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The Concentration of Foreign Policy Decision-Making and the Middle East Peace Conference

By Brent Maner '92

American Foreign Policy

Writing Objective: Write a paper on a topic of significance for American Foreign Policy. Emphasize the decision-making process.

In the wake of the Gulf War, the United States launched an eight-month diplomatic campaign to rally support for a conference on peace and stability in the Middle East. Top government officials, including the president and secretary of state, directed the effort, which deservedly received much attention from the media. Reports focused on the unprecedented potential for progress towards peace following an allied victory over Iraq. This historic opportunity was made possible by the magnitude of U.S. influence in the Middle East which, during the Gulf War, was shown In two ways. First, many Arab states, usually pitted against one another in a regional power struggle, were brought together to play a key role in the U.S.-led coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Secondly, the United States was successful In keeping Israel out of the conflict, despite Saddam Hussein’s efforts to lure It Into the fighting by launching Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Perhaps these successes were anticipated and served as part of the rationale for the Gulf War. At any rate, they opened the door for the United States to exercise its influence in promoting a regional peace conference as part of President Bush’s “New World Order.”

The Middle East peace process is very significant to the international community. In September 1991, leaders from all parties involved in the conflict over the occupied territories between Israel and its Arab neighbors met face-to-face for the first time to discuss their national interests and regional security. Potentially the series of conferences could lessen the tension between Palestinians and Israelis, which has made the Middle East the most volatile region in the world since the foundation of Israel in 1947. Bitter fighting between Arabs and Israelis has provided a setting for the proxy warfare of the Cold War, as Israel received more military aid (including a nuclear arsenal) from the U.S. than any other country, while the Soviets provided Syria with a wealth of conventional arms. (Luttwak, 1992: 13) That the region is so heavily armed makes the stakes of the peace talks very high, for “[t]helr failure would lay the groundwork for a war in which Israel’s sophisticated arsenal of nonconventlonal, Including nuclear, weapons and Syria’s chemical and biological stores will be at the ready.” (Aronson, 1991: 18)

The personal efforts of President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III to build International support for the first series of direct talks in Madrid show that the Middle East peace conference is significant to American foreign policy-makers. Secretary Baker’s eight trips to the region since the Gulf War and preparations for the conference frequently appeared among the headlines of American newspapers.

There are very real economic factors which merit America’s obsession with the Gulf region. As a highly industrialized nation, the U.S. depends heavily on Imported fossil fuels. Stability in the Gulf region minimizes the business sector’s worries about a cut¬off of the oil supply or a sharp Increase In energy prices. A successful peace conference would create an environment where U.S. interests could play a greater and more predictable role In Middle East affairs and change the perception of American officials as staunch allies of Israel to a fair diplomatic partner capable of defending Palestinian rights.

The obvious importance of the Middle East peace talks does not explain the actual groundwork for the conference. The popular press followed the developments of the meetings from Madrid to Washington and then to Moscow. But to find out who the active proponents of the conference were and what factors actually made the conference possible requires a closer examination of the foreign policy decision-making process in the United States. The peace Initiative involved the highest officials in the U.S. government and can therefore be used as an example of how major foreign policy issues are treated.

In late October, coverage of the peace conference focused on the expectations and demands held by the leaders of the six political entitles Invited to the conference: Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and a Joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation. Though many countries were reluctant to attend, they had no choice, for issues directly affecting their vital national interests were to be discussed at a forum sponsored by the United States and Soviet Union. Each country then sought to gain support for its position. For instance, Lebanon’s promise to attend required a personal assurance from the secretary of state that United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, would be emphasized at the conference and treated as unconditional requirements of Israel, Independent of other issues. (Butt, 1991)

Critics of the peace conference advised the U.S. leaders not only to remain actively Involved, but also patient with the proceedings. A “gradual move away from Western-dominated security approaches that are perceived as instruments of Western imperialism” Is needed because no plan imposed from the outside would last In the Middle East. (Fuller, 1991: 45) As no real progress emerged from the talks, the U.S. role was not to suggest a course of action, but to keep the parties together in order that they may eventually find their own solutions. Bringing the two sides together must be seen as an immediate victory, while a comprehensive peace will come only with “a continuation of the Kissinger-Carter step-by-step process.” (Zartinan, 1991: 18) This lesson of past efforts to establish peace in the Middle East seems to be one of the cornerstones of the Bush administration’s policy. For example, the U.S. proposed to limit the initial phase of the negotiations over self-rule by the Palestinians in the occupied territories to a five-year period before any decision about the final status of the land is made. (Eizenstat, 1991: 19)

The peace talks were to be one of the fruits of American military involvement in the Middle East— they did not evolve naturally. “The decisive force behind the conference has been United States Secretary of State James Baker III, who has labored for months to convince and cajole Israelis and Arabs to seize the moment of victory in the Gulf War to fashion a new order in the Middle East.” (Moffett, “Arab-Israeli”, 1991)

A strong, guiding role of the U.S. is necessary to keep the talks going. Decades of hostility between Arabs and Jews created an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, which the sponsors of the conference must first overcome. (Kelly, 1989: 44) One writer urged the Bush administration to remain involved “at a high level” for months, if not years, because the two parties will continually test the U.S. commitment to the peace initiative. The U.S. must prove to be an “honest broker, helping to reconcile differences and find areas of compromise.” (Moffett, “U.S. Role”, 1991)

Though the process will be a long and difficult one, many consider it necessary for Bush’s political future. The Gulf War will be more justifiable if stability in the Middle East can be achieved. Future progress would prove that the alliances made during the war were not made Just to liberate Kuwait, but to begin a new age of peace and co-operation in the region. “Without the settlements to point to, he IPresident Bushl would have to accept the grimmer truth: that the Gulf States—Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in particular—are still unwilling to break the taboo against sitting down with representatives of a Jewish state to hash out anything, let alone regional peace.” (“The Baker Fallacy”, 1991)

Both the president and secretary of state were personally committed to bringing the Israelis and Arabs together. The close relationship between George Bush and James Baker is unique to this administration and strongly affects its foreign policy decision-making. Bush and Baker’s relationship extends well beyond the expected working contact between the president and secretary of state. Both are Texans with strong ties in the same social circles In Houston. They even played tennis together as doubles partners at their country club. Politically their friendship has also proven to be mutually profitable. As President Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Baker kept his good friend and vice president “in the loop” with information from the Oval Office. Drawing on his experience as former campaign manager for Gerald Ford, Baker advised the Bush campaign in 1988 and in return became the nominee for secretary of state. They are an interesting combination. Bush, as former ambassador to the United Nations and to China, knows and loves foreign policy, while Baker is the better politician, knowing how to shore up support in Congress and foreign capitols and how to keep the press on his side. (Newhouse, 1990: 50) Though Baker wields much power, when the final decisions are made, especially those involving military action like the Gulf War, the secretary of state will ultimately defer to the commander in chief. (Friedman, “Baker Seen”, 1990)

The personality of James A. Baker III is also very important to the foreign policy decision-making process in the United States. Conflicts encountered during his career as a corporate lawyer can be seen as training for his dealings with two diametrically opposed political entities, like the Israelis and Arabs. He has a reputation in Houston for his ability to bring parties locked In impossible conflicts together. (Newhouse, 1990: 54) In addition to being a skilled negotiator, he a realist. “Mr. Baker is a calculating pragmatist, who assesses any particular foreign-policy issue based on a complex equation of what he feels Is the national Interest, what seems possible, what will serve Mr. Bush’s interests, what can be sold to the public, how it will be received on Capitol Hill and, finally, how it will affect James Baker.” (Friedman, “Baker Seen”, 1990)

Baker emphasizes results; he is not obsessed with an ideology, like the tension of the East-West conflict, and can therefore work with many different groups to achieve his goals. (Newhouse, 1990: 52) He also remains aloof of the politics and influence of the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States when framing America’s long-term policy on peace in the Middle East. In an address to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Baker’s tough language proclaimed “a time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel.” (Newhouse, 1990: 77)

Baker’s keen political sense has served him well when dealing with other elements of the American foreign policy decision-making machine. One of the keys to his State Department’s success has been bipartisan support for the Bush-Baker team in Congress. Before his role in the Bush administration, Baker was best known in Washington for his behind the scenes negotiations with Congressmen as the secretary of treasury under Ronald Reagan to forge the tax-revision act of 1986. This success saved the president an impending veto and favored Baker’s friends In the oil and natural gas business in Texas. (Newhouse, 1990: 72) Though state departments have traditionally had miserable relationships with Congress, Baker was able to bring his influence on Capitol Hill to his new position as head diplomat.

In his address to Congress on March 6, 1991, President Bush challenged U.S. lawmakers to reap the benefits of the Gulf War success by supporting efforts to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Baker’s success in securing acceptances from all five Arab delegations to attend the peace conference had a major impact on Congress’ decision in September 1991 to approve Bush’s move to delay a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel for four months. As Baker’s successes unfolded, Shamir’s ability to influence Congress diminished. (Dewisha, 1992: 5)

The same hard work which secured the Bush-Baker team’s success in maintaining the support of the United States Congress applies to the United Nations. When building support for the anti-Iraq coalition and in gaining support for the peace conference, Baker personally attended meetings of the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly to show America’s commitment to both causes and to ensure the success of U.S. policy. Baker understands the important role of the international community in foreign policy and sees the U.N. as a favorable forum to test international opinion of and build support for U.S. policies.

By the second round of the peace talks in Washington, D.C., little progress was made on substantive issues, except for Israel’s agreement to begin two-track negotiations with Jordanians and Palestinians. This was the closest Israel had come to dealing directly with Palestinians, since they opposed any measure which would suggest the legitimacy of the Palestinians as a political entity with rights of self-government. (Crossette, 1991) The Bush administration attempted to nurture this positive development indirectly by advancing a motion in the United Nations General Assembly to repeal Resolution 3379 which declared Zionism a form of racism. The success of this effort showed a willingness to put past conflicts behind and an attempt to begin a new period of negotiation. (Lewis, 1991) Though no significant breakthrough resulted, the new resolution did show the United States’ influence and Its regard for the role of the U.N.

Secretary Baker’s political caution, which causes him to ensure support from Congress and the press before recommending drastic moves, emphasizes his personal role in dealing with other decision-making groups, allowing little room for others in the State Department in managing top priority projects. Baker, like Bush, places a high value on personal loyalty and trust. He has a tendency to bypass permanent State Department bureaucrats and rely heavily on his “inner sanctum,” made up of four key people who have served him throughout his career: Dennis Ross, director of policy planning; Margaret Tutwiler, spokeswoman and political advisor; Robert Zoellick, under-secretary for economic affairs; and Robert Klmmitt, who has left Washington to serve as ambassador to Germany. Of the almost 8,000 permanent employees of the State Department, only Deputy-Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger has the same type of direct access to Mr. Baker as those in his personal circle. (Kondracke, 1992: 11) In addition to screening all information flowing to the Seventh Floor, Zoellick serves with Dennis Ross as one of Baker’s idea men. “Baker’s style gives those few around him generous sway over where to focus policy attention— although not necessarily over final decisions.” These are reserved for the secretary of state. (Hoffman, 1991)

This limited approach to decision-making had a direct effect on the planning and shape of the Middle East peace conference. One of Ross’ fields of expertise is Middle Eastern affairs (as well as Soviet relations), which can account for the administration’s obsession with the peace conference even though prospects for success were slim:

According to insiders, Ross was the most persistent voice within the administration urging Baker not to give up. He told Baker there would not be a big, dramatic moment like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977; rather, they had to settle for edging, even crawling, toward their ultimate goal of peace in the Middle East. (Hoffman. 1991)

It is no coincidence that Ross’ two geographical areas of expertise, the Middle East and former Soviet Union, are also the two regions that Indisputably receive the most attention in American foreign policy.

Barry Rubin’s Secrets of State explains that a country’s foreign policy “must blend actions necessary for its survival and prosperity with goals arising from the nation’s values.” (1987: 251) It seems that two high priority values of the Bush administration are democracy and political stability. The very rationale used by President Bush for the Gulf War is summed up by Rubin’s conclusion about U.S. foreign policy: The “concept of action In response to a foreign, antidemocratic threat would always form the ultimate basis for U.S. activism abroad.” (Rubin, 1987: 5)

With America as the only superpower after the downfall of the Soviet Union, Bush perceived, as a vital national value, the establishment of a Pax Americana, where a breach of stability anywhere in the world became a threat to America’s national interests. The Gulf War was seen as an opportunity “to break the cycle of local conflict and external Intervention that continues to generate paranoia in the Middle East and to cripple most diplomatic initiatives.” (Fuller, 1991: 39) The breakdown of the power constellation which had existed there over the last forty-five years increased the role the U.S. could play in Middle East affairs. “Fluidity means opportunity. A moment of rapidly surging events is a time when one’s instincts may call for caution, yet it is often the only time when one can shape the flow of those events.” (Rodman, 1991: 17) This shaping of events led to America’s military involvement and diplomatic efforts in reshaping the Middle East.

The comparison between Rubin’s list of principles In U.S. foreign policy-making and the role played by the president and State Department In the peace conference (as top officials in a Pax Americana) is striking. First, Rubin says, it is important for the president to “actively use his prestige and power to end disputes and mobilize the slow-moving bureaucracy.” Secondly, the president should appoint another official, say Secretary Baker as In the case of the peace conference, to lead the policy-making so that Intervention by the president can be reserved if any conflict arises. (1987: 262) Though the methods recommended by Rubin were followed by the U.S. administration in setting up the talks, the policy was not effective.

The reason for this failure lies in the Incorrect first assumption made by President Bush and Secretary Baker: that a Pax Americana did exist whereby their naive desire for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would bring about such a significant change in international affairs. A more realistic assessment of the situation would be that American influence in the Middle East reached its zenith after an overwhelming victory in the Gulf War and that the collapse of the Soviet Union left Syria without military backing, forcing its willingness to come to the negotiating table. (Dewisha, 1992: 4) However, this Influence was not enough to force the two sides to establish a lasting peace.

The role of the State Department over the past year exhibits the truth of Rubin’s adaptation of the Washington maxim, “Where you sit is where you stand.” (1987: 262) President Bush relies on a structured flow of information, which places him in direct contact with only top department officials. The nature of operation Desert Storm subordinated the State Department to a military oriented decision¬making body, including the president, national security advisors and Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf. However, when the fighting ended and the planning for the peace conference began, Baker was again In the limelight as he travelled to the Middle East and invited the six delegations to the Madrid conference. In these two situations, the advice necessary to the president did not depend on individuals, but on the roles.

The Middle East peace conference involved the highest level of U.S. officials, specifically George Bush and James Baker. Promises made to Arab states that cooperated In the Gulf War coalition required their personal commitment to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. American hopes and expectations of success in this initiative not only helped to justify the massive military commitment of operation Desert Storm, but also gave the Impression that America could control regional affairs in order to promote stability, democracy and justice:

American culture also teaches that vigorous and determined action can master problem and achieve goals. This idea presupposes some domination over circumstances, but the world is largely ruled by forces outside U.S. control and by people holding viewpoints quite different from those prevailing in Washington. (Rubin, 1987: 252)

General blindness to reality causes an overestimation of American Influence, as demonstrated by the inconclusive peace talks despite the terrible price paid in the Gulf War.

Baker’s reliance on only a few key players affects the performance of the State Department. A team of five trusted officials cannot possibly cover the broad spectrum of foreign policies. “Baker trusts only a handful of loyal assistants to perform important tasks for him, and they are vastly overextended.” Policy gaps open when the State Department Is swamped with information about new developments around the world. For Instance, Dennis Ross cites the inner sanctum’s preoccupation with German reunification and Soviet affairs as an explanation for their overlooking “the rising menace of Saddam Hussein” in the summer of 1990. (Kondracke, 1992: 11) This overextension of the trusted staff may also explain the dramatic drop in press coverage and attention given to the peace conference in mid-December 1991 when political changes in the Soviet Union, including rumors of Gorbachev’s preparing to resign, dominated the headlines. Baker departed for Moscow on December 16, but left no one with equivalent authority behind to monitor the peace talks.

Though Bush and Baker work hard to ensure the political success of their foreign policies in Congress and the press, a fundamental flaw in the actual decision-making process remains. Both Bush, through his close cabinet circle, and Baker, with his “Inner sanctum” at the State Department, run very efficient decision-making operations. All share the same realist outlook, and policy is made in an orderly fashion. “The disadvantage, however, is that it’s almost impossible for an outsider to break in to the cozy circle and say, ‘Something is terribly wrong.'” (Kondracke, 1992: 12) Top policy makers are not supplied with a well-balanced worldview because they rely on a selective group of advisors who, like Dennis Ross, emphasize only their areas of expertise.

The Middle East peace conference should be seen as an amazing diplomatic achievement, as two parties who have fought bitterly for over forty years were finally brought together to discuss resolution possibilities. America’s influence in the region certainly played a part in getting the Arabs and Israelis to the table, but it was not strong enough to produce any substantial results. The tension between these two parties remains beyond the control of the U.S., and hopes for a real solution based on the results of the Gulf War were too idealistic. However, the face-to-face meetings may have reduced the suspicion between these hostile neighbors, and, hopefully, the future will see progress forged by the two parties themselves.

Works Cited

Aronson, Geoffrey. “Brinkmanship in The Middle East,” in The Christian Science Monitor. 2 December 1991.

Butt, Gerald. “Lebanon Aims for Israeli Withdrawal,” In The Christian Science Monitor. 24 October 1991.

Crossette, Barbara. “Rivals See Progress in Mideast Talks,” in New York Times. 13 December 1991.

Dewisha, Adeed. “The United States and The Middle East: The Gulf War and Its Aftermath,” in Current History. January 1992, pp. 1-5.

Eizenstat, Stuart E. “In the Mideast, Here a Little, There a Little,” in The Christian Science Monitor. 16 December 1991.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Baker Brings an Inner-Circle of Outsiders to State Department,” in New York Times. 27 March 1989.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Baker Seen as a Balance to Bush on Crisis in Gulf,” in New York Times. 3 November 1990.

Fuller, Graham E. “Respecting Regional Realities,” in Foreign Policy. Summer 1991, pp. 39-46.

Hoffman, David. “Little Known Aide Plays Major Role in Foreign Policy,” in The Washington Post. 28 October 1991.

Kelly, John H. “Middle East,” In U.S. Department of State Bulletin. October 1989, p.44.

Kondracke, Morton. “Baker’s Half Dozen,” In The New Republic. 24 February 1992, pp. 11-12.

Lewis, Paul. “U.N. Repeals Its ’75 Resolution Equating Zionism with Racism,” in New York Times. 17 December 1991. Luttwak, Edward. “Obsession,” in The New Republic. 24 February 1992, pp. 12-13.

Moffett, George D. “Arab-Israeli Talks Pose Tenuous Hope for Accord,” in The Christian Science Monitor. 24 October 1991.

Moffett, George D. “U.S. Role Crucial In Arab-Israeli Peace Process,” in The Christian Science Monitor. 29 October 1991.

Newhouse, John. “The Tactician,” in New Yorker. 7 May 1990, pp.50-82.

Rodman, Peter W. “Middle East Diplomacy.” In Foreign Affairs. Spring 1991, pp. 1-17.

Rubin, Barry. Secrets of State. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. “The Baker Fallacy,” in The New Republic. 17 June 1991.

Zartman, William. “Road Map to Peace in Mideast,” in The Christian Science Monitor. 13 December 1991.