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Dennis Ross and Obama’s Emerging Middle East Policy
Stephen J. Sniegoski
January 13, 2009
Obama has appointed Dennis Ross as his special envoy to Iran and overall Middle East “czar.” Outside of the hard-line neocons such as Douglas Feith, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Perle, etc., it would be hard to come up with someone who would be less of an honest broker in the Middle East.
Dennis Ross was Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy where he was somewhat pro-Israel and he seems to have become more of an neocon-oriented Israel Firster since that time. His post-Clinton record includes supporting the pro-Iraq War campaigns of the neocon Project for the New American Century and serving as a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a significant pro-Israel think tank in Washington
Mearsheimer and Walt have described WINEP as ‘part of the core’ of the Israel lobby. In “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” they write:
“Recognizing the need for a prominent but seemingly ‘objective’ voice in the policy area surrounding Israel, former AIPAC president Larry Weinberg; his wife, Barbi Weinberg; AIPAC’s vice president; and AIPAC deputy director of research Martin Indyk founded the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 1985. Although WINEP plays down its links to Israel and claims that it provides a ‘balanced and realistic’ perspective on Middle East issues, this is not the case. In fact, WINEP is funded and run by individuals who are deeply committed to advancing Israel’s agenda. Its board of advisors includes prominent pro-Israel figures such as Edward Luttwak, Martin Peretz, Richard Perle, James Woolsey and Mortimer Zuckerman, but includes no one who might be thought of as favoring the perspective of any other country or group in the ‘Near East.’ Many of its personnel are genuine scholars or experienced former officials, but they are hardly neutral observers on most Middle East issues and there is little diversity of views within WINEP’s ranks.” (pp. 175-176)
In recent years, Ross also has served on the board of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank that promotes “the thriving of the Jewish people via professional strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry.”
Significantly, Ross has taken a very hostile position toward Iran Ross helped to produce the 2008 report “Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development,” The report argues that despite Iran’s assurances to the contrary, its nuclear program aims to develop nuclear weapons and is thus a threat to the U.S. This conclusion is contrary to the CIA’s November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Iran had put its efforts to develop nuclear warheads on hold. Moreover, the report contends that if Iran had nuclear weapons it could not be deterred, like all other countries that have had nuclear weapons, because of its “extremist ideology.”
The report actually calls for the new US president to expand American military forces in the Middle East! This would entail “pre-positioning additional U.S. and allied forces, deploying additional aircraft carrier battle groups and minesweepers, emplacing other war material in the region, including additional missile defense batteries, upgrading both regional facilities and allied militaries, and expanding strategic partnerships with countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia in order to maintain operational pressure from all directions.” This would seem to represent the neocons wildest dream.
The report goes on to state that if the new administration would hold talks with Iran it should set compliance deadlines which if not met would lead to an American attack on Iran. The military strikes would “have to target not only Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but also its conventional military infrastructure in order to suppress an Iranian response.”
Commentator Jim Lobe quite accurately refers to the report as a “roadmap to war,” pointing out that “if Tehran is not eventually prepared to permanently abandon its enrichment of uranium on its own soil—a position that is certain to be rejected by Iran ab initio—war becomes inevitable, and all intermediate steps, even including direct talks if the new president chooses to pursue them, will amount to going through the motions (presumably to gather international support for when push comes to shove.)”
In appointing people like Ross to key roles, is Obama, the presumed proponent of peace, actually preparing for a policy of war in the Middle East?
As Raimondo writes: “With Hillary and Ross at the helm of State, expect prolonged negotiations in the form of a series of ultimatums directed at Tehran, punctuated, perhaps, by a series of incidents, close calls that don’t quite spark a war but keep the embers burning. All this drama leading inexorably to a preordained denouement – the third gulf war.”
As I have pointed out in earlier messages, Obama’s image as a proponent of peace would make it easier for him to launch war. His move to war could much more easily be perceived by the public as the only option remaining, in contrast to skepticism that Bush/ Cheney would face as known warmongers. Many more liberals and Democrats would support a war launched by Obama than a war launched by a Republican. And conservatives and Republicans would tend to give Obama about as much support for war as they would give to Bush/Cheney or McCain; in fact, many probably would criticize him as moving too slowly toward war.
Now I realize that Obama’s peace supporters have continued to maintain that Obama’s appointment of Middle East hawks represents some sophisticated strategy to achieve peace. Raimondo addresses this argument: “We keep hearing Obama is making all these business-as-usual appointments in order to disarm his critics in advance when he starts taking those really bold initiatives, but doesn’t there come a point when that somewhat dubious strategy becomes suspiciously repetitive? Is he really appointing Dennis Ross just so he can usher in a new era of equal justice and sustained peace in the region? Come off it, you Obama-ites – there won’t be any change in our foreign policy, except for the worse.”
Anti-war commentator Glenn Greenwald, on other hand, gives limited support to the peace argument (in a longer article that deals with the Rasmussen Poll and the Congress’ resolution on Gaza, which I should have included in the previous email, but include here)
Greenwald writes “Some argue that Obama has filled key positions with politicians who have a history of virtually absolute support for Israeli actions . . . because Obama intends to continue, more or less, the Bush policy of blind support for Israel. Others argue the opposite: that those appointments are necessary to vest the Obama administration with the credibility to take a more active role in pushing the Israelis to a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”
Greenwald writes that he finds the peace theory “marginally more persuasive, but there is simply no way to know until Obama is inaugurated.”
Greenwald doesn’t seem to see the need to provide much evidence here. Obviously, no one can definitely “know” what will happen in the future. However, by looking at past events one gets a better understanding of what will probably happen in the future—probability not certainty. This is simply how people plan for the future.
Now we can only judge Obama by what he has done so far.. From past experience it would seem that an administration’s policy is largely shaped by high-placed policy advisors . By selecting pro-Israeli hawks such as Ross, Obama has guaranteed that the Iranians will be suspicious, and probably non-cooperative, as illustrated in the following article from the Washington Times. The same could probably be said for the Palestinians.
Since the US has been anything but an honest broker in the Middle East, one would think it would be more important to calm the suspicions of the Iranians and the Palestinians than to soothe the Israelis. Putting people such as Ross at the helm would tend to confirm Iranian suspicions that the US did not intend to deal with them fairly, thus precluding the chance for diplomatic agreement, and opening the door for more forceful action, even war against Iran because of its failure to co-operate, as Dennis Ross’ recent study advocates.
Now, Obama might not intend this. He might reasonably believe that for political reasons he has to please the Israel Lobby. He might think he can overcome the views of the hawks he has surrounded himself with. He might view himself as a genius who can devote himself to multiple serious issues—especially the economy—and still outfox representatives of the Israel Lobby on Middle East policy (who are experts on the subject, with multiple significant ties to Israel, and are devoting all their time to the issue) and establish a policy contrary to theirs and force them to carry it out properly. It is hard to think of an American leader who did something comparable this or how it could be done. Most American presidents are highly influenced by their advisors—Washington/Hamilton, Wilson/Lansing and House, Nixon and Ford/Kissinger, Elder Bush/Baker, Younger Bush/Cheney and the neocons. And when American presidents don’t adhere to the views of a particular advisor/advisors and it is because they have significant advisors with contrary views. These counterweights in Middle East policy have yet to been seen in Obama’s emerging administration. .
The only partial exception to my argument was Bill Clinton, who in his second term surrounded himself with some pro-Israel hawks such as Madeleine Albright. Albright and other hawks, plus the hawkish media, did get Clinton involved in the war on Serbia over Kosovo, but Clinton would only go part way (largely bombing civilians) and did not commit ground troops. And he would only fire some missiles at Saddam, though maintaining the blockade and the no-fly zones. So in a way, Bill Clinton, the consummate conman, was able to avoid the war policies of some of his leading advisors, keeping in mind the thinking of his mentor Senator J. William Fulbright,* but his policies certainly did not establish long-term peace. Moreover, Clinton did not have to confront the serious government decisions facing Obama, who must deal with the economic meltdown, which could make or break his administration. So even to achieve results of the Clintonian level, Obama would have to be a far more able manipulator of people than Bill Clinton.
*J. William Fulbright was not only a major opponent of the US war policy in Southeast Asia and overall American military intervention, but was a critic of the Israel Lobby, saying "Israel controls the United States Senate. Around 80 percent are completely in support of Israel; anything Israel wants it gets. Jewish influence in the House of Representatives is even greater.” in CBS Face the Nation on April 15, 1973. In 1974 Fulbright suffered defeat in the Democratic primary election, due in large part to the Israel Lobby. Fulbright had been head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 1959.
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