Aaron David Miller Offers Obama Advice On Israel

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Aaron David Miller, author and former adviser to six Secretaries of State, from George Shultz under Reagan to Colin Powell under Bush, came to Swarthmore on Wednesday to offer President Obama some expert advice on how he can best on deal with Israel during his administration.

Aaron Brecher ’10 raised funds and sponsorship from a variety of organizations in order to have Miller appear—Sofi, the College Dems, FFFS, the President’s Office, Peace and Conflict Studies, Political Science Department, and outside grants from Legacy Heritage as well as the Israel on Campus Coalition.

Miller actually began his career wanting to be a professor of American history, “but I wandered down the highway and got off on an exit ramp which took me a long way away from history… I have had the honor to work for six Secretaries of State, from Shultz to Powell, and during the course of that 24 year period, I worked on one issue… could the US help the Arabs and Israelis?”

In that time, “I developed three articles of faith… I even believe in them now, when almost everything we’ve worked to achieve lies broken or battered or bleeding somewhere. I think there’s a risk in not believing in them… to abandon them means abandoning hope, but to pursue them with a measure of inevitability is also dangerous because it leads to illusory thinking.”

He believes that an equitable and durable solution does exist, that it will only come about through the long and imperfect process of negotiation, and that “America has an important role to play in delivering this equitable and durable solution through negotiation.”

In the last 16 years under Clinton and Bush, Miller believes that “we’ve been failing in matters related to peace and war… what kind of great power are you? Do you even deserve to be called a great power? This is the situation that confronts the current president.” Cautioning that “if you don’t manage the Middle East, it will manage you,” he then offered ten pieces of advice to Obama.

First, “governing is about choosing… you decide which issues are important and get behind the ones you think you can make work.” Although Obama was elected based largely on domestic issues, “you will not be a consequential president without being a foreign policy president, and you cannot do that without the Middle East… the threat to the US is not from China or the former Soviet Union, but from this dysfunctional and angry region.”

Secondly, “you are in an investment trap… you can’t fix it quickly or easily and you cannot run away from it. You’re stuck there… you will have to invest more American men and women, more American prestige and credibility in a part of the world that you can’t fix. Clinton tried to do too much and he failed, Bush tried to do too little and he failed… your job is to find a way to calibrate the right role.”

Third, Miller exhorted Obama to “look to the past… study history in a way we usually don’t. Over 24 years, I can count on one hand the number of times I used history or historical example to make a point in a briefing… and I’m a trained historian.” But they should look at the past more, because “history teaches prudence… when we succeeded in the past, we had a third party prepared to be tough, smart, and fair… if you’re not prepared to be an effective broker, don’t get into this business.”

Fourth, Miller cautioned that he does not believe the circumstances necessary for peace exist today. “The chances of a conflict ending solution in the near term are slim to none,” because both sides have serious leadership problems. The Palestinians are split between Hamas and the PLO. “Unless that house is reunified into a single actor, you won’t have half of what you need… it’s less complex but equally dysfunctional on the Israeli side,” in part because the founding generation of Israel has now passed away. “In their wake you have politicians… prisoners of their constituents, not masters of their own politics.”

Fifth, Miller cautioned that while an Israel-Palestinian agreement may not be within reach, “there is an Israeli-Syrian agreement [which] is doable… it’s a deal that’s worth testing, the question is whether you are prepared to pay the price,” a price of giving up “100 percent of the Golan Heights” and becoming involved in the de-militarization process, likely committing American forces as peacekeepers.

Sixth, “how you deal with Israelis is going to be extremely important… by the middle of next week you’ll be faced with one of the most right wing governments in Israeli history, and you need to make some decisions about how you deal with this government.” Miller believes strongly that America and Israel have a special relationship because of “value affinity… the reality that since 1950, only 22 countries have maintained democracy continually.” That said, Israel is not perfect, and “when they do things we say nothing… there’s a difference between a special committed relationship and an exclusive relationship in which we say nothing… the latter does not serve America’s interests.”

Miller continued, “some will try to convince you that this is being anti-Israel, but that’s a crock, Mr. President… the pro-Israel community in America will follow your lead if you come up with policies that are judged to be fair, protective, and also successful.”

Seventh, “your predecessor talked about a new Middle East, and he got what he wanted… except the new one is nastier than the old one.” In targeting Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve “created a situation in which Iran in the next 18 months may well cross the threshold from enrichment to actual weaponization… our policies have emboldened the Iranians and made them far bigger than they actually are.”

If Iran does develop nuclear weapons, “what do you say to the prime minister of Israel? Because I wouldn’t know how to answer… the gap between your assurances and Iran’s technical capacity is always going to be there, and this will be one of the greatest challenges of your presidency.”

Eighth, Miller stated that “success—not nationalism, not capitalism, and not democracy—is the world’s most compelling ideology… [and] America has been failing here for far too long.” He continued, “Clinton, and I admire him, used to say that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all… that’s so uniquely American. Failure comes with a cost, and if you fail consistently people begin to doubt your competence… we’re tying ourselves up with our own illusions and our own uniquely American conceptions of how the world works.”

Ninth, “It’s really important to try to see the world the way it is, not only the way you want it to be… I believe in American exceptionalism, but it must stop at the water’s edge. What is good for us is not by definition good or practical for the rest of the world… we have things they don’t have, and they explain our naivete, our optimism and our arrogance.” Those things are “a degree of unparalleled physical security unrivaled by any great power in the history of the world… we don’t understand ethnic conflict, not of the magnitude that exists in the rest of the world… our sheer abundance in size, which allows us to have resources and space to accommodate what they cannot accommodate… [and] you have a political system in this country based on an idea, which is the primacy of the individual… we were the first in history to have a system based on an idea like that.”

Lastly, and in a neat summary of his talk, Miller borrowed a quote from Kennedy, “who said he was an idealist without illusion… that’s where America needs to be and that’s where you need to be. Never give up on the prospect that the world can be fundamentally changed, but do so with your eyes wide open.”

Miller took questions for some time, before telling the audience that the smartest person he knew had gone to Swarthmore, and had been able to deduce the greatest piece of presidential trivia—which American president was not a citizen when he died?—without any expert knowledge of the subject, and challenged us to see if we could do the same. The Gazette leaves the question as a challenge to its readers.


  1. Thanks for the article Lauren!

    I attended this interesting lecture, but wasn't able to absorb most of it. (I was nodding off several seats away from you.)

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