Kim Jong Il likes his metaphors to be as literal as possible. When he wants to blow up diplomacy with the US, he detonates a nuke. When he wants to torpedo relations with South Korea, he torpedoes one of its ships. Subtlety may not be the North Korean dictator’s strong suit, but look at it his way: Every time he bids to be the Worst Person in the World, some liberal chimes in to explain that he’s just a short, misunderstood man driving a tough peace bargain, badly in need of Jimmy Carter’s TLC.
By contrast, the brilliant diplomats of the Barack Obama administration prefer complex, nuanced metaphors. So it’s probably asking too much that they notice that in the raising of the sunken South Korean gunboat off the seabed, one sees a metaphor for their whole approach to peace-making. Let’s just say this ship isn’t going to set sail again.
The approach goes by the name of the “peace process.” The term dates to the Kissinger state department, but its heyday arrived in the 1990s, when the first George Bush administration and especially the Bill Clinton administration inaugurated or supported peace processes everywhere. There was the Korean peace process, known as the “Sunshine Policy”. There was the Israeli -Palestinian process—“Oslo”—and the “Syrian track” between Jerusalem and Damascus. There was “Good Friday” for Northern Ireland, “Abuja” for Rwanda, “Lomé” for Sierra Leone. There were peace processes in Colombia and Sri Lanka. Name your intractable conflict, and the US state department had its handy off-the-shelf appliance to deal with it.
Of all these processes, only the Good Friday Accords can be called a success, and it was a success that owed less to George Mitchell’s interventions than to the fact that the conflict—pitting prosperous, English-speaking Irish Protestants against increasingly prosperous, English-speaking Irish Catholics—no longer made sense to the bourgeois terrorists at the helm of the Irish Republican Army.
Elsewhere, the processes invariably ended in humiliation, bloodshed, and sometimes bloody farce. For Sierra Leone, the Clinton administration dispatched Jesse Jackson (really) to broker a deal that made Foday Sankoh—a man who’d made his reputation by chopping off the limbs of his opponents—the vice-president of the country. The deal collapsed within months. For Colombia, Clinton endorsed a peace plan that ceded an area the size of Switzerland to FARC rebels. “I think that the path [then president Andrés Pastrana] is pursuing is the one most likely to bring results,” he said in 1998. The FARC used its safe haven to better arm itself, take high-profile hostages, train foreign terrorists and nearly overthrow the government.
Much the same held true in the Korean and West Asian peace processes, only on a grander scale. The late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad made a fetish of humiliating one Clinton envoy after another and rebuffed the terms of a peace deal offered by Clinton himself in March 2000. Yet the Clintonites remained undeterred in their faith in the Syrian track, just as they remained undeterred by Yasser Arafat’s telling declaration in a May 1994 Johannesburg speech: “The permanent state of Israel—No! It is the permanent state of Palestine.”
As for the “Sunshine Policy”, it had the usual merits of other peace processes, along with the added distinction of having been purchased with political bribes by the South Korean government of the late Kim Dae Jung, including alleged payments of several hundred million dollars for a June 2000 photo-op summit that produced nothing. Nothing, that is, except to help prolong the life of a bankrupt and vile regime that might have otherwise collapsed on its own weight.
In the current issue of Foreign Policy, former über-peace processor Aaron David Miller offers a refreshingly honest assessment of what he calls “the false religion of Mideast Peace”. “Like all religions,” he writes, “the peace process has developed a dogmatic creed, with immutable first principles.” He then goes on to enumerate all the reasons why the administration’s current push to midwife a credible and lasting Arab-Israeli peace deal is doomed to fail.
Miller’s case is mostly unobjectionable; indeed, he could have written the same piece about the administration’s failed diplomatic overtures toward Syria and Iran.
But he misses a deeper point. Even as peace processes almost invariably fail between the warring parties, they also almost invariably succeed as political theatre for the peace processors themselves. Kim Dae Jung, Arafat and Shimon Peres all burnished their prestige with Nobel Peace Prizes. President Obama won one pre-emptively. And Clinton still basks in an ill-founded reputation as a peacemaker. Ironically, the only real peace he ever achieved, in the Balkans, was through the strength of US arms.
So the ship will be hoisted again. The peace processors will bask in the glow of their good intentions. And wicked men, convenient partners in this game of self-congratulation, illusion and deceit, will plot their own advantage.
Bret Stephens is a columnist with The Wall Street Journal
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