Learning from failure

Learning from failure

Toward the end of our conversation about his new book, I asked veteran “Track II” diplomat Stephen P. Cohen if he remains hopeful about peace in the Middle East.

Even for someone with a habit of measuring his words, Cohen paused for a long time before answering.

“I’m feeling a little hope now,” he said, “more than I felt a few months ago.”

In some ways, Cohen is in the hope business. As a citizen diplomat, he brokered the first secret official negotiations between Israel and the PLO, serving as midwife to the Oslo process that brought Israelis and Palestinians tantalizingly close to a peace deal. He’s given advice to Anwar Sadat and Shimon Peres, Bill Clinton and Colin Powell.

But the hope business has fared about as well as the economy over the past decade. The Second Intifada and 9/11, suicide bombings and Qassam rockets, wars in Lebanon and Gaza — you know the story. In his new book, Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Cohen tries to make sense of what went wrong.

I spoke to Cohen at his house in Teaneck (full disclosure: Steve is a neighbor and fellow congregant) and asked why he opted for the long view — issuing report cards on successive American presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama.

“Because the United States is getting deeper and deeper into the Middle East, and every president who has gotten engaged is either stubbing his toe or falling on his face,” he said. “It is important to have a perspective on how we got there.”

It also demonstrates, he said, America’s tendency to oversimplify the Mideast. Asked for an example, he refers to Obama’s Iran policy, which Cohen sees as a far subtler approach than that demanded by the president’s critics.

Wherever he looks, Cohen sees governments, leaders, and citizens missing the point.

In his book, for example, he writes that Europeans are making the “terrible historical error in thinking they can ally themselves with the forces attacking and undermining the United States and the Jews rather than assuming the role of reconciliation and higher understanding of the issues.”

The Europeans, he told me, “feel so overtaken by the United States because of basic hard power — the military — they do not realize their possibility is to deal with the problem with soft power, to deal with the emotional, ideological, and religious relationship between the West and the Middle East.”

“Soft power” is Cohen’s niche. His training is in social psychology, not political science. That makes him an easy target for those who think Arabs or Muslims only understand the language of force, and that those who disagree are dupes.

“Yes, you mostly have to attack them,” is how he sums up the attitude. “That is the basic understanding that is very widespread, and it fails to make the crucial distinction between Al Qaida and where most Islamic countries and people are, who are very distant from Al Qaida and their ideology.”

Cohen calls this view of Islam “a huge mistake.” “It is a mistake strategically, because the only way we defeat the radicals is by strengthening the moderates against them,” he said.

I ask him where, in his travels as president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, he sees signs of moderation in the Muslim world.

He talks about his role as a member of the U.S. Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World in 2003. Meeting with Muslims in Africa, he said, he noted there was “one thing that young Muslims wanted — what they call American-style education.

“This was a very big desire,” he said. “That’s one example that was very widespread.”

Among Palestinians, however, other desires take priority. Oslo failed in large part, he writes, because of the PLO’s “virtual addiction to the politics of violence against Israel.” He has no illusion about Hamas. But he still senses a “sea change” among Arab leaders that is bubbling down to the street, and a feeling among Muslim elites that the door is fast closing on an opportunity to use the region’s wealth to restore Muslim cultural glory, as opposed to military prowess.

That’s only part of the hope he has begun to feel. He likes that Obama made the peace process a priority early in his administration and has a chance to learn from his obvious mistakes. He thinks Benjamin Netanyahu would like to see a peaceful settlement that includes Palestinians as partners. And he says the Iran nuclear crisis is deepening the relationship between Israel and the United States in a way that will bode well for restarting the peace process.

But a deal doesn’t mean peace, he said. For that, you need what he calls “reconciliation through resocialization.”

The term, he said, “refers to the attempt not to strike an immediate big political deal, but rather to help people have in their minds a variety of perceptions about the other — not to have a monolithic sense of them, to know that they’re real societies, not artificial.”

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