WASHINGTON — In the first chapter of his recent book “The Much Too Promised Land,” University alum Aaron David Miller sets the scene for the announcement in Jerusalem of one of the most historic Middle East peace conferences.
For nine months leading up to the 1991 Madrid Conference, Miller dealt with “headaches of varying sizes” that accompanied the formation of the first ever meeting between representatives from Syria, Israel, Lebanon and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation.
“There was no such precedent for anything like that,” Miller said of the conference in an interview this summer.
As an adviser on the Arab-Israeli conflict to then-Secretary of State James Baker, Miller played a role in setting up the framework for the historic meeting. But sitting cross-legged and relaxed in jeans and a blue blazer, Miller joked that he had the most influence on American foreign policy earlier in his career — while on the tennis court.
“During a doubles match in Cairo, (former Secretary of State George) Shultz was my partner, and I hit him in the back with one of my serves,” he said. “It was the greatest impact I had on the Secretary of State.”
Since Shultz, Miller has worked for five other secretaries of state, advising them on one of America’s toughest foreign policy issues: the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Sitting in his downtown Washington office ornamented with framed photos of Bill Clinton and Colin Powell, Miller described his time working for secretaries of state from 1989 until 2003 as “one constant trip or negotiation after another.”
“Those 15 years were really quite historic, and in the end disappointing and very frustrating,” he said. “Most of what we tried to do ended up collapsing. But nonetheless, they were extraordinary years.”
Following the Madrid Conference, Miller was part of the U.S. team that helped facilitate the Oslo Accords. The 1993 conference held in Oslo, Norway established a framework for future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and was considered a major breakthrough in the peace process.
In 1996, Miller helped to broker two agreements to keep the Oslo process on track, but looking back, he said he now realizes the process was essentially futile. The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fundamentalist completely changed the climate.
Rabin, a war hero turned peacenik and a major player in the Oslo Accords, inspired a sense of hope in the Israeli and Palestinian public, which died along with him.
“It was dead, we didn’t really understand it,” Miller said. “Rabin’s death, the nature of roles Israelis and Palestinians played as occupier and occupied — and they’re each responsible in their own way for the collapse of Oslo — really made it very long odds.”
Miller said that despite the collapse of Oslo, he was part of a team that advised then-President Bill Clinton to “go for broke” with the Camp David Summit in 2000. The conference aimed to establish a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and brought Clinton, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then-leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat together.
“I was one of the 12 Americans there,” Miller said. “Sadly, and despite all these commitments and good intentions, it was not well managed. There was never a chance. We had to watch in the fall of 2000 after first Intifada broke out, the collapse of everything Israelis and Palestinians tried to achieve — we tried to help them — essentially be destroyed.”
Robert Malley, the Middle East and North African program director for the International Crisis Group, worked with Miller as a White House adviser on the Arab-Israeli conflict during Miller’s time at the State Department.
Malley remains a close personal friend of Miller’s, and called him “an exceptional colleague.”
“Whether people agreed with him or not, they always respected what he had to say because he came to issues with an open mind and a questioning mind,” Malley said.
He added that Miller rarely let the parties involved in negotiations off the hook, including himself.
“Not only would he listen and question others, he would also listen to and question himself, he was very introspective in that sense,” Malley said. “What he applied to others, he applied to himself.”
A CHANGE OF SCENERY
Miller no longer sits at the negotiating table.
He resigned from the State Department in 2003, deciding that Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, and Arafat, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, had other goals in mind besides establishing a lasting peace.
“Neither of them were interested in doing anything other than setting up the other for destruction,” Miller said. “I made the decision at that point that I had had enough. Twenty-five years was all I needed.”
Miller now occupies an office at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in downtown Washington, D.C., a few floors above a mammoth bust of Wilson in the lobby. The nonpartisan center, which is tucked away in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, a mere three blocks from the White House, brings prominent thinkers to Washington to do advanced study.
A NON-ACADEMIC SCHOLAR
Though his title is “Public Policy Scholar,” Miller said he doesn’t consider himself a scholar in the traditional academic sense.
“I’m not here to diss the academy. I love going to university campuses to speak, I really do,” he said. “I love students, but after 24 hours on a university campus — and again I’m just speaking personally — I’m ready to go. I’m ready to go because the world is a much more complex place.”
Ironically, it was Miller’s professors at the University who made him realize he wanted to make policy instead of lecturing about it.
Miller transferred to the University after spending a year at Tulane University in New Orleans on a tennis scholarship and another year in England on a history exchange program. Once he arrived in Ann Arbor, Miller became a very serious student, quipping that he went to only one Univerity of Michigan football game during his eight years at the University.
He became close with two history professors, Richard Mitchell and Gerald Linderman, who both had careers as foreign services officers before coming to the University.
Linderman, who has since retired from the University but still resides in Ann Arbor, stays in touch with Miller. He said knowing Miller as a student, he wasn’t surprised that he rose to such a position of prominence.
“He was very interested in the foreign service and we talked about it a lot,” Linderman said. “But I think the important factor there is that I had discovered in my time as a political officer that it was a matter of observing other countries and analyzing as well as you could and reporting them to Washington.”
But according to Linderman, that wasn’t enough for Miller.
“I was an observer rather than a participant, and Aaron, I think, was always more dedicated to participating himself and especially trying to influence matters of American foreign policy,” he said.
Miller began his career at the University pursuing a degree in American history, but after starting work for his Ph.D he realized his calling lay elsewhere.
“I was proceeding merrily along studying Civil War history, which I was very interested in, still am. But then around the time I should’ve received my master’s degree, I had a change, I’m not even entirely sure why. I didn’t really want to study American history. I had been interested in the Middle East,” he said.
Miller convinced the history department that he could learn the languages and topics necessary to become a Middle East historian, and he could think of only one way to accomplish that goal.
“I got married in May of 1973, and we packed up and left the country and went to the only place that you could study Arabic and Hebrew as living languages in 1973, and that was Jerusalem,” he said.
Shortly after he arrived in Israel, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War broke out, which provided Miller with an experience he wasn’t expecting.
“(The war) put my wife Lindsay and me in a situation in which we had never been, in a society that was mobilized for conflict in a strange way,” he said. “And that year with all of its dislocation really changed my worldview again and made me more determined to become interested in the Middle East.”
Miller became familiar with the conflict at a young age, growing up in Cleveland, Ohio with parents and grandparents who were very active in the Jewish and Zionist communities.
“That provided a base,” Miller said of his Jewish-American upbringing. “My academic education and my experiences then drew me, pushed me, forced me and compelled me to try to understand the problem in more of its entirety, which meant of course that it wasn’t just one-hand clapping.”
“SHAPER OF DEBATE”
Miller’s commitment to understand both sides of the conflict has brought him criticism from all corners. In addition to public criticism, Miller receives what his wife calls, “fan mail” — letters from people on every side of the conflict full of personal attacks.
“The fact that I’m out of government doesn’t matter, they still continue and they come from everybody,” he said. “The pursuit of truth, if that’s a way to explain it, is never easy. Separating yourself from the group, the tribe, is never easy. But it’s necessary.”
Despite the criticism, Miller said he wants to remain part of the “public conversation” on the issue for a long time to come, though he’s turned his professional attention to a different topic — he’s currently working on a book about presidential greatness.
Miller, who has appeared as a commentator on CNN, FOX News, Al Jazeera and many other media outlets said he takes his role as a “shaper of debate” on the issue very seriously, because the issue itself is very serious.
“The notion that trying and failing is better than not trying at all, I once bought that, I don’t buy it anymore,” he said. “The Michigan football team can govern by that principle, but the United States can not. Every time a super power fails, it costs it its image and its creditability.”