Dennis Ross and the Saudis

Dennis Ross' call for Obama to "soothe the Saudis" is hardly surprising for this pre-eminent supporter of the status-quo in US Middle East policy since the 1990s, with of course the usual focus on Iran (i.e. against the nuclear talks). But the bit about Egypt is telling too: 

Egypt and Syria will be harder nuts to crack. But focusing on our common strategic objectives is a starting point: preventing Egypt from becoming a failed state, ensuring that jihadis cannot gain footholds in Egypt or Syria, and stopping the genocide in Syria. Perhaps, on Egypt -- where the Saudis cannot afford to be Egypt's ATM forever -- the president could offer to lift the hold on key weapons in return for the Saudis using their influence to get Egypt to finalize an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

If you think what's most important to achieve in Egypt these days is an IMF agreement, you're not just cynical, you're delusional. Ross is as toxic on Saudi Arabia as he is on Israel.

Dennis Ross' tortuous logic

Dennis Ross writes on the Room for Debate blog of the NYT, on the question Saudi support for Egypt:

For the Saudis, there are two strategic threats in the region: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis back certain opposition forces in Syria to weaken Iran and they support the Egyptian military to undermine the Brotherhood. We will not persuade the Saudis by arguing that the military is overplaying its hand.
If we want to move the Saudis on Egypt, we must address their strategic concerns; meaning, for example, that we must convince them that we are prepared either to change the balance of power in Syria or that we will, in fact, prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

That sounds more like what Dennis Ross wants the US to do (i.e. more hawkish positions on Iran and Syria) than something that the Saudis would genuinely take into consideration. For if they are concerned about the MB, why would they adjust that concern based on the Iran question? And why should the US decide to shift its positions on Iran simply because of the Egypt question?

Dennis Ross's hotline to Obama

Haaretz's Barak David asks, Why did the White House install a secure phone in Dennis Ross’ office in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy?

Apparently, a short while after Ross left his position in the Obama administration, the White House made an unusual request to install a secure phone line in Ross' office at the Washington Institute. The secure line is known in Israel as a "red phone", which could be used to discuss confidential information without the risk of wiretapping.

In America, the term “red telephone” brings back memories of the Cold War and apocalyptic films such as of Dr. Strangelove. Guarded telephones in the U.S. Department of State as well as those in the White House are mostly white or gray. One of them sits in Dennis Ross’ office in his research institute, through which Ross receives updates regarding classified government information connected to his profession. There aren’t many independent researchers that receive such privileges.

I'm glad to provide an answer: because Dennis Ross is the Obama administration's chief interlocutor with the Israel lobby and Israel officials. Name me another country that has such power in the United States, or another (kind-of-former) official that has such influence despite having publicly adopted positions that are the opposite of those of the administration that he advises (on Iran, on settlements, on Jerusalem). That's because Ross is not the Obama administration's advisor on Middle East policy – he's one of the main conduits for the Israel lobby's to the administration.

More on Dennis Ross

The praise keeps coming in!

Rashid Khalidi, in a piece really worth reading entirely:

Dennis Ross has finally left the building. Since the Carter administration, Ross has played a crucial role in crafting Middle East policies that have prolonged and exacerbated the more than six-decade conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. His efforts contributed significantly to the growth in the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories from well under 200,000 in the 1980s to nearly 600,000 today. It is in no small measure due to him that the two-state solution is all but dead.

Ross’s tenure during the administrations of five presidents over parts of five decades was marked by a litany of failures. And yet he went from success to bureaucratic success in Washington. His ability to flourish despite these failures reflects the degree to which obsequious support for Israel has become the norm in American politics, even when it contradicts U.S. national interests.

Read More

Reasons for Dennis Ross' departure

I have no idea why Dennis Ross, to the surprise of many, has announced he will leave his White House position next month, as the NYT reported. Some questions this raises:

  • Why did Ross make the announcement at a gathering of Jewish leaders? Is it linked to the recent comments by Obama and Sarkozy about Netanyahu? Ross was often said to be, among other things, a key liaison to the lobby writ large — in a sense, their man inside the White House of a president that Zionists never fully trusted. 
  • As a corollary: does this mean that major Jewish organizations are likely to dump Obama for re-election? This is what Elliott Abrams suggests (perhaps wishful thinking on his part, and not representative in any case of the wider average Jewish-American electorate which remains pretty Democratic and mostly concerned about other issues than Israel — even if the major Jewish organizations have significant fundraising clout).
  • Is it linked to Obama's Iran policy, including his reluctance to beat the war drums? Ross was supposed to be the key pointman on Iran — was he pushed out of that role or frustrated because he could not get his way?
  • Is it simply that with the peace process going nowhere (Ross having made sure of that), he is no longer needed or no longer feels useful?
  • Is it that, ahead of the presidential election, the Obama administration will not engage in any major new initiatives, and thus Ross feels like he would be twiddling his thumbs waiting for an uncertain second term?
  • Or maybe it's just the promise to his wife — but if so, how come we didn't know earlier than he would leave in December 2011?

Whatever the reason, good riddance.

The NYT on Dennis Ross

When George Mitchell resigned last week, a PA official suggested it might have been because he had been elbowed out of his role as US envoy for the Middle East peace process by senior White House advisor Dennis Ross, the longtime peace-processor of the Bush I and Clinton administrations. Some were skeptical when it came from a Palestinian, but the NYT runs a rare story basically confirming this take on Ross' role in the White House as an advocate for Israel. In a sense it might be seen as a positive step that the NYT is talking about this: Ross is a major figure pro-Israel figure of the Democratic establishment with strong ties as a "centrist" or "moderate" in the Israel lobby.

One thing that's signicant in the article is that Jordan's King Abdullah chimes in on the criticism of Ross:

From the State Department, “we get good responses,” the Jordanian king said, according to several people who were in the room. And from the Pentagon, too. “But not from the White House, and we know the reason why is because of Dennis Ross” — President Obama’s chief Middle East adviser.

Mr. Ross, King Abdullah concluded, “is giving wrong advice to the White House.”

By almost all accounts, Dennis B. Ross — Middle East envoy to three presidents, well-known architect of incremental and painstaking diplomacy in the Middle East that eschews game-changing plays — is Israel’s friend in the Obama White House and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in town.

Read More

WINEP and the lobby

It was delightful to read Stephen Walt's rebuttal to WINEP's Robert Satloff on the issue of "dual loyalty" and where WINEP stands. Let us be clear about this, it may be the case that WINEP produces decent material on, say, counter-terrorism in Algeria or the domestic politics of Oman. But on anything that touches Israel, and issues of interest to Israel like Iran, it is one of several think tanks that serve to produce ideological justifications for policies supported by the likes of AIPAC. That is its main and most important purpose, and to pretend otherwise is beyond hypocritical.
I remember attending a WINEP luncheon in Washington a few years ago. It was the kind of thing targeted at fundraisers and supporters, with Dennis Ross as key speaker. The person sitting to my left was a very nice elderly lady, half of a wealthy couple of Jewish retirees from upstate New York. The person sitting on my right was a young Jewish campus activist for Israel. That seemed to represent the range of people in the crowd, and audience and speakers were trying to outdo each other in Iran-bashing and support for Israel. I don't think you see that at serious think tanks.
As M.J. Rosenberg, formerly of AIPAC and now of J Street, writes in his Talking Points Memo blog:

In my piece yesterday, I pointed out that I was in the room when the plan for WINEP was first drawn up. I was working at AIPAC and it was Steve Rosen who cleverly came up with the idea for an AIPAC controlled think-tank that would put forth the AIPAC line but in a way that would disguise its connections.

There was no question that WINEP was to be AIPAC's cutout. It was funded by AIPAC donors, staffed by AIPAC employees, and located one door away, down the hall, from AIPAC Headquarters (no more. It has its own digs). It would also hire all kinds of people not identified with Israel as a cover and would encourage them to write whatever they liked on matters not related to Israel. "Say what you want on Morocco, kid." But on Israel, never deviate more than a degree or two.

It's always been slightly painful to see Egyptian friends — journalists, analysts etc. — take up a job at WINEP, which actively tries to recruit Arabs for fellowships to deflect its lobbying role. I understand why being given a nice salary and a year in Washington is appealing, but it smarts that WINEP is the organization doing this. I tease more mercilessly my American friends who've worked there (not on directly peace-process related issues), but they've moved on now. WINEP has a lot money to throw around, some good researchers, and can afford to buttress its claim of neutrality by hiring former officials and analysts who do not necessarily share their views on Israel — as long as they don't work on the issue. Presumably the same people won't speak out against the house line while they work there, either. 
In any case, that so many are taking Satloff down on his ridiculous claim of WINEP not being part of the lobby is very satisfying personally. In 2005, when I edited Cairo magazine, we ran article tying WINEP to AIPAC. Satloff sent us an angry letter. It was true that WINEP is not funded by AIPAC in a legal sense, but they share donors. Rosenberg elucidates the motive behind separating AIPAC's research arm, then led by Martin Indyk (another person, alongside Dennis Ross, who has no business running US policy in the Middle East) with this tidbit from a reader:

WINEP was created initially at a time when AIPAC was in financial trouble and having a lot of problems raising money, so it was suggested, probably by Steve Rosen. (I was at the same meeting) that we split the AIPAC research department into two parts, a minor part to service the legislative lobbying, and the major part to become a 501(C)3 that could raise big bucks tax free unlike AIPAC itself which did not enjoy that tax status.

As you wrote, it was originally in AIPAC's building and on the same floor but we started getting a lot of pressure from some of the other Jewish organizations which were worried that AIPAC would cut into their (C)3 fundraising.

As for funding, the Weinbergs were key and even worked out a deal with some big money folks who didn't want to contribute to a political operation like AIPAC but would give to (C)3's. So one could give to the (C)3 and someone else would match it for AIPAC.

This became the ultimate in interlocking directorates.

As Helena Cobban points out, some of us have been saying this for a long time. Kudos to Foreign Policy, TPM and of course the invaluable Mondoweiss for bringing this discussion out in the open. But this discussion should not only involve American Jews, it affects all of us. Talking about the "dual loyalty" problem is necessary — not because, as Satloff argued rather heinously, because people who doubt Ross' neutrality on Israel are engaged in a McCarthyite and anti-Semitic campaign and believe Jews can't be trusted (that accusation is the real canard), but because these people and these organizations have a clear record as lobbying organizations for a foreign government that make them poor choices as policymakers.
Consider also that Dennis Ross disagrees with Obama's stated policy on both Iran and the peace process, and even his friend Aaron Miller thinks he's too biased to be a fair negotiator between Israelis and Palestinians. Is it really too much to ask that he be taken off Middle East policy?
On a related note, I've had some fun making fake AIPAC logos, you can take a look at them here. They're inspired by the commonsensical remarks made by Gen. David Petraeus about the peace process being important to American interests in the region, and how its undermining by the Netanyahu government (and previous Israeli administrations) is hurting those interests.

Get rid of Ross

Laura Rozen of Politico talks to US officials who see Dennis Ross continue being Israel's lawyer rather than America's troubleshooter. It's scathing:

“He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests,” one U.S. official told POLITICO Saturday. “And he doesn't seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this Administration.” 

Last week, during U.S.-Israeli negotiations during Netanyahu’s visit and subsequent internal U.S. government meetings, the official said, Ross “was always saying about how far Bibi could go and not go. So by his logic, our objectives and interests were less important than pre-emptive capitulation to what he described as Bibi's coalition's red lines.” 

Ross, the U.S. official continued, “starts from the premise that U.S. and Israeli interests overlap by something close to 100 percent. And if we diverge, then, he says, the Arabs increase their demands unreasonably. Since we can't have demanding Arabs, therefore we must rush to close gaps with the Israelis, no matter what the cost to our broader credibility.” 

A second official confirmed the internal discussion and general outlines of the debate. 

Obviously at every stage of the process, the Obama Middle East team faces tactical decisions about what to push for, who to push, how hard to push, he said. Those are the questions. 

As to which argument best reflects the wishes of the President, the first official said, “As for POTUS, what happens in practice is that POTUS, rightly, gives broad direction. He doesn't, and shouldn't, get bogged down in minutiae. But Dennis uses the minutiae to blur the big picture … And no one asks the question: why, since his approach in the Oslo years was such an abysmal failure, is he back, peddling the same snake oil?” 

Sounds like Ross is wasting everyone's time. Why keep him around?

Links for 07.05.09

FT.com / Comment / Opinion - Chinese exports could crush fragile markets | With consequences in Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa. Sic Semper Tyrannis : Harper on Ross, Clinton et al | An argument that Dennis Ross' move to NSC is a demotion, plus Hillary vs. Barack stuff. 'Aqoul: Palmyra's Last New Month Post? | Is Aqoul.com dying? I know how difficult it is to keep momentum going on a blog, but let's hope not, come on guys... Shishani on Salafi-Jihadism in the Levant — jihadica | On the Salafasation of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Egyptian chronicles: Gamal Mubarak ; The Prince of Upper Egypt | Will Assyut actually have a "Midan Gamal Mubarak"? A thing called “politics” carries on « The Moor Next Door | Another excellent post by Kal on Mauritanian politics Les « règles de l’art » et le prix d’un intellectuel (en Egypte) | Culture et politique arabes | A very good post on Egypt's state literary prizes and the politics of being nominated for them or accepting them, with an extra contribution on recent literary news (and the Farouq Hosni / UNESCO saga) by the august Richard Jacquemond. Bookmark this site, if you read French.
Read More

Obama's Middle East team

A little more clarity on Barack Obama's national security — and mostly Middle East and AfPak — team:

National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon both have the rank of assistant to the president. NSC Director of Strategic Communications Denis McDonough and Chief of Staff Mark Lippert have the rank of deputy assistant to the president. Ross, along with Lute, will have the rank of special assistant to the president. Daniel Shapiro, Puneet Talwar, and Don Camp have senior director status, but not the rank of special assistant to the president that Ross will have.

Note that Dennis Ross has also joined in a beefed-up position now going beyond Iran called "special assistant to the president and senior director on the central region." Note the adoption of a region system analogous to the military's "Central Command" to refer to the Middle East — another sign of the regrettable commitment of the administration to what is, for lack of a better word, essentially an imperialist posture in the region. Laura Rozen has more on that. It is becoming clearer that Ross' move from State to the White House is a promotion, enabling him to have the ear of the president. The idea has been floating around that Ross may be in this position not so much as a key crafter of regional policy but rather as an interface between the president and the Israel lobby he has long been associated with (let's remember that during the Bush years Ross was not only at the pro-Israel Washington Institute, but also at an organization associated with the Jewish Agency, the Israeli quasi-governmental organization whose mission is to bring people to Israel, including the settlements).

Meanwhile, Acting Assistant SecState for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman is still waiting to be confirmed, and thus cannot appoint his own staff yet. I was in Washington a few days ago and visited the State Dept, where I got the impression that things were definitely not quite set up yet. Note that the reason Feltman is not confirmed yet, apparently, is that Senator Carl Levin is withholding (also here) his vote to lobby for one of his constituents who is trying to get money out of the Libyan regime (which has already paid through the nose for the normalization of its relationship with the West.)

Read More

Dennis Ross Faces Big Task on Iran Policy, Including Overcoming Pro-Israel Label

Dennis Ross Faces Big Task on Iran Policy, Including Overcoming Pro-Israel Label
A WaPo profile of Dennis Ross and his task as Iran negotiator, covering the controversy over his Israel ties and the fact that he does not agree with the official policy of the Obama administration on Iran. Helena Cobban has critiqued this piece for pulling punches so I don't have to.
Read More

Middle East diplomacy: Myths, illusions and peace | The Economist

Middle East diplomacy: Myths, illusions and peace | The Economist
A blandly positive review of Dennis Ross and David Makovsky's new book (which takes an opposite position on engagement with Iran than official Obama policy, which this review does not note), in which they argue against talking to "the Khamas and the Khizbullah".
Read More

Dennis Ross vs. Obama: No link between Iran, Mideast peace - Haaretz - Israel News

Dennis Ross vs. Obama: No link between Iran, Mideast peace - Haaretz - Israel News
Sabotage: "Dennis Ross, the U.S. Secretary of State's special adviser on Iran, says in a new book that the United States will not make progress toward peace in the Middle East with the Obama administration's new plan. The book, written with David Makovsky and entitled "Myths, illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East," opposes the Obama administration's concept of linkage. The book is to be published by Viking Press next month. Contrary to the position of the president and other advisers, Ross writes that efforts to advance dialogue with Iran should not be connected to the renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinians. "
Read More

2 special envoys prove well-heeled - USATODAY.com

> 2 special envoys prove well-heeled - USATODAY.com - It pays to be a Zionist: "Dennis Ross, a "special adviser" whose portfolio includes Iran, was paid $818,000 in 2008, his disclosure statement shows. Ross, a former U.S. envoy to the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, took in $421,775 for speeches, including $214,605 from Israeli and Jewish groups, the disclosure form shows."
Read More