Since Secretary of State Clinton set out for the Middle East over the weekend, it has seemed increasingly clear to me that Dennis Ross, contrary to my earlier speculation, pretty much got the job that he and WINEP were hoping for. Not only has he claimed an office on the coveted seventh floor, but Obama’s conspicuous placement of Ross’ name between those of Mitchell and Holbrooke in his speech on Iraq at Camp Lejeune last week strongly suggested that he considers Ross to be of the same rank and importance as the other two.
More to the point is what Clinton and those around her have been saying during the trip, including, most remarkably, the report by an unnamed “senior State Department official” that she told the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that she was “very doubtful” that diplomacy would persuade Iran to abandon its alleged quest for nuclear weapons. This, of course, very much reflects Ross’ own view (as well that of neo-conservatives) and will no doubt bolster hard-liners in Tehran who believe that Obama’s talk of engagement is simply designed to marshal more international support for eventual military action, be it a bombing campaign or a blockade to cut gasoline imports. That Obama essentially confirmed today’s New York Times report about a proposed deal with Moscow whereby it would go along with increasing sanctions against Iran in exchange for Washington’s non-deployment of anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic only adds to the impression that some version of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s September ’08 report on Iran strategy (drafted by hard-line neo-cons Michael Rubin and Michael Makovsky and signed by Ross), which I wrote about here, is in the process of being implemented. (I was going to write about this later this week, but the Moon of Alabama beat me to the punch. See also Stephen Walt’s analysis of Clinton’s scepticism on his Foreign Policy blog).
Adding to my growing sense that Ross occupies a critical role in policy-making, at least in the State Department, are what Clinton has had to say so far on her trip about Gaza, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. As Marc Lynch reports in his truly excellent blog, also on the Foreign Policy website, “her remarks suggest that rather than seize on the possibility of Palestinian reconciliation, Clinton prefers to double-down on the shopworn ‘West Bank first, Fatah only’ policy” strongly advocated by Ross. In that respect, you should definitely read Tuesday’s extended colloquy between Lynch, Brookings’ Tamara Wittes (who is more optimistic), and Carnegie’s Nathan Brown, who shares Lynch’s “disappointment” about Clinton’s performance. As Lynch notes, it seems that Clinton is stuck “in a bit of time-warp” regarding Hamas’ power in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority’s abject failure to enhance its legitimacy, and the Arab League’s renewed efforts to both unify itself and to reconstruct a Palestinian government of national unity. This insensitivity to Palestinian and Arab public opinion bears all the hallmarks of Ross’ failed Mideast diplomacy during the 1990’s.
I also have the impression that Ross and the so-called “Israel Lobby” whose interests he represents believe that enhancing conditions on the West Bank, combined with diplomatic engagement with Syria, will somehow be sufficient for Washington to regain its credibility in the region and rally the Sunni Arab states — along with the European Union, Russia, China, etc. — behind a policy of confrontation with Iran.