Aaron David Miller on the Middle East’s “Angry, Dysfunctional” Future
by Wesley G. Pippert
Aaron David Miller, an adviser on the Middle East for six secretaries of state, believes that the next few years in the region will be much like the present–“broke and angry and dysfunctional.” Israel, he says, “will keep on keeping on.”
In a wide-ranging conversation with Moment editors and staff members, Miller, now 65, was asked what the Middle East would look like in five or ten years.
“Broke and angry and dysfunctional,” Miller replied. “I’m a historian by training. I look at the arc of history…the rhythmic patterns of the past, I take very seriously. And things always take longer than you think.”
“I think the Egyptian military will still be in charge of Egypt. There will have been some sort of outcome in the Syrian civil war…Jordan will still be there. I’m pretty sure…if there’s no solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem, the Israelis will keep on keeping on,” Miller said.
“The Iranians will probably come closer to a weapon. Or maybe they’ll hit the pause button. Not the delete button for their infrastructure but the pause button.”
Drawing on his growing up in an Ohio family involved in real estate–where the theme is always “location, location, location”–Mller said, “The three most important countries in this region are all non-Arabs. Just keep that in mind. Israel, Turkey and Iran. They are the three most significant countries in the Middle East.
“The Israelis may be more isolated. As long as we [Americans] do not abandon them, and I do not believe we will, they will continue to keep keeping on.”
President Barack Obama, Miller said, “has stripped our policy down to what I would argue are its vital and core essentials. And in this environment, I think he had no other choice.”
Obama, whom Miller characterized as “risk-averse” and “a much more disciplined version of George W. Bush,” was only six at the time of the 1967 Six-Day War. Hence, Miller said, “he is not intuitively, emotionally connected to the idea of Israel in the way Bill Clinton was, or in the way George W. Bush was.”
“He missed all of the pro-Israeli tropes and narratives that literally brought American Jews out of the closet, and in the process created tremendous support in this country among non-Jewish elites, which continue to this day,” Miller said.
Obama’s approach has caused problems, however, Miller said, adding: “So, you have a risk-averse president. And that has created problems among our allies, certainly the Israelis and the Saudis. They pick and choose which issues they like and which issues they don’t. They want him risk-ready on Iran, but risk-averse on the peace process, at least the Israelis. Saudis would like him risk-ready on the peace process and risk-ready on Iran. So it varies across the board.”
Miller quoted a Gallup poll showing that American support for Israel is at an all-time high, something he attributed to “a sense of value affinity.” But Miller also issued a veiled warning.
“It is in the broadest conception of the American national interests to support societies who share our values,” Miller said. “Time is the ultimate arbiter of what is of value in life. Marriages, wine, music, it doesn’t matter. It is time that determines what’s quality. And it is the broadest conception of our national interest to support these societies, however imperfect they may be. When that image changes, when Israel’s image in the mind of America changes on that issue, then the U.S./Israeli relationship will begin to change.
“I don’t care what’s going on on the college campuses. Kids grow up and they become adults, and either lose interest, or they gain additional responsibilities. I just think that the U.S./Israeli relationship is in some respects, unshakeable. Not just because of that, but because the Arabs will continue to constitute the best set of talking points that the Israelis will ever have. The situation with respect to their own neighborhood just gets worse. I mean, it’s hard to imagine, but it just gets worse. However bad the Israelis may be–settlement activity, curfews, land confiscation, targeted killings–it pales by comparison to what their neighbors, how their neighbors behave.”
Miller also admonished people to look not for solutions, but outcomes.
“Like most problems in this region–Iran, Syria, the Arab Spring, Israel/Palestine–there are no solutions. Don’t think about solutions. Think about outcomes. And outcomes could be better than the existing set of conditions that we have. But if you think about solutions, you’re going to be disappointed. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian, wrote that the best we can do is to create proximate solutions to insoluble problems. That…is the reality in this country. If we could get proximate solutions to insoluble problems, we would be really ahead of the game.”
His comments squared with what he called “my philosophy.”
“I am an idealist without illusion. I will never give up on the prospects that human beings can be changed for the better. This country can be changed for the better. The Middle East can be changed for the better. But as I go through the process of seeking this change, I refuse to go through it anymore with any illusions. I’ve got to have my eyes open, and my own piece of unsolicited advice to all of you would be that you do the same.”