BY ELIZABETH AUSTER | WASHINGTON The last time the United States won a war against Iraq, Aaron Miller knew exactly what he hoped would happen next.
So the lanky, long-haired son of a prominent Cleveland family helped draft a memo to his then-boss, former Secretary of State James Baker. The first Persian Gulf War, Miller argued, had rearranged the political furniture in the Mideast, offering a chance at last for a major breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Getting a breakthrough wouldn’t be easy, but it was worth a try. Baker agreed, and over the next seven months, dashed off to the Mideast eight times, Miller recalls. By October, Baker had his breakthrough: a landmark peace conference in Madrid.
Plenty has changed since then in the Middle East, much of it lately for the worse. But the 54-year-old Miller, who has spent his entire professional life trying to figure out ways to bring peace to the region, has been thinking a lot about that memo as he watches the news from Iraq. “In the wake of this war, there will come a similar moment,” he predicted last week at his home in suburban Washington. “The United States will be involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before this year is up.”
If his prediction is right, however, Miller will have some major adjusting to do. For the first time in a quarter-century, he will have to watch a high-stakes round of Middle East diplomacy from the sidelines. Earlier this year, he decided to leave the State Department to become president of Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit group that teaches Israeli and Arab teenagers the art of coexistence.
Miller, who once expected to retire from the State Department, said he never considered leaving until the death last summer of John Wallach, a friend who founded Seeds of Peace after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Wallach, who had asked Miller to take over the group before he died, had been a neighbor of Miller’s. Miller’s wife, Lindsay, had long been active in the group. Still, Miller said, it was a tough decision because he never imagined surrendering the central role he had played for more than a decade in U.S. efforts to broker an Arab-Israeli peace.
During the Clinton administration, Miller was deputy to special Mideast coordinator Dennis Ross. When the Bush administration disbanded Ross’ office in 2001, Miller stayed on as a senior adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations. Even during the past few years, which he calls the low point of his 24-year career at the State Department, Miller says he never gave up hope that prospects for peace would improve despite suicide attacks in the Middle East and the Bush administration’s relatively low-key approach to pursuing the peace process.
“Had John not died,” he says, “I would have stayed because it would only have been a matter of time before the [Bush] administration would have had a moment to engage in this diplomacy. And I would have been part of that moment.”
Indeed, unlike many critics of the Bush administration’s approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Miller takes pains to note that new administrations typically take time before jumping into high-stakes diplomacy in the region. And the Bush White House, he adds, “inherited probably the worst situation” of any recent administration.
Miller, who traces his stubborn optimism about the Middle East to his formidable parents—Forest City Enterprises Co-Chairman Sam Miller and the late Ruth Ratner Miller, a prominent Cleveland philanthropist and community leader—is legendary in diplomatic circles for his faith that a peace agreement eventually will be achieved. “His attitude was always that this was too important to give up on,” says his former boss, Ross, who is now director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Gerald Linderman, a former professor of Miller’s at the University of Michigan who has kept in touch with him, says he wouldn’t be surprised “if there is another chapter in his life” that involves a return to government diplomacy. Nor does Miller rule it out. When he finally decided to leave the State Department after three months of agonizing last year, he says, he made a four-year commitment to Seeds of Peace.
His thinking, he says, was that he might have more impact on Mideast peace in the short term by running such a group because he had concluded that no permanent peace agreement is likely for years in the wake of the Clinton administration’s failure to push the process forward quickly. In the meantime, he said, a group like Seeds—which runs a center in Jerusalem as well as a summer camp in Maine—could work with young Palestinians and Israelis to make sure they don’t become so embittered by recent violence that they are unable to make peace succeed in the future.
“I came to understand,” he said, “that the real game may well be the next generation. What’s really at stake here is the possibility of losing an entire young generation to hopelessness and despair.”
Even if the Bush administration is able to restart talks in the coming months and move closer toward a peace pact, Miller argues, no agreement will survive without support from young Palestinians and Israelis who are growing up increasingly polarized. Though Seeds cannot solve the problem with its modest $5.5 million annual budget, Miller says, it can at least chip away at the problem as he looks for ways to expand its programs. Just last week, he said, he got word that the first President Bush has agreed to serve on the organization’s honorary advisory board, joining former President Clinton.
And Miller, who became accustomed to traveling during his years trying to defuse tensions in the Mideast, says he is on the road again constantly in his new role—raising money, trying to garner publicity and drumming up political support from the many governments that agree to send their teenagers to Seeds’ programs. In just the past several months, he says, he has been to Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
His contacts in such countries and his sensitivities to the political dynamics of the region have been invaluable, says Janet Wallach, an author and the widow of Seeds’ founder. “This was John’s great hope,” she says of Miller’s decision to take over the organization. “The reason John was so eager for Aaron to do this was that Aaron not only had the knowledge and understanding of all the nuances of Middle East diplomacy, but he also had the passion for Seeds of Peace.”
Miller, who will address the City Club on Friday, says he has barely had time to miss his old job since leaving it in January. But that doesn’t mean he won’t if the peace process perks up. “Of course I’ll miss it,” he says. “You cannot do this for this many years and not have it kind of course through your veins.”
There is at least one thing he won’t miss, though—the last-minute calls ordering him to get on a plane back to the Middle East, like the one that prompted the letter from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that hangs on the wall of Miller’s study at his sprawling home in Chevy Chase, Md. The letter, addressed to Miller’s wife, Lindsay, apologizes for the time in 1998 that the couple had to cancel at the last minute a 25th anniversary trip to Hawaii. It took almost five more years for Miller and his wife to take that trip. They finally took it in December, after he made his big decision.