The next president’s position on the Middle East

Posted Oct. 15, 2008, at 7:48 p.m.

A former Secretary of State traveled to London, Moscow and Jerusalem years ago, and decided to buy a new suit in one city, according to a marvelous anecdote in Aaron Miller’s excellent memoir, “The Much Too Promised Land.”

Holding up a crisp $100 bill, the secretary asked three tailors what they could make him.

The Savile Row tailor quipped: “perhaps a vest.” His counterpart in Moscow said “a vest and one leg of a pair of pants.” But the tailor in Jerusalem described a new wardrobe: “a vest, a new suit, two pairs of pants.”

The Secretary asked: “How so much for $100?”

The tailor looked the secretary up and down, and said: “Because out here, you’re not so big.”

Miller, a veteran Middle East expert, told this story to illustrate how even in days when the United States was a superpower, its authority ran into a stonewall in dealing with tenacious Israeli leaders.

The United States has lost much of its credibility in the Middle East in recent years for many reasons — mainly the Bush administration’s reckless and costly invasion of Iraq and the self-inflicted damage to our economy. But we also forfeited our traditional role as a balanced broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process when George W. Bush ditched the even-handed, tough-minded policies of his own father.

The current president reversed course several months ago, convening a promising conference in Annapolis, Md. But it is far too late.

The absence of discussion of the Mideast peace process has been a glaring shortcoming in the presidential campaign — virtually ignored in the first three debates.

Miller’s book will be a useful primer for the next president. Another is “America and the World,” conversations with Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisers to the first President Bush and President Carter.

Respected strategists, they dealt effectively with daunting issues, especially in the Middle East, where the Carter administration achieved a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and the first Bush administration crushed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and worked effectively on the peace process.

Both men warned that invading Iraq would be a grave mistake long before the 2003 invasion. Scowcroft wrote that such an attack would be “a fundamental diversion from our efforts to deal with terrorism.”

National intelligence reports have concluded that the Iraq war strengthened terrorist networks. And a new report documents another disastrous effect of Bush’s war — the Taliban is on the march in Afghanistan.

John McCain touts his long experience in foreign affairs. The record is mixed. He opposed Ronald Reagan’s clumsy intervention in Lebanon. He supported the surge in Iraq, a timely step to prevent civil war. But the far more important decision on war and peace was the decision to invade Iraq in the first place, and McCain loudly backed war, claiming we’d be greeted as liberators. Dead wrong judgment. Imagine the situation today if the focus had stayed on Afghanistan: a powerful, sustained U.S. presence could have badly damaged al-Qaida, contained Iraq, led to a less turbulent Pakistan and put us in a much stronger position to handle Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Barack Obama has less experience in foreign affairs, though he has been an able member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He knew enough to pick a foreign policy expert to stand a heartbeat away; McCain chose a neophyte even conservative pundits say hasn’t a clue about the world.

Obama has taken sound, forward-leaning positions on international issues, including a readiness to engage other countries to solve problems. McCain, unfortunately, is yesterday’s man. One can only regret his failure in 2000 to defeat Bush, who used the very smear tactics against him that McCain and his “ah-shucks, Josie-Six-pack” sidekick are now using against Obama.

Scowcroft and Brzezinski don’t endorse candidates in their book. But their conclusions do not embrace McCain’s approach. They urge a fresh mindset to recover from eight years of arrogance and indulgence, to deal with a rapidly globalizing world, to again inspire other countries and peoples, not dictate to them. To turn away from unilateralism, lead and support forces for positive change. And, says Scowcroft, “the [Mideast] peace process is the place to start.”

Understandably, the presidential campaign has focused on the economy. But the leadership of the United States, even on a more level playing field where the U.S. is “not so big” anymore, remains critical.

The essential question: Do we want a president who has taken sensible positions on most international and domestic issues — one with the ideas and temperament to change the image of the United States in the world? Or a president who remains basically fixed in a Cold War mind-set and backed Bush and his calamitous foreign and economic policies?

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at hill207@juno.com.

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