What Is George Mitchell Up To?

For those who've watched his public career over the years, the three-part essay just published by the Boston Globe on the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, and the importance of America's role in achieving that peaceful resolution, is classic George Mitchell.

He begins by acknowledging the complexity of the situation and the legitimacy of the deeply felt emotions experienced by all parties.

"Conflicts in the Middle East are many and overlapping: Arabs and Jews; Israelis and Palestinians; Persians and Arabs; Sunni and Shiite Muslims; fundamentalists and moderates; Sunni-led governments and Sunni opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In this highly complex and volatile region, what should the United States do? What can we do?"

See what he did there?  Having acknowledged the complexity and seeming intractability of the problem, Mitchell immediately frames the discussion in terms of his own country's moral and pragmatic responses, and responsibilities.  He's intensely interested in dealing with the world as it is...but always in the context of thinking about the world as it should be.

He then devotes the rest of his first column to a history of the conflict in Palestine, beginning with its origins in World War I as European powers (specifically, Britain and France) maneuvered for advantage.  It's a masterful and characteristically modest ("No doubt this severe condensation leaves out many important events...") summary of how we arrived at the present-day situation.  (College students taking survey courses on the contemporary Middle East might want to bookmark Mitchell's article for use as study notes; finals are only 12 weeks away.)

Part two is devoted to making the case for why, despite this summer's war between Israel and Gaza,"it is in the best interest of both Israelis and Palestinians to renew hope and to see that peace does prevail. And it is in the United States’ best interest to help them succeed."

The focus on the parties' self-interests is also characteristic of Mitchell's approach to politics, negotiation and compromise.  Yes, by definition a compromise means no party gets everything it wants.  But the alternative, he argues, is worse---for you, and especially for your children and grandchildren.

Mitchell's closing argument is directed at his own country, its people and its leaders.  He begins by asserting his unwavering optimism about America and its role in the world.

"The reality, of course, is that the United States’ ability to control events in the world is limited. Many pundits and analysts, citing that reality, see the country in decline. I disagree. Though it may not be able to control events, the United States does have unequalled power to influence them. And, in the coming decades, that power will grow, not wane."

And that power, as Mitchell defines it, is only secondarily about military might and economic clout:

 "...our ideals have been and are the primary basis of American influence in the world. They’re not easily summarized, but surely they include: The sovereignty of the people; the primacy of individual liberty; opportunity for every member of society; an independent judiciary; and the rule of law, applied equally to all citizens and to the government itself.

 We must never forget that the United States was a great nation long before it was a great economic or military power."

After assessing, and giving his considered judgments on, the likely prospects for nations like Russia, China and India as global powers in the coming decades, Mitchell reiterates his conclusion---deeply rooted in the immigrant experience of his own family---that the United States will remain uniquely positioned in global affairs for at least the next several decades and concludes with a call to recommit ourselves to helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace.

What's not clear is why Mitchell---at an age when a man can sit back and receive the honors due him after a long life of distinguished public service---is writing 8,000 word essays on US foreign policy and world affairs.  It could be that this is something of a swan song, a closing chapter for his country to remember him by.  What seems more likely, given the way Mitchell has conducted himself over the past few decades, is that this essay is part of some larger effort by him (and others?) to "make a way out of no way", and actually accomplish what currently seems impossible: a negotiated two-state peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mitchell is fond of describing his work as a mediator in Northern Ireland as "700 days of failure, followed by one day of success".  It's a revealing anecdote---not just about the Northern Ireland peace process but about the man himself.  He doesn't give up easily.

Crossposted at: http://masscommons.wordpress.com/

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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