We did start the fire. Let’s stop it.


Jonathan Schanzer, of the Republican Jewish Coalition-affiliated Jewish Policy Center, reviews Martin Indyk’s "Innocent Abroad" for the Jerusalem Post and correctly calls it a page-turner. I’m reading it as well, and I’m marveling at how Indyk makes me want to read through an all-to-familiar narrative, knowing exactly how it plays out.

I know Jonathan, he’s a thoughtful guy, but he commits an all-to-common Beltway sin that after eight years here, is beginning to drive me around the bend. Especially because, in this case, he correctly calls Indyk on committing the same sin, what Schanzer calls "gratuitous shots":

The former ambassador does himself a disservice when he forgoes diplomacy to take gratuitous shots at former president George W. Bush. He charges that Bush chose to "forsake peacemaking for war-making." At best, this is an unfair characterization of the Bush Doctrine. Indyk himself notes that upon leaving the White House, Clinton warned Bush, "Don’t ever trust that son of a bitch [Arafat]. He lied to me, and he’ll lie to you." Bush heeded the words of his predecessor and wisely called for Palestinian political reform before attempting to reengage in peace diplomacy.

Schanzer is right: Richard Perle, writing recently in the National Interest, picked out two Bush quotes immediately post-9/11 that best articulate the Bush doctrine:

“From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime;” and “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

This thinking led Bush to isolate Yasser Arafat and to cultivate Mahmoud Abbas as the better equipped Palestinian leader to forge peace. One could argue about Bush’s follow-through on the issue, but to the degree that a moderate, technocratic Palestinian Authority now exists in the West Bank — one that is successfully facing down lawlessness — credit the Bush doctrine. (Crediting Bush for this success is not inconsistent with noting the initial failures of the Iraq war; one of the Bush administration misrepresentations heading into that war was that Saddam Hussein still fit the doctrine’s description. We now know that whatever terrorists Saddam was still harboring were deep into retirement, and that he had no truck with the terrorists behind 9/11.)

The problem with Schanzer’s complaint is that he commits exactly the same sin in the previous paragraph. Writing about Clinton, he says:

As Indyk recalls, the president was "thinking about his legacy" and sought to "wipe away the Monica Lewinsky stigma." So, what began as a well-intentioned effort to end the senseless violence in the region seems to have ended as a ruthless quest for personal glory.


First of all, his quotes are ripped from context. Here’s the full passage from "Innocent Abroad":

Clinton was in the last six months of his presidency; it was natural for him to be thinking about his legacy. An Israeli-Palestinian peace that ended the conflict would be a lasting historic achievement acclaimed by Americans and the international community alike. No doubt it would also wipe away the Monica Lewinsky stigma.

Indyk has just composed 304 pages describing Clinton’s dedication from the get-go – from his inauguration – to securing Israeli-Palestinian peace. Of course he was thinking about his legacy – what president doesn’t want to wrap up his major initiatives before he leaves office? When Bush committed to the surge as a way of securing Iraq, he wasn’t thinking about his legacy?

And when a writer begins a sentence "no doubt" (conveniently missing from Schanzer’s grab) it means this: "Hello. I am speculating. I do not know this for sure. I might not know it at all." And that pesky "also" is missing – in other words, Indyk is having a speculative afterthought.

This is a sore point for me because I spoke with the major negotiators at Camp David in its immediate aftermath; no one – not a single negotiator on either side — believed Clinton had anything but the best interests of both people throughout the process. His formulas might have been wrong-headed (or not) but his sheer dedication, his patience, the volume of his commitment were of a man whose overriding interest was ending bloodshed.

A few months later, I moved from Jerusalem to Washington and I found that the idiot "Lewisnky/legacy" narrative prevailed. I tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade my then-boss that casting our Middle East coverage according to this narrative did history a grave disservice.

I can’t emphasize enough how bad this is: If you dump Camp David into the garbage because it was all about Clinton’s sexual gratification, you’re free to ignore its lessons, its failures and its successes. If the "Bush Doctrine" is reduced to dropping bombs on people to change their minds, you ignore the favor he did the region by getting the Palestinian leadership to cut off terrorists.

But this town, I’ve found, is packed with kids playing with matches: People who happily burn up policies in the name of political point-scoring. No one remembers that we’re all woven into this political fabric, that if you start a fire, it spreads.

So here’s the thing: If you’re keen on preserving legacy — in the good sense, in the sense of sustaining the successful policies introduced by the leadership you favored — don’t trash the other guy’s.

Call it Hillel’s questions, the Golden Rule, whatever. It’s really as simple as that.

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