Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Aaron Miller, The Promised Land, and the Detachment of Diplomacy

I've read about a quarter of Aaron David Miller's new book, The Much Too Promised Land, about his lengthy stint in the State Department, advising an impressive six Secretaries of State. Born into an affluent Jewish family from Clevland, Miller offers an insider's look at the highs and lows of international diplomacy, with particular attention to the tenures of Kissinger-the-strategist, Carter-the-missionary, and James Baker-the-negotiator. Stories of close encounters with power players like Yasser Arafat and Menachem Begin confirm Miller's rightful place at the negotiating table. The book flirts with self-absorption but anyone contemplating a career in mid-level diplomacy should give it a read.

From my vantage point--my apartment window looks across downtown Nablus and beyond to the Israeli military post high on Mount Ebal--the book confirms a rather disturbing aspect of high level international relations: the isolation and constraints imposed on State Department officials when they visit this place. Consider these remarks:

Any veteran of the road trips will tell you that the most likely threat to American diplomats abroad is not a terrorist attack but an overanxious embassy driver behind the wheel of an armor-plated SUV doing seventy miles an hour, convinced he must remain within two feet of the vehicle in front of him. (34)

Out in the neighborhood we had no expectation of privacy, and none ws given. (34)

The party would take over at least two complete floors of a five-star hotel. . . (35)

I was always acutely aware of how isolated we were and how limited our reach could be. (36)

When we traveled without the secretary [of State], our ability to control our own destiny was even more limited. (37)
On it goes. Perhaps this is how it has to be. Perhaps there is no safe way for diplomats and policy wonks to get out and explore the neighborhood. If so, however, I find it difficult to imagine these folks ever seeing the situation on the ground as it really is. It is one thing to have an official tour of a "terminal" checkpoint (emphasizing the benefits of new levels of security) or to be shown in a helicopter how close the West Bank is to Tel Aviv (advancing the wall-as-security argument). It is something else entirely to listen to Palestinian students who missed class because of military closures, to take a 3-minute trickle-shower to save water, or to be awakened at night by percussion grenades or an IDF helicopter hovering somewhere nearby (presumably as part of a military incursion).

Stories about self-important authorities, high-level pressure tactics and chastened diplomatic expectations make for good (if sometimes depressing) reading, and Miller displays endearing authorial candor. But his account (so far) doesn't inspire me to think that these career negotiators (much less their bosses) who tread the red carpet at Ben Gurion airport, play doubles tennis at the King David Hotel, and stay up all night to nuance the syntax of a press release--that these warriors of diplomacy could possibly understand the daily, monotonous grind of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Without that understanding, with personal, unvarnished experiences of "occupation," without first-hand testimony of the personal impact of American dollars, settler hostility and Israeli military incursions, diplomats and negotiators lack an essential tool in their diplomatic tool pouch: the holy privilege of weeping with those who weep.

Must run. I have an English class to teach.

1 comment:

donnjohnson said...

Excellent insight Bruce! The on-the-ground view of life is always so different from that portrayed by the political/media machine that, because of its size and power distances itself from the very reality it "hopes" to address. This dilemma could be transfered into a bunch of different arenas can't it?