "one president at a time," his aides argue, and he has already called for a robust American peacemaking effort. Still, as the bombs began falling it must have been tempting for the president-elect to simply avert his eyes. Cries of "all-out war" make the risks to U.S. credibility abroad and the political costs at home seem infinitely more acute. Fighting in the Holy Land has been raging for thousands of years, the familiar reasoning goes; it would be hubris to think America could end it.

Yet three excellent recent books suggest that such logic is seriously flawed. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly, diplomatic distance virtually guarantees the status quo. Because Israel is so much stronger, power dynamics in the conflict are "deeply unbalanced," write Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky in their trenchant guidebook, "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace" (191 pages. U.S. Institute of Peace. $16.50). "Left on their own, the parties cannot address the deep, structural impediments to peace." Over the past half-century, the price of a generally desultory American policy has been compounded.

That's the takeaway from Patrick Tyler's ambitious new history, "A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East—From the Cold War to the War on Terror" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 628 pages. $30). The bottom line, according to Tyler: "After nearly six decades of escalating American involvement in the Middle East, it remains nearly impossible to discern any overarching approach to the region such as the one that guided U.S. policy through the Cold War." Still, starry-eyed naiveté is no way to solve one of the world's most intractable conflicts. Martin Indyk's nuanced new memoir of his tenure as a Clinton-era peace negotiator, "Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East" (494 pages. Simon &Schuster. $30), demonstrates how hard the balancing act can be.

American diplomacy in the region wasn't always so feeble. Back in the fall of 1956, intelligence reached Washington that Israel was massing troops near Gaza in the Negev Desert. U.S. officials discovered that Israel had conspired with Britain and France to seize the Suez Canal, which popular Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the summer before. The Americans were furious at their allies' back-room plan. Israel's then foreign minister, Golda Meir, made an argument much the same as what Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said since then: "Imagine attacks from enemies camped on the Mexican and Canadian borders inflicting those kinds of casualties in America." But President Eisenhower wasn't buying. As Tyler recounts, Ike went on television and demanded a withdrawal, later withholding oil shipments and loans to Britain. The conspirators were forced to comply....
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