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'A New, Messier Mideast'

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Here are some of today's NPR News headlines.

U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad raided the vast Shiite slum known as Sadr City, triggering angry protest from aides to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The U.S. military says the raids were aimed at suspected torture cells.

And oil prices rose more than $2 per barrel today after BP announced it was shutting down production from Alaska's North Slope Field because corrosion was found in a pipeline.

Details on those stories and more are coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, Iraq takes the spotlight in Connecticut's Democratic Senate primary. Will it be a prominent issue where you live? Voting on Iraq, that's tomorrow's TALK OF THE NATION.

In a few minutes, protecting the children caught in the war. Right now, time for the TALK OF THE NATION opinion page. We've been talking today with advisors to previous administrations about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Now we turn to Aaron David Miller. He served as an advisor to six secretaries of state on Arab/Israeli negotiations, and he wrote an op-ed in this past Sunday's Los Angeles Times which says rather than a new and better Middle East, we may have created a messier and nastier one.

If you'd like to join our discussion, give us a call at 800-989- TALK.

Aaron David Miller is now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He joins us now by phone from Oxford, Maine. Thanks so much for being on the show.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center): It's a pleasure.

NEARY: Now you say in your editorial that even if the current crisis is resolved with international forces in a buffer zone, the future still looks grim. Why?

Mr. MILLER: Trend lines are bad. This isn't your grandfather's crisis. I mean, there's an intersection, I guess - a perfect storm of several events which are coming together which makes not only the crisis incredibly complex and volatile, but prospects for a neat and tidy resolution extremely dubious.

The first is the problem of what I describe as Iranian reach. I mean, for three and a half weeks - almost four now - the government of Iran, through its supply of rockets to the Hezbollahi has literally kept the world on the edge of its seat. For four weeks, a security council meeting, governments consulting, Israelis beside themselves and not knowing how to respond to the problem of these rockets, prospects of escalation with Syria - even heard people speculate in a crazy way about World War III.

So this problem of Iranian reach is going to remain with us, and it's not going to go away soon in both Iraq and in Gaza - and, of course, in Lebanon.

Second is what I call the perils of unilateralism. Paradoxically, even though it was in their interest to withdraw from Lebanon in May of 2000 and from Gaza in September 2005, Israel's unilateralism - that is to say giving without getting anything in return: no agreements, no reciprocity - has, in some respects, undermined their capacity to (unintelligible). It has made them look weak. And sadly, I think it has emboldened and encouraged groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. And in the Middle East, it's a dangerous neighborhood. If you don't give for what you get, there is no end of the pressure to give more.

That's a second trend line I think which encourage the questions. And the third is very simple: the absence of central authority. Our biggest problems in this region occur not paradoxically in authoritarian society, but in societies like Iraq where you've got a fledgling, highly decentralized government. Or in Lebanon, which has a weak tradition of central authority. Or in Gaza in the West Bank, where you got four governments: the government of Israel, the government of Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas, and a variety of other militias operating.

It is from these areas. And it's no coincidence that Hamas launched its attack on June 25, and Hezbollah crossed the border against the Israelis on July 12. And this problem of the absence of central authority is huge for American interests in this reason.

So, no, I don't think it's time for a lot of happy talk. I don't think it's the end of the world, either. But this isn't going to come out the way I think the Americans and the Israelis had hoped.

NEARY: Well, let me ask you about U.S. diplomacy - because that's what we've been trying to focus on in this hour - and go back to your first point, which is regarding the reach of Iran, the effective reach of Iran.

One of the things that we've been talking about on the show so far is whether the United States needs to be talking with its enemies. It's not talking with Iran. It's not talking with Syria. Does it need to be in order to reach a resolution?

Mr. MILLER: Well, it's an interesting question. You know, diplomacy is not a reward, it's a matter of convenience. And when, in fact, nations have interests, and when, in fact, they're in crises, I suspect the general tendency would be to want to engage - not engage in a lot of sweet, wonderful rhetoric. But engage in an honest, direct way, to lay out your interests. See where the other guy is, and see if there's a balance.

I think under ordinary circumstances, any administration would have probably come to that point by now, but 9/11 has created a huge issue. It has revolutionized the way this administration - and perhaps other administrations, had they been in similar circumstances - look at the world.

We see the world now from the perception of threat. Every problem - in fact, some of it is justified. Every problem looks to us like a nail. And if every problem is a nail, then the way you address nails is with a hammer. And I suspect it is that notion - the notion of confrontation, of war and threat - with which the administration came to view this current crisis.

The problem is that may be a legitimate instrument to protect national interests. But so is diplomacy, so is engagement. Not talking to Iran is not the issue, it seems to me. The issue for this administration is that it judged certain priorities to be the things that it did care about: Iraq, the containing of Iran, the war against terror - all arguably extremely important to the security of the United States.

But what it has ignored, it seems to me - almost willfully - are critical problems such as the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace, which would serve our interests and advance the things that the administration does care about.

So the issue now is still not whether or not we should engage with Iran. The issue, it seems to me - and this crisis in some respect is a direct result of the administration's choosing other priorities. And in so doing, creating an environment when right now it has very little in terms of influence to affect the outcome. And that's very serious for a great power.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call now from Steve in Brooklyn. Steve?

STEVE (Caller): Hi. Yes, I'm calling because I had a question about - actually, I had a comment to make about the cultural aspects of the war, which are that a lot of people talk about a political solution. And while Israel and the Arab world have both been at fault in terms of inciting things - and certainly, you know, Israel has its issues in terms of the occupation and in terms of what incidents like Lebanon do to affect the Arab world and the Arab mindset - it seems that there's a social reproduction that goes on in the Arab world of teaching hate that you can, you know, you can see on sites such as memory.org or camera.org - where if you look at these sites and you look at the things that go on TV and how, you know, there's a generation that beyond the conflict itself that is taught to hate.

And until I feel like there's a dialogue about that - until these cultural aspects are talked about, I don't think that you can make peace with just a piece of paper, that the people that are involved, the children of the generations of the Arab world have to acknowledge the existence of a state of Israel.

And you see a lot in their textbooks, in their different documents -they don't actually acknowledge the state of Israel, that they still call the entire entity Palestine. And that has a certain affect on the psyche of when figures like Nasrallah and when figures like the Iranian leader come about and promise the destruction of Israel that everybody is hoping for the destruction, wishing for the destruction. And there should be, you know, an acknowledgement that - the same way that Israel can't just unilaterally disengage from whatever it wants and call its state whatever it can - that the Arab world, you know, has to actually learn, culturally learn to accept Israel, and I think that culturally they're ready for that.

NEARY: All right, Steve, thanks so much for your call. I'm going to ask out guest Aaron David Miller to respond.

Mr. MILLER: I don't think there's any question that Steve has identified a critical point. This, sadly, is a generational conflict. It's not going to be resolved today, tomorrow, or next year. And it will be a set of young leaders - Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese - who will inherit the problems of their fathers, their mothers, and their grandparents.

I'm sitting here in Oxford, 20 minutes away from a program called Seeds of Peace that brings young Israelis and Palestinians today - today, the very day when Israelis and Palestinians are at war with one another in Gaza and Israel, and Israelis and Lebanese are involved in a bitter confrontation - these young Israelis and Palestinians are engaging with one another.

Not planting trees in the woods and singing songs, but arguing and learning a capacity to respect one another's needs and interests. And those kinds of programs are absolutely elemental for addressing the problems that the caller identified. But so is changing the realities on the ground.

The Israeli-Palestinian problem is, in essence, a problem between an occupied nation - Palestinians - and a threatened nation, still Israel. Until the sources of those challenges are diffused, the occupation has a chance of coming to an end - Israel gets to live in peace and security and is not shelled willfully or provoked by either Hamas or the Hezbollahi - this confrontation is going to go on.

So yes, get young people together. Get the hatred and the racism and the anti-Semitism out of the textbooks. But also, through diplomacy, through economy assistance, through smart and wise policies engineered by the United States and others - change the environment on the ground and give these young people a chance.

NEARY: You know, we began our discussion with you by saying that in your opinion page column, your editorial, you said what's going on now is making for a messier situation. But do you see any hope on the horizon? I was thinking as you were saying that these problems are going to be handed down to the next generation - they've been handed down from generation to generation already. Is there any hope that the next generation is going to find a solution?

Mr. MILLER: I think so. I'm an idealist. I would describe myself as an idealist without illusion. And I think you can't give up on the prospects that, over time, with enough hard work, and an American role -which is sadly absent right now.

NEARY: And that needs to be strengthened, you would say?

Mr. MILLER: That needs to be strengthened. I mean, I worked for six secretaries of state, including most recently for Colin Powell. Condoleezza Rice is a very strong and a very smart secretary of state. She has, in George W. Bush, an incredibly determined and willful president. And she has now the closest relationship between a secretary of state any secretary and president since former Secretary of State Baker and the president's father.

So we are positioned. If we chose to make it a priority - and I come back to it again - governing is about choosing. It's about setting priorities. Iraq was a priority. It hasn't gone exactly as the administration would have intended it, but the fact is they brought to bear tremendous resources and will.

The Arab-Israeli issue is a critically important ingredient in the protection of this country's national interests, and this administration has two years left. It cannot achieve Israeli- Palestinian peace, but what it could do if it applied itself in the wake of this crisis is to preserve the option, the only option that will resolve this conflict: a state of Israel living side-by-side in peace and security with a viable Palestinian state. That is, in fact, not a dream. It's achievable. It's a question about setting priorities and realizing that there's a long road ahead and a lot of work to do.

NEARY: Thanks so much for joining us today, Mr. Miller.

Mr. MILLER: You're welcome.

NEARY: Aaron David Miller is public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He served as advisor to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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