Myths die hard in the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy, whether they involve the reach of the Islamic State group or obstacles to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and they impede effective policymaking.
From the shocking slaughter in Paris to the drip-by-drip agony in Israel, the question for Washington is the same: Will policymakers from President Obama on down revisit the myths that lead us astray?
A day before the mayhem in Paris, Obama said that U.S. forces had “contained” the Islamic State group – though its recent downing of a Russian plane over the Sinai and suicide bombings in Beirut made his assessment seem oddly optimistic. He previously called the group a “JV team” compared to al-Qaida.
Nevertheless, Obama is doubling down on his strategy against the Islamic State group, ruling out ground troops and sticking with an air campaign in both Iraq and Syria that, The New York Times reports, has brought only “mixed results” and no change in the overall picture after more than a year.
Obama’s strategy on this challenge derives from his overall foreign policy, which has been marked by efforts to reduce the U.S. footprint across the Middle East, end U.S. wars rather than start them, share the burdens of regional stability with U.S. allies in the region and beyond and so on.
If some myths arise with particular presidents and are discarded by their successors – as Obama’s view of the Islamic State group may be – others stretch across presidencies, fueling a conventional wisdom that nourishes longer term failure.
As events were about to unfold in Paris, a peace conference in Tel Aviv heard from Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs who was tapped by Obama in 2013 to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Urging Israel to shed the role of “victim” and be “players in your own fate,” Indyk asserted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be an Israeli partner for peace “tomorrow” if only the Jewish state would freeze its settlements, presumably in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“What does it mean to be actors in your own fate?” Indyk explained. “It means to have some generosity to the other side, even though they are the most difficult of partners to have. But you have the ability to make them partners.”
That he would blame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on settlements, elevate Abbas to statesman and suggest Israel has the power to transform Abbas into a partner is not surprising, for it reflects the conventional wisdom about the conflict that has infected administrations long before this one.
But like Obama’s suggestion that the Islamic State group is “contained,” Indyk’s assertions, too, were oddly timed.
A day after he spoke, the Palestinian murder campaign against Israeli Jews continued when a terrorist gunned down a rabbi and his 18-year-old son in the West Bank as they drove – with the family’s mother, another son and three young daughters – to an event to celebrate the upcoming wedding of the eldest daughter.
An ambulance from the Palestinian-run Red Crescent, which is affiliated with the International Committee of the Red Cross, reportedly saw the injured, realized they were Jews and drove away.
What fuels such terror is less Israeli policy than the inconvenient reality of Palestinian hatred, as illustrated by an eye-opening piece in this month’s Mosaic magazine on Palestinian opinion polls of recent years.
Of note, 78 percent of Palestinians support “attempts to stab or run over Israelis” in the West Bank and Jerusalem, 61 percent thought it was morally right to name Palestinian streets after suicide bombers, more than 80 percent disagreed with the notion of sharing land with Jews because “this is Palestinian land and Jews have no rights to it” and 94 percent have a “very unfavorable” opinion of Jews.
Abbas, the statesman of Indyk’s imagination, didn’t condemn the West Bank killing of last week, per his policy during the recent terror campaign. Quite the contrary, he stoked the campaign by falsely claiming that Israel is executing Palestinian children on the “pretext” that they’re stabbing Jews.
The terror is rooted in another falsehood that Abbas has perpetuated – that Israel plans to change the “status quo” on the Temple Mount, where Jews pray at the Western Wall while Muslims pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque.
The myth underlying Obama’s campaign against the Islamic State group could die when he leaves office. Here’s hoping the more enduring myth about settlements as the main obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace dies as well.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.