Skip to main content

Middle East will muddle through 2013

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
December 28, 2012 -- Updated 1351 GMT (2151 HKT)
Aaron Miller says a re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel will have no incentive to tackle tough issues with Palestinians.
Aaron Miller says a re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel will have no incentive to tackle tough issues with Palestinians.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller: Predictions for dramatic change in Middle East are likely to be wrong
  • He says 2013 will be a year when U.S. avoids military action against Iran's nuclear program
  • Progress on peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinians seems unlikely, he says
  • Miller: The lack of dramatic developments should be considered a positive

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Can America Have Another Great President?" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Since leaving government almost a decade ago, my analysis of matters Middle Eastern has been, well, annoyingly negative.

And the reason? Best summed up in a line often attributed to Groucho Marx but actually uttered by Chico: "Well, who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

What I see is an angry, broken, dysfunctional region that wants to transcend itself and resolve the conflicts that hold it back, but just can't. And I'm not at all sure there's a whole lot America -- that indispensable nation -- can do about it.

Here are my predictions for 2013 on some of the key issues. This year's theme is muddle through --neither breakthroughs nor breakdowns.

Iran:

2013 -- The so-called year of decision -- war with the mullahs who rule Iran or the grand bargain -- will produce neither. President Obama will go to extreme lengths to avoid a military strike aimed at Iran's nuclear program and will not greenlight an Israeli one. Without that go-ahead, the Israelis will continue to agonize but not act. And the mullahs will be smart enough not to brazenly give either Jerusalem or Washington an easy excuse to strike.

2013 will be a year of....
CNN Opinion contributors weigh in on what to expect in 2013. What do you think the year holds in store? Let us know @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook/CNNOpinion

Bottom line -- 2013 will be a year of diplomacy, not war. To borrow a conceit from my friend New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino, 2013 will witness the Tom and Jerry game in which cat and mouse in the old cartoon continue a never-ending game of almost gotcha. Who knows? If the Americans and Iranians try hard enough they might actually bump into one another and reach a limited deal to keep Iran a few more years away from getting enough uranium to make weapons. But if you're looking for final closure on this one, go talk to Dr. Phil.

Arab-Israeli peace:

Panetta: A nuclear Iran is unacceptable
Palestinians get U.N. upgrade
Iran's assault on civil society
Syrian rebels: Defection will spark more

The sun, moon, and stars really aren't aligned on this one for a big breakthrough. Where should I start? The January 22 elections in Israel will likely produce another Netanyahu government that has no incentive to destroy itself politically by tackling the big issues like Jerusalem and refugees, certainly not with the Iranian nuclear issue still open. And the Islamists -- Hamas and Egypt's Mohamed Morsy (who can barely bring himself to talk about a two-state solution) aren't in the giving mood either. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is too weak to initiate much.

Bottom line -- The Americans will try and may succeed in getting the Israelis and Palestinians into a process to talk about borders and security. But the two-state solution is likely to remain too hard to achieve but too important to abandon. Persident Obama will probably not be earning his Nobel peace prize -- yet.

Arab spring/winter:

This is going to be a long movie. After all, it took the United States a century and half and bloody civil war to even begin to reconcile the promise of equality contained wiithin the Declaration of Independence with the legitimization of slavery contained in the Constitution, and we're still not there yet.

Still, nowhere in the Arab world do the trend lines look that hopeful. Neither in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, let alone Syria, do the Arabs have the three elements required to set their experiment with democratization and pluralism in the right direction: leaders who put the nation before their own political and religious parties' interests, institutions that are seen as inclusive and legitimate, and a mechanism to ensure that polarization doesn't spill out into the streets in violence.

Bottom line -- Buckle your seatbelts. No immediate convulsions and catastrophes. But in the new Arab world with Islamists rising, the political space for the United States is going to get a whole lot smaller and the dangers to our diplomats much greater. The key question is at what point the bell will begin to toll for the kings and emirs in Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, too.

The good news:

But all isn't totally gloomy. We're out of or getting out of the two longest wars in our history, we're reducing our dependence on Arab oil, al Qaeda has been weakened, and while we're not safe we're certainly safer here at home -- at least from foreign terrorists.

Bottom line -- With the notable exception of killing Osama bin Laden, President Obama hasn't had any spectacular successes in foreign policy, but more important, he has avoided spectacular failures. If he can continue to keep us out of trouble, particularly at a time when we need to be focused on repairing America's broken house rather than chasing around the lands of Araby trying to fix everybody else's, he'll have done pretty well. And who knows, if he's patient, maybe he'll even be able to turn one of those Middle Eastern migraines and root canals into an opportunity or two.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1459 GMT (2259 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT