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Perhaps the most striking aspect of a program presented by the Orange
County World Affairs Council this week on the Middle East was the
evidence it showed of a yawning gulf between the political class and the
rest of us.

The program was supposed to feature U.S. negotiating hotshot Dennis
Ross, but because of the touch-and-go nature of current negotiations in
the Middle East just now — or the evidence that the peace process needs
artificial resuscitation, depending on how you look at things — his
presence was apparently demanded in the Middle East Tuesday.

So council president Sir Eldon Griffiths cobbled together a balanced
and interesting program featuring two Israeli sympathizers, two
Palestinian advocates and a Democrat and a Republican who are running
for Congress.

Toward the end of the ensuing question-and-answer session, one of the
audience members asked the two politicos whether they would support
using U.S. troops as UN peacekeepers on the Golan Heights in the
unlikely event (based on most of what we had heard earlier) that an
Israeli-Syrian peace accord could be hammered out. Before the two
candidates — Republican Darrel Issa, running to fill the (probably)
safe Republican 48th CD seat from which Ron Packard is retiring and
Democrat John Graham, a UC Irvine management professor running against
incumbent Chris Cox in the if-anything-even-safer-Republican 47th CD –
Sir Eldon asked who in the audience would support such a deployment.

Among the 300 or so World Affairs Council members and guests, perhaps
a half dozen hands went up. When Sir Eldon asked who would be opposed to
sending troops to the Golan, almost all the other hands went up, and I
heard a distinctly feminine voice exclaiming, “Hell, no!”

Both major-party political candidates, although they modulated their
responses and talked of the need for safeguards and a legitimate hope
that genuine peace was at hand if only the U.S. lent a modest hand, said
they would probably support such a deployment. Darrel Issa, who has
roots in the region (his grandparents were Lebanese Christians who
emigrated to the U.S.), stressed the fact that no other nation but the
U.S. had the kind of high-tech satellite and other equipment that could
be a key to monitoring a peace, that without active U.S. participation
there is little chance for peace in the region and the U.S. has an
obligation to help if it might make a difference.

John Graham said that if he were persuaded that peacekeeping troops
would promote trade, which he views as the most important key to peace,
he just might have to support their deployment.

Now members of a World Affairs Council, in Orange County or
elsewhere, are not the kind of people you think of first when you think
of knuckle-dragging isolationists. Some are international businesspeople
schmoozing and making contacts, some are retired, usually fairly
affluent people who have traveled widely and retain a keen interest in
what’s going on in the rest of the world; the Orange County chapter
includes a significant number of retired diplomats.

These are people who are interested enough in world affairs that they
pay relatively pricey dues for the privilege of eating overpriced hotel
food so they can get a first-hand view of some aspect of current events
from an expert or participant every month or so. These are not knee-jerk
turn-our-backs-on-the-rest-of-
the-world-and-try-to-ignore-them-damn-furriners
types. Sure, there’s a social and sometimes a social-climbing aspect to
World Affairs Council participation for some of them. But these are
bright, successful people who care about and think about international
relations.

Yet this crowd almost unanimously opposed sending U.S. troops to the
Golan Heights. And the politicians, having seen the lay of the land,
went ahead and let it be known that they were more wedded to the
political class’s conception of the proper role of the United States in
the world than the view these representatives of some of the more
affluent and informed of their constituents embraced. The peoples’ view,
as I saw it, is that the United States should be a lot more cautious
about committing troops and money to handle foreign disputes than it has
been in the recent past — and than the political class is yet prepared
to be.

Now this was Orange County, of course, which is still a relatively
conservative Republican bastion despite some recent cracks in GOP
strength. The ratio might have been markedly different had a World
Affairs Council dinner in New York or even Los Angeles been asked the
same question. But the fact that a significant number of well-informed
Americans with an active interest in world affairs are more cautious
than their leaders about foreign military commitments — a healthy
attitude, in my view — suggests that a potentially significant change
in public attitude could be on the way.

The attitude of most of the political class — exempting until they
have more of a record Messrs. Issa and Graham, who took care to make
their positions fairly nuanced — smacks of imperial paternalism. Nobody
Tuesday night used the term “indispensable nation,” but there was a
strong sense, from Darrel Issa especially, that without U.S. leadership
there will never be Middle East peace and that would be simply
intolerable. You get stronger undercurrents from other advocates of
interventionism that those other nations are a bit like recalcitrant
children, immature and troublesome progeny who need their kindly Uncle
Sam to offer carrots and sticks before they’ll ever do the right thing.

It’s especially amusing to contemplate this notion of the United
States as the grown-up in a world of squabbling children on a night when
Rabbi Mark Miller reminded us that Jerusalem was a thriving capital when
Paris, London, Berlin and Rome were essentially uninhabited swamps.

It may well be that one of the prices of living in a place with such
a long history is that memories of long-ago slights and slaughters can
be a powerful deterrent to living together amicably today. But the
notion that the United States, this bumptious, clumsy superpower with a
good deal more muscle than brains or international sophistication, is
the only key to settling ancient hatreds and enmities whose roots were
ancient before Europeans made it to America strikes me as hopelessly
naïve and foolish.

From what I heard Tuesday night — remembering that these were
American advocates, who tend to be more unyielding in their attitudes
than is often the case with those actually living in trouble spots — I
don’t expect Middle East peace anytime soon. Sir Eldon reminded us that
the United States has been intensively involved, diplomatically and with
foreign aid, in trying to guide a Middle East “peace process” for 38
years, with little to show for it. During that time the U.S. has
directed $130 billion in aid to the region, but it has amounted to, as
Darrel Issa put it, “billions for tribute but not one cent for peace.”

Israelis and Palestinians have been at the game of alternating
negotiation and recrimination for so long that they know full well how
to push the other side’s buttons, and they’re still doing it. Certain
issues — the status of Jerusalem, the notion of Palestinian statehood,
water, present and possible future settlements and mutually acceptable
borders — remain to be handled, and the two sides (not to mention the
other countries in the neighborhood) are still far apart. Both sides
understand what the other guys view as unacceptable, and both sides are
still demanding that the other guys accept it anyway (whether Jerusalem
can be capital of both Israel and Palestine is just one example). When
people negotiate by asking the other side to do something they know is
unacceptable, that
signals to me that they’re not ready yet for a negotiated settlement

I hope I’m wrong, and I still think a time will come when the
benefits of peace — can you imagine how a common market in a Middle
East with much freer markets might flourish? — will be seen by the
parties involved as more promising than whatever grim satisfaction or
sense of honor is to be derived from continued hostilities. When that
time comes (and it might take more decades before either party truly
comprehends the moment) both sides will stop making impossible demands
(perhaps only gradually and grudgingly) on the other side and seek
cooperation or trade.

In short, peace will come to the Middle East and to other chronic
trouble spots when the parties on the ground are ready for it. It can’t
be imposed — at least not for long — by an outside force, no matter
how powerful or benevolent.

There might be some tweaks the United States as an honest broker
could perform once the conditions are really ripe. But it can’t make
them ripe by sending Dennis Ross with promises of aid and intervention
to enhance the Boy President’s legacy. And before it can really be an
honest broker, it will have to understand that few parties in the region
consider it an honest broker today. If you don’t see yourself as others
see you, or don’t understand what you’re doing (or not doing) to
undermine your reputation for impartiality it’s extremely difficult to
change in ways that will alter that reputation.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that people who are reasonably
sophisticated about and interested in other countries and really seek to
understand them more thoroughly would be more cautious than most about
the likelihood of the U.S. doing much good abroad. The notion that we
can come barging in with sacks of money and stacks of promises and get
those guys to play nice, in the Middle East and elsewhere, reflects
naivete and hubristic ignorance more than it reflects sophistication and
deep knowledge.

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