The WINEP crusade to discredit the Egyptian revolution

A few days ago I noted a pretty awful piece by WINEP's Robert Satloff and Eric Trager in WSJ. But there is more:

  • WINEP fellow Eric Trager has had more negative pieces on the Egyptian uprising, focusing on how nasty Islamists are, than anyone. His latest, published on the revolution's anniversary, is titled Happy Birthday To Egypt’s Doomed Revolution. I share Trager's concerns over the Islamist ascendency but the entire premise of many his pieces is wrong: he argues that somehow the West was fooled into thinking this was a liberal secular revolution. It was not, and it was obvious from the start. It was a revolution against a dictator and his autocratic system, but joined by all sorts of people — from undemocratic radical leftists and Islamists to mainstream Islamists, liberals, centrists of all shades. And it's amusing he decries that some activists would not meet with Hillary Clinton. Nothing new here, it has been the case for a long time and a completely understandable decision considering US policies in the region and backing Mubarak (and perhaps SCAF). He also is fighting a home game, the one WINEP cares most about, about US foreign policy and the engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood. Why anyone would object with US officials meeting with members of the largest party in Egypt is beyond me, and some sort of policy was necessary to break the ice considering past kowtowing to Mubarak regime restrictions on meeting the Brothers. (Update: The Lounsbury chimes in.)
  • David Pollock, also a WINEP fellow, has a rather trite piece attacking the Muslim Brothers for what they say in English vs. what they in Arabic. He doesn't even provide the best examples, which come from the governorate websites of the Brothers. This kind of argumentation is futile, because the point is no longer what the Brothers say in one language or the other, but what they do. This is precisely why the US is talking to them – to have an impact over what they do. And the real big problem with this piece in meta: its underlying assumption is that the US is "trusting" the MB's "private assurances" and statements. What, in this chaotic situation? No one runs foreign policy like that, as if Obama is saying, but that guy Beltagui of the Brothers assured me this or that. Paul Pillar has more on this piece at National Interest.
  • But the real WINEP Egypt bash-feast took place at one of the organization's "policy forums" which Trager, Egyptian activist Samuel Tadros and old WINEP hand David Schenker. I am quite alarmed by Tadros' phrasing of the Egyptian political scene as what non-Islamists can do in conjunction with the US (of course Tadros was previously a recipient of MEPI funding) – as if the US has historically been a great friend of Egyptian democrats – and I remember his rather nasty attack on Ayman Nour as anti-Semitic (as if anti-Semitism is really Egypt's biggest problem.)

It's not that there aren't real foreign policy conundrums towards Egypt – there are plenty. But WINEP's entire approach, focused mostly on bashing the Obama administration's cautious engagement of Islamists who are sen by most Egyptians (despite the elections' many flaws) as democratically elected and constant return to the question of Israel is neither helpful nor analytically interesting. What it amounts to, in other words, is another Israel lobby initiative to ensure that one of the worst aspect of US foreign policy in the region – seeing everything through an Israeli prism – continues. In Egypt, as I've argued in the past, the best way to calm regional tensions may be precisely to decouple US-Egypt relations from the Camp David framework. It's not the propaganda of an outfit dedicated to furthering Israel's interests in the US that's going to provide much insight into how Egypt can make it through the tremendously difficult road ahead, or credibly give advice  about promoting democracy when it spent so many years defending Mubarak when he backed Israeli interests (such as the blockade of Gaza) and bashing him after 2004 when it became politically fashionable.

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.

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.