The Magazine

The Inside Story

George W. Bush was most successful when defying ‘consensus.’

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By MICHAEL S. DORAN
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"Make sure,” Elliott Abrams told me, “that you have the better idea, and then push for it aggressively.” 

Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, Mahmoud Abbas in Aqaba, 2003

Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, Mahmoud Abbas in Aqaba, 2003

AP

He offered this advice back in 2006, when I was working for him in the National Security Council. At the time, I was involved in a minor conflict with another White House office, which was assuming a heavy-handed role in the formation of Lebanon policy—an area that, bureaucratically, fell to me. 

When I told Abrams of my intention to tell the director of the encroaching office to back off, he counseled against the move. 

“Never fight turf on turf,” he told me, meaning that I should never assert authority by waving around the White House organizational chart. “Fight it on the basis of ideas,” he said. 

Fighting for the better idea is a key theme running through this inside account of George W. Bush’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It recounts how, after dramatically breaking with the consensus of the Middle East experts, Bush turned around again and embraced it. In Abrams’s view, the original rejection was the sounder move, and his view must command attention. Elliott Abrams was one of the most influential officials who worked on the issue; in addition, he is a man of ideas. Only a handful of other Americans can claim to have thought as deeply about Israeli-Palestinian issues. 

Tested by Zion is two books in one. In addition to being a candid memoir, it is a meticulous history, peppered with passages from interviews with the key American, European, and Middle Eastern participants in the events. These testimonials alone make this an indispensable source for anyone interested in understanding the evolution of American policy toward the Middle East. But this is no mere chronicle; its heart and soul is a defense of Bush’s departure from the foreign policy “consensus.” As such, it represents the single most cogent statement of the neoconservative analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In presenting his case, Abrams is remarkably forthright—at times, shockingly so. He makes no effort, for example, to disguise his deep disagreement, during Bush’s second term, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the architect of Bush’s reembrace of the conventional wisdom. And this  particular subplot makes for a fascinating case study in Abrams’s idea—oriented style of bureaucratic politics. 

As a general rule, senior officials avoid close association with any particular course of action, lest they be excluded from the halls of power when the mood at the top shifts. Abrams enjoyed an exceptionally good run; but when Rice steered policy back toward the conventional wisdom, he was relegated to the role of in-house skeptic.

The “consensus” that guided Rice’s move is familiar to anyone who has ever read an editorial on the subject in the New York Times. According to this view, the Clinton administration nearly solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “We were this close,” its supporters say, pinching their thumb and forefinger together. “Everyone already knows the contours of a peace deal.”  

The major impediment to reaching it (so the thinking went) was the unholy alliance between right-wing Israelis and their powerful supporters in Congress. If Bush had simply pounded his fist hard enough on the Israeli prime minister’s desk, he would have orchestrated yet another historic handshake on the White House lawn.

On the basis of such thinking, Rice convinced Bush to hold the Annapolis Conference in 2007 and to race for a peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Abrams never bought any of it: “I am not,” he writes, “an optimist about negotiating a final status agreement because the compromises are terribly difficult for both Palestinians and Israelis.” The two sides know each other very well. They have no difficulty envisioning the contours of a peace treaty. And they do not prefer it to the status quo.  

This is, in Abrams’s view, the stark reality. Condoleezza Rice and, by implication, all the foreign policy “realists”—Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Colin Powell—were actually advocating policies founded in fiction.

In 2006, such claims invited widespread derision from the foreign policy establishment. The Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” is a multinational industry, and, in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, thousands of careers in think tanks, universities, and chancelleries depend on the perpetuation of the conventional wisdom. Accordingly, Bush’s iconoclastic policies were loudly dismissed on three continents as neoconservative cant, mindlessly pro-Israeli policies passed off as strategic argument. 

Abrams provides a valuable corrective. Though he is a persuasive advocate of a peace agreement, he argues that the rush to final status simply will not work. A durable two-state solution can only be accomplished slowly and deliberately. Peace, writes Abrams, “will be built on reality, not hope.”

George W. Bush’s policy of “no daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem did not, in fact, mean that the White House became a rubber stamp for Israel. On the contrary, it was a method of maximizing American leverage—often with results that even Bush’s critics should have applauded. For instance, advocates of a speedy race to final status frequently railed against Israeli settlements, which they identified as the single greatest obstacle to their goal. But few took note of the fact that Bush’s policies led to the Gaza withdrawal—a development that dismantled more settlements than at any time since 1982.

In Abrams’s view, only when Bush bucked the conventional wisdom did he open up new vistas of opportunity for a two-state solution. This is good advice for Barack Obama, especially as he charts his own course for a second term. Indeed, it is a little-recognized fact that Obama’s policies simply continue the course that Bush charted in 2006; and for nearly seven years, the conventional wisdom has reigned supreme. So what successes can it celebrate?  

Recently, when I bumped into a senior Rice aide on a plane, I put this mischievous question to him. “But we were this close,” he responded, pinching his thumb and forefinger together. “We resolved 95 percent of the issues separating the Palestinians from the Israelis”—which I’m sure was true.  But it is only the last 5 percent that actually matter. 

What is needed now is not a new push for negotiations, but a better idea. Tested by Zion is a good place to start the search.

Michael S. Doran, Roger Hertog senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.