It's Complicated: Dennis Ross's Doomed to Succeed

The relationship between the U.S. and Israel has from its beginning been exceedingly knotty and consistently misinterpreted by friends and foes alike, with both seeing it as unchanging, unitary, and the linchpin of American strategy in the region. Former Middle East envoy Ambassador Dennis Ross’s new book on the subject, Doomed to Succeed, explains why that view misses something fundamental and why close American ties with the Jewish state may be far less serious an obstacle to peace in the region than is widely believed.

U.S. State Department. U.S. closeness to Israel is not a hindrance to peace, argues Dennis Ross.

U.S. State Department. U.S. closeness to Israel is not a hindrance to peace, argues Dennis Ross.

One of the great fallacies in thinking about the Middle East has been to place the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians at the center of the region’s troubles. One of the keenest observers both of the broader Middle East and that long and hard-fought conflict, Dennis Ross spent years in government observing this fallacy at work directly, as a newly-minted State Department official, as the Director of Policy Planning under George H.W. Bush, as Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy, and as a key adviser to Barack Obama on issues in the region. He discovers it, as well, within the political work of his predecessors. His valuable new book, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 474 pp., $30.00), is studious and measured in tone, as is only appropriate for a scrupulous insider account of U.S. adventures in policymaking over more than six decades. It is also, as such, a chronicle of the history of this fallacy, and a criticism of it — one that the world needs to hear.

Ross does not effect his criticism via polemic. Doomed to Succeed is structured as a succinct administration-by-administration account of U.S. strategy on Israel from the years immediately preceding its creation to the present, a form that that does not admit much moralizing on either side of the question. Rather, it is a blow-by-blow examination of the key events that drove each administration’s Israel policy and its Middle East policy more generally. Ross teases out continuity and differences therein, and analyzes the power dynamics and interpersonal conflicts within the U.S. government that were as instrumental in shaping its policy as any external event. For that alone, this book is valuable: big subjects in foreign policy often cast shadows over just how much the birth or death of various ideas about them owe to human emotion and intellectual limitations.

U.S.-Israel relations are and always have been, as Ross’s book shows, complicated and characterized by oscillation — a picture far less clear than that presented by modern critics who see undue American Jewish influence as this relationship’s signal property. Harry Truman, the first U.S. president to have to deal substantially with the issue, became a somewhat reluctant champion of the cause of Jewish statehood, both within his own administration, where none of the other major players saw any strategic benefit to the recognition of the State of Israel, and without, where he struggled with Jewish leaders here and in then-Palestine who rejected the Morrison-Grady partition plan of 1946. That ambivalence continues through the decades. During the Cold War, it had two strategic poles. Those presidents — like John F. Kennedy, who initiated a much warmer phase of relations, and Ronald Reagan, for whom in Ross’s words “Israel was a natural partner” — who saw value in building a closer relationship with Israel saw that value as lying in an ally on a key battleground of the era’s power politics. Presidents who put their efforts into wooing the Arab states obviously believed they could better counter the Russians by doing so, and also quiet or turn to their advantage the pan-Arabist revolutions that spread from Egypt to Iraq to Libya. The model for that latter framework is probably best located in the Eisenhower administration, in what Ross calls “its pursuit of the Arab allies,” masterminded by John Foster Dulles. Nixon falls into that camp, as well, for pragmatic reasons; Jimmy Carter for ideological ones. The strategic calculus changes somewhat after the end of the Cold War, but the oscillation remains. George H.W. Bush did not share his predecessor’s position on Israel, but his successor, Bill Clinton, was both a friend to the Jewish state and the man who perhaps brought peace with the Palestinians the closest to realization it has ever been. And even what was perhaps the most pro-Israel administration in recent memory, that of George W. Bush, did not proceed from a place of unanimity. Shortly after Bush’s 9/11-prompted awakening, tension arose between Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell (who were more in the Eisenhower camp) and Dick Cheney (who tended to align with JFK and Reagan on the issue).

“Far from the unitary relationship often presented by modern critics, U.S.-Israel relations are, as history shows, complicated and characterized by oscillation from closeness to distance.”

The book itself is filled with asides that will be as fascinating to general readers as they will be to those seeking an insider account of bitter policy fights. Ross points out, for example, that the sole place of significant agreement between Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and his secretary of state Cyrus Vance was the problematic nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship — an illustration of just how much opinion on this issue seems to proceed from internal affinity rather than objective analysis. Ross sets up an elegant and subtle contrast between the fruit of colder and warmer, so to speak, policies toward Israel. Of the Dulles-Eisenhower pursuit of the Arab states, specifically Egypt under Nasser, he writes:

Eisenhower failed on most of the objectives he set for himself in the Middle East. He was unable to keep the Soviets out of the area … [T]he number of U.S. friends in the area declined … [C]ourting the Arabs through pressuring Israel brought us nothing.

This stands in sharp contrast to the successful peace treaty — still in effect today — negotiated between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat which could never have been achieved without significant closeness between the U.S. and Israel.

All this would be fascinating reading on its own, especially given that Ross has played a personal role in this activity since the Carter administration. But what makes this tour through the inner workings of the American government over half a century compelling is the fact that he seems to have grasped at an early point what eluded many others. That being the relative indifference, despite their public positions, of a whole constellation of Arab governments to the situation of the Palestinians. As it turns out, and as should shock no-one, the major and minor powers in the Middle East are not altruistic champions of a stateless people. They are seekers after their own perceived national interests, like all states. To that end they are willing to use whatever tools are expedient, up to and including the vocal championship of a cause they have
little to no practical interest in and the vocal vilification of an enemy whose relationship to the U.S. they have never — to judge by their governmental behavior — seriously objected to. Perhaps the clearest distillation of this comes during an encounter between Harry Truman and Habib Bourguiba in November 1956. Truman, apprehensive about the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, brought up Israel; Bourguiba said, quite bluntly, “My attitude towards Israel will never, in any way, adversely affect Tunisian relations with the United States.” And one need look no farther than the example of Egypt to see a fairly direct contradiction of the theory that Israel represents an intractable stone in the soil of Middle Eastern peace.

What makes Doomed to Succeed essential reading in our politically polarized climate is its explosion of the idea that the U.S. has had an unambivalent relationship with Israel. This idea seems firmly entrenched; after all, the conflict over land and statehood between the Palestinians and the Israelis has seen more ink spilled over it than the rivalry between the Gulf States and post-revolution Iran; the eight-year-long war between Iraq and Iran, which was the 20th century’s longest conventional conflict and cost a total of nearly a million lives by conservative estimates; or the equally enduring and equally thorny plight of the Kurds, which John Hannah spoke about in our November issue.

Ross’s book should help provide a much-needed perspective on this issue, one all the more important given the current conditions on the ground in the Middle East. The nuclear deal with Iran is coming into effect and altering the geopolitical balance in the region in ways that may well prompt major shifts in alliances. Indeed, Ross points out that the Arab states have responded far more negatively to the prospect of a nuclear Iran than the open secret of a widely-suspected-to-be-nuclear Israel.

Then there are the terror attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians that seem to bring out the worst instincts of the global community in victim-blaming, for which this book would serve in a clearer-eyed world as a corrective.

All of which suggests that as the current gap between Netanyahu and Obama looks set to widen into unbridgeability and as John Kerry implies that merely being a European Jew provides a “rationale” for Islamist atrocities, Ross’s book deserves a hearing. If the past is any kind of reliable prologue, however, a central message of Doomed to Succeed will sadly go unheeded.