TOPICS > Politics

Presidents and Peace

June 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now American presidents and the Middle East: George W. Bush is the latest to play an active role brokering peace in the Middle East. This morning he briefed his cabinet on last week’s trip to the region, and then he talked to reporters.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I went to the Middle East and started the… started the march to peace, and I am optimistic about our chances to bring a peaceful, free Palestinian state in existence to live side-by- side with a secure Israel. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I was pleased with the response of Prime Minister Sharon, who’s a courageous leader dedicated to the security of the Israeli people, as are we, but also recognizing that life can be better for the Palestinians. And I appreciate the leadership of Prime Minister Abbas, the new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, who spoke eloquently and clearly about the need for the free world to fight off terror in order for a Palestinian state to emerge. And I understand that there’s going to be a lot of work to do, but I’m prepared to lead.

JIM LEHRER: Now, some perspective on presidential peacemaking in the Middle East from three diplomatic historians: Kenneth Stein, director of the Middle East research program at Emory University in Atlanta; Douglas Little, professor of history and dean of the college at Clark University in Massachusetts; and Diane Kunz, who’s taught at Yale and Columbia Universities. Professor Kunz, why does it always fall to U.S. presidents to say what George W. Bush said today, “I will lead the Middle East to peace”?

DIANE KUNZ: The United States has been present at the creation of Israel, and has been at the side of the attempt in the Middle East to have a unified peace process, from the creation of the state of Israel. It was President Truman who recognized Israel. He was the first leader that did so upon Israeli independence, and the United States has remained not only the only superpower, but the one country who is trusted by Israel, and has the power to make a peace happen.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Professor Klein [Stein], only the United States, because it was there at the beginning, can do this?

KENNETH STEIN: I think you’re referring to me, Jim, yes. The United States does have the ability, ever since Harry Truman articulated the Truman Doctrine in the late 40s –

JIM LEHRER: Stein, I’m sorry.

KENNETH STEIN: — our effort in the Middle East was to drive out the Soviet Union. It’s quite all right – or to deny the Soviet Union an important role in the region. We did that with the Truman Doctrine, the Eisenhower Doctrine, even the Carter Doctrine. And the United States, after the ’67 war, with Lyndon Johnson’s speech that carved out U.N. Resolution 242, which became the framework for Middle East peace and has ever since, the United States has played a critical role.

Richard Nixon asked the State Department in 1968- ’69, would you become interested, or do you think the Soviet Union would become interested in doing this with us? And the State Department turned around and said, “no, we don’t think so.” After the 1973 war, Henry Kissinger became deeply engaged in what we came to know as shuttle diplomacy. Jimmy Carter in the late 70s started out with comprehensive peace, and that ended up in a bilateral agreement between Israel and the Egyptians. George Bush, Sr. used the first Iraq war to confer a Middle East peace conference in Madrid, and out of that came bilateral talks. Bill Clinton tried a summit in July of 2000. It didn’t succeed, but nonetheless he still had deep talks. And again, George Bush, Jr. is coming out this time after the Iraq war saying we’re going to try and make a leading effort. Yes, the United States has been there at the creation of Israel in ’48, but it’s also taken an erstwhile role in trying to lead the negotiations.

JIM LEHRER: My apology again for misstating your last name. I’ll get it right from here on out, I promise you.

Professor Little, what about the other countries of the world? What about Great Britain? They’ve always been active in the Middle East going back for years and years-going back centuries –same as France and whatever. Why are they not the ones that can be the broker between the Arabs and Israelis?

DOUGLAS LITTLE: Well, Jim, I think a quarter of a century ago, or certainly 50 years ago, Britain and France were in a position from an imperial standpoint to play the kind of role that the United States is today. But to a very great degree over the course of the last 50 years, the United States has come to play Rome to Britain’s Greece. And one of the things that the U.S. found to be a great challenge during the 1950s and 1960s was to develop a foreign policy that allowed the United States to step into Britain’s shoes and to find a way to provide some stability to the region, particularly to the Persian Gulf, where all that oil was, but also to try to nudge the Israelis and the Arabs toward some sort of lasting peace. And each administration during that time period had a slightly different approach to that question.

JIM LEHRER: In general terms– if you can do it in general terms– what kind of success would you say U.S. presidents have had, going back to Harry Truman, to today, in getting things done in the Middle East?

DOUGLAS LITTLE: Well, if we focus narrowly on the Israel-Arab issue -

JIM LEHRER: Yes, that’s what -

DOUGLAS LITTLE: — there hasn’t been a whole lot of success. You could point to, for example, the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s. JFK came very close to arranging an Arab-Israeli peace accord, due to the efforts of Dean Rusk and to a U.N. negotiator named Joseph Johnson, but that fell apart in part because the Arabs simply wanted to have nothing to do with Israel. The United States was unable to prevent war in 1967, and I think that 1967 war, the six-day war, has proved very much to be the watershed after which peace has been very difficult for the U.S. to achieve — not that the U.S. would ever be in a position to deliver that. And of course, what happened in ’67 was that Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, Golan Heights, and Sinai, and then over the last 35 years it has been very difficult to have a dialogue among the Israelis and Arabs about how you evacuate those areas and achieve peace and security for Israel.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Kunz, you agree that there’s very little success to point to over these years?

DIANE KUNZ: Well, I think what’s interesting is that for very few of these years has the Arab- Israeli peace process been about primarily the Arab Israeli peace process. From 1948 until 1991, it was primarily about the Cold War, and secondarily about oil. Now the Arab-Israeli peace process is subsumed in the greater war on terror and the new American role in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of this, it’s very hard to make as much progress as one might be able to, because there are so many different pulls on the American president’s ideas and spectrum.

JIM LEHRER: Well, as a matter of history, let’s look at the president. What kind of chance do you think President George W. Bush has, Diane Kunz, to get something done this time?

DIANE KUNZ: I think he has a very good chance, and the reason is twofold. The first is the fact that he is trusted like no other leader ever has been by Israel and the Israeli government. They understand that he understands the security needs that Israel has; that Israel is facing the Palestinians, which have never yet completely agreed to accept the state of Israel now and forever. At the same token, the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has given America the role, the credibility to be there, to enforce a peace, and just as we must keep American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, if there is to be an Arab-Israeli peace, the American government must commit troops to the region, to the Arab-Israeli part of the region, as well as money. And George Bush has proved that he is willing to commit the American government to do so. And I think this gives him a big opportunity.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Stein, do you agree that there’s a good chance, a better chance than past presidents have had, or how would you compare it?

KENNETH STEIN: Well, I think we have to make a distinction between process and substance. The United States has always been focused on process in negotiating an Arab-Israeli resolution. I think the word “peace” is probably inaccurate. We should probably call it a negotiating process. I think peace is the end of the day. I think you could argue that Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter– all had successes in trying to narrow differences between Israelis and the Egyptians. I think certainly we were not involved in 1993, when the Palestinians and the Israelis got close together. But notice the signing took place on the White House lawn. It didn’t take place in Paris or London, because both Palestinians and Israelis understand that only the United States can deliver financially. It can be a guarantor, a nudge, a postman, a bridge builder – a guarantor.

The United States has many roles to play, but we’ve been focusing on process. We have not emphasized what the substance should be in the negotiations between Arabs and Israelis; and that we’ve only done twice: In 1982, when President Reagan outlined what should not happen with the West Bank, it should not be annexed, and he said there should be some association with Jordan in the negotiations; and, secondly, George Bush in 2002, right after Sept. 11, 2001, the President of the United States went before the United Nations and said there should be a two-state solution. This is the first public comment by a president saying we should have two states, essentially outlining the substance. So I think it’s unfair to say the United States presidents haven’t had a positive role. I think they’ve had a very positive role. And I do think George Bush, Jr. has an opportunity to make history if he has the wherewithal to stay with it.

You have to keep the ball in play. You can’t let the regional actors play in their own barnyard. You have to let them stay in tow. You have to work this twenty-four/seven. You have to have not only yourself engaged, but your secretary of state. This requires a lot of work. And most of all, it requires an opportunity and a need on the ground to make a difference in the lives of the Palestinians. If you don’t make a change in the lives of the Palestinians, you essentially forfeit Mr. Abbas’ efforts to try and renounce terrorism. And that needs to be done; it needs to be done today. It needs to have been done yesterday or the day before yesterday. But George Bush does have an opportunity. He’s doing this during the first term of a possible two-term administration. He has Mr. Sharon, who is the closest any Israeli prime minister has ever been to an American president, and that includes Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin. He does have many things going for him, but he does have to stay deeply committed. And if he doesn’t, it will fall apart. Every president has failed because he did not stay with it.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Little, what’s your reading of George Bush’s possibilities here?

DOUGLAS LITTLE: Well, I think I’m more pessimistic than Professor Kunz and Professor Stein. I think the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 put the peace process into a tailspin, and sort of opened the door to extremists on both sides, who were always present and waiting for that peace process to fail. And I think the events of the last eight years have sort of accelerated that decline. I quite agree with Diane Kunz and Professor Stein that if the Bush administration can stay engaged in the peace process over the next little while, the chances are better for some sort of lasting peace settlement.

But I think to some degree the Bush administration has sort of a short attention span. I think we can see that in Afghanistan, where, having won a war, it’s been very difficult to sustain a stable situation in Kabul, and I think we’re seeing a bit of the same thing in Iraq. I would worry a little bit about American troops being placed in harm’s way in the Israel- Palestine area. I think that could be a dangerous thing, and I don’t think the Bush administration is going to do that. So I’m a little more pessimistic, I guess, than the other folks are, and I think what has to happen is that the Israelis have to begin dismantling those settlements and the Palestinians have to stop training suicide bombers, and it seems to be a lot more difficult to do those things than it is to sort of appreciate the importance of doing them.

JIM LEHRER: Things like the last 24 hours, the attacks and the killing of some Israeli soldiers, and the firefight that also resulted in the death of some Palestinians. The dismantling, however, of the outpost, is this good news? Or what kind of news is this? Is this just the Middle East moving again toward something?

DOUGLAS LITTLE: Well, I think that one of the things that needs to happen is that those unauthorized Israeli outposts on the West Bank need to be dismantled, and I think doing that unilaterally, without any regard to what the Palestinians are doing, is a step in the right direction on the part of Ariel Sharon. But I have to say that Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade seem to have it out for Mahmoud Abbas. They want to see if they can’t make the situation more difficult, and I think Yasser Arafat is probably behind the scene, doing some things to make Abu Mazen’s life more difficult. And again, I’m not very optimistic.

JIM LEHRER: Diane Kunz, finally, what do you think; how would you react to Professor Little’s lack of optimism in this?

DIANE KUNZ: Well, I think although it is clear that President Bush must stay engaged– and I do believe there is an excellent chance for his initiative, the best chance we’ve seen– the fact remains that peace will lie by a decision within the two communities, the Israeli community and the Palestinian communities, that peace is what they want. Just as after the 1922 Irish peace treaty was signed, there was a terrible civil war in Ireland, you’re going to have to have the communities settle their differences.


DIANE KUNZ: The Palestinian people will have to be willing to make peace, and the Israelis as well. And that is not in George Bush’s power.

JIM LEHRER: All right, thank you all three very much.