ON OCTOBER 18, 1991, AGAINST LONG ODDS and in front of an incredulous press corps, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin announced that Arabs and Israelis were being invited to attend a peace conference in Madrid.
Standing in the back of the hall at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that day, I marveled at what America had accomplished. In 18 months, roughly the time it took Henry Kissinger to negotiate three Arab-Israeli disengagement agreements and Jimmy Carter to broker an Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the United States had fought a short, successful war--the best kind--and pushed Iraq's Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And America was now well-positioned to bring Arabs and Israelis across the diplomatic finish line.
Or so I thought.
Baker, who lowballed everything, was characteristically cautious. "Boys," he told a few of us aides in his suite after the news conference, "if you want to get off the train, now might be a good time because it could all be downhill from here." But I wasn't listening. America had used its power to make war, and now, perhaps, it could use that power to make peace. I'd become a believer.
I'm not anymore.
Etymologists tell us that the word "religion" may come from the Latin root religare, meaning to adhere or bind. It's a wonderful derivation. In both its secular and religious manifestations, faith is alluring and seductive precisely because it's driven by propositions that bind or adhere the believer to a compelling set of ideas that satisfy rationally or spiritually, but always obligate.
And so it has been and remains with America's commitment to Arab-Israeli peacemaking over the past 40 years, and certainly since the October 1973 war gave birth to serious U.S. diplomacy and the phrase "peace process" (the honor of authorship likely goes to a brilliant veteran State Department Middle East hand, Harold Saunders, who saw the term appropriated by Kissinger early in his shuttles). Since then, the U.S. approach has come to rest on an almost unbreakable triangle of assumptions--articles of faith, really. By the 1990s, these tenets made up a sort of peaceprocess religion, a reverential logic chain that compelled most U.S. presidents to involve themselves seriously in the Arab-Israeli issue. Barack Obama is the latest convert, and by all accounts he too became a zealous believer, vowing within days of his inauguration "to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors."
Like all religions, the peace process has developed a dogmatic creed, with immutable first principles. Over the last two decades, I wrote them hundreds of times to my bosses in the upper echelons of the State Department and the White House; they were a catechism we all could recite by heart. First, pursuit of a comprehensive peace was a core, if not the core, U.S. interest in the region, and achieving it offered the only sure way to protect U.S. interests; second, peace could be achieved, but only through a serious negotiating process based on trading land for peace; and third, only America could help the Arabs and Israelis bring that peace to fruition.
As befitting a religious doctrine, there was little nuance. And while not everyone became a convert (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush willfully pursued other Middle East priorities, though each would succumb at one point, if only with initiatives that reflected, to their critics, varying degrees of too little, too late), the exceptions have mostly proved the rule. The iron triangle that drove Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and now Barack Obama to accord the Arab-Israeli issue such high priority has turned out to be both durable and bipartisan. Embraced by the high priests of the national security temple, including State Department veterans like myself, intelligence analysts, and most U. …