Breakfast presentation by Aaron David Miller

Aaron David Miller worked at the State Department for about 25 years, including a stint as America’s negotiator in trying to bring about  Middle East peace.  For the past ten years or so, he has been lecturing and writing, and now has a top job with the Woodrow Wilson Center, a major Washington think tank.  He gave a presentation this morning at my Thursday morning breakfast meeting.  Seeing Miller often on television, I tend to regard him as a typical talking head (although not of the crazy, right wing variety), and didn’t expect much this morning.  I was surprised, though.  I thought he gave a very thoughtful and accurate report on what has been right and what has been wrong with American foreign policy.

I didn’t take notes, so don’t expect to be able to write a full report of what he said with complete accuracy.  But among his major points were these:

1.  You can look at the world as it is, or you can look at the world as you would like it to be.  If you are in charge of American foreign policy and want to accomplish anything, you better look at the world as it is.  We don’t do that.

2.  We are unique in that we have two non-predatory neighbors north and south, and are neighbors east and west are fish.  We tend not to be threatened by the outside world. 

3.  The main job of the president is to protect the homeland.  Our presidents have done a good job of that and continue to do so.

4.  When we kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, we were looked up around the world.  Our prestige was very high.

5.  Subsequent to that, we have made mistake after mistake, and we are not nearly as well respected.

6.  Other than the original successful attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, everything that we have done has failed.

7.  Going into Iraq and Afghanistan for long ground wars was the perfect example of thinking that the world is as we would want it to be, not as it is.  We went into those wars without any sense of what our real goals were, or how we could succeed.  In fact, we could not have come up with a successful end goal, because there was no possible one.  Success is now defined as getting out – this hardly qualifies as success.

8.  For this reason, we cannot go into Syria; we cannot go into the Ukraine.  There is nothing we can do in either place that would not backfire against us.

9. We have been selective about what we do.  For example, we acted in Libya, but not in Syria.  We talk to the Taliban and other extreme groups, but  not to Hamas or Hezbollah.  Right or wrong in individual cases, it is often unclear why we do one thing, and don’t do another.

10.  All problems cannot be solved, at least not in the short run.  We are not going to bring about peace between Israel and Palestine.  It is not to the advantage of Netanyahu or Abbas to reach an agreement.  Any agreement would involve sacrifices that their respective legislative bodies just will not accept, so there is no reason to try to reach agreement.  On the other hand, it is not in either of their interests to start a war.  So, the process will just continue.

11.  There is nothing we can do about the Crimea.  And a lot of the reason for Putin’s success (if that is what it is) in Crimea is the fault of the Ukraine.  It has been corrupt, it is economically bankrupt, etc.  On the other hand, can Russia afford to maintain Crimea.  What will happen if Ukraine cuts off gas and electricity there?

12.  The partisan politics in this country today are very harmful.  Arguing about specific issues is fine – that is what a democracy does.  But demonizing the other side, and not listening to what they say is ridiculous.

13.  The intensive media makes it very difficult for a president to act the way he would like to act. He is too often put on the defensive with extreme media attention.

14.  We have had three great presidents:  Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt.  We don’t want another great president – they tend to want to go on adventures that will harm us in the long run.

I think that is about it – at least that is what I remember, although it is only a skeleton about what he said on each topic.  He was filled with facts, figures and anecdotes.  Very impressive ……. even if he does give about the same speech every day somewhere.


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