Ross Gets An Appointment But Maybe Not Quite the One He Wanted

Dennis Ross’ appointment was finally announced today. This appeared as a “press release” on the State Department’s website late this afternoon:

Appointment of Dennis Ross as Special Advisor for The Gulf and Southwest Asia

Robert Wood
Acting Department Spokesman
Washington, DC
February 23, 2009

The Secretary is pleased to announce the appointment of Dennis B. Ross to the position of Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for The Gulf and Southwest Asia. This is a region in which America is fighting two wars and facing challenges of ongoing conflict, terror, proliferation, access to energy, economic development and strengthening democracy and the rule of law. In this area, we must strive to build support for U.S. goals and policies. To be successful, we will need to be able to integrate our policy development and implementation across a broad range of offices and senior officials in the State Department, and, in his role as Special Advisor to the Secretary, Ambassador Ross will be asked to play that role.

Specifically, as Special Advisor, he will provide to the Secretary and senior State Department officials strategic advice and perspective on the region; offer assessments and also act to ensure effective policy integration throughout the region; coordinate with senior officials in the development and formulation of new policy approaches; and participate, at the request of the Secretary, in inter-agency activities related to the region.

Ambassador Ross brings a wealth of experience not just to issues within the region but also to larger political-military challenges that flow from the area and have an impact outside of the Gulf and Southwest Asia, and the Secretary looks forward to drawing on that experience and diplomatic perspective.

There will no doubt be a wealth of commentary about what precisely this announcement will mean for Ross’s future authority and influence. But, if you compare it with the way the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) advertised it to its Board of Trustees early last month — Ross will be “ambassador-at-large” and “the secretary’s top advisor on a wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran” — it seems to fall significantly short. Short, that is, not just with respect to with the “topness” of his status as Clinton’s adviser, but also short in terms of his geographical scope since it appears his brief will be confined to the Gulf and Southwest Asia — regions in which, contrary to the press release’s words, he has very little, if any, direct experience.

That doesn’t mean Ross will not be influential in developing Iran policy, in particular, but his role seems to be a) strictly advisory, with no direct policy-making responsibility; and b) confined to the State Department, unless Clinton asks him to work with other agencies as well. His exclusive responsibility to the secretary — there is no mention of any direct tie to the president or the White House — stands as a rather dramatic contrast to both Special [Middle East] Envoy George Mitchell and Special [AfPak] Representative Richard Holbrooke whose authorities and responsibilities are linked explicitly linked to the White House, in addition to the secretary of state. That impression is naturally bolstered by the fact that Mitchell’s and Holbrooke’s appointments were announced in person by Obama, as well as by Clinton, and they will be reporting to the White House, in addition to the Secretary.

The fact that Ross’ appointment was not even announced personally by Clinton, but rather through a late-afternoon press release (not even an announcement during the daily briefing), tends to reinforce this notion, undermining his authority and standing ab initio. (Clinton was reported to have been peeved at WINEP’s premature announcement to which she attributed Ross’ penchant for self-promotion. At the same time, the lack of ceremony surrounding the announcement may also testify to the sensitivity of both the position and the choice of Ross himself, especially among Washington’s European and Arab allies — not to mention Iran itself — that have indicated unease with anyone so closely associated with the so-called “Israel Lobby” as the new Special Adviser. Of course, it will be most interesting to see whether he gets that “seventh-floor” office that WINEP boasted about, but, if he falls even one floor short of number 7, that would be a serious slap in the face.)

Now that his appointment has been finalized, however, objections by the right-wing leadership of the Lobby to Chas Freeman’s appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), on the grounds that his Middle East Policy Council received substantial financial support from the Saudi government are likely weakened, as noted by a source quoted in Ben Smith’s blog on the Politico website. It notes that Ross served as chairman of the board of directors of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an Israeli government arm.

Update: It’s just been pointed out to me by a close observer U.S.-Iran policy, Farideh Farhi at the University of Hawaii, that Ross’ new title, “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for The Gulf and Southwest Asia,” omits the word “Persian” between “The” and “Gulf” — an omission, she noted, that appears to defy official usage by the State Department. (See, for example, the latest travel advisory for the “Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf” issued by State less than two weeks ago.) Was this alteration “intentionally intended as an insult or as a signal of a tough line?” Farideh asks.

I suspect, in any event, that this is not the kind of “respect” that Tehran may have been expecting from the Obama administration.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. I find the omission of “Persian” from “Gulf” as a very serious slight to Iran’s people and its history since the “Persian Gulf” name is the right and official name for that body of water. That slight not only won’t bode well with Iran’s government, but would be taken as a grave insult to Iran’s history. Iran, will view this as a provocation intended to pander to the ever-hostile Arab governments and goes against Obama’s stated interest in reaching out to Iranian people.

    Now, regarding this appointment, it would defy credulity to think that Ross won’t have a strong influence shaping Iran’s policy in favor of Israeli interests, which will most certainly scuttle the negotiations; probably, that’s exactly what the Israelis would be hoping for, a short-tracked distant-to-fail kind of negotiation.

    I feel Iran should just wait until its next election in June while in the meantime watch for any serious sign of changing American policies towards it like for example freeing its diplomats ceased in Erbil, Iraq by the GWB administration.

    Hope there is a serious back channel at work and not this appointment. This is very disappointing on all accounts, to say the least!

  2. Let’s not get too hung up about the omission of the word ‘Persian’. I know from my own experience as a presenter on domestic Iranian TV that this is sensitive within Iran itself, but to be honest, the level of ignorance in the US and Europe about this sensitivity and the difference is widespread – I suspect there was no deliberate sleight involved. Let’s focus on the more substantial possibilities coming out of these developments, and in particular Ross’ influence over Clinton, and their power to derail any potential warming of relations between Iran and the US.

  3. I wish I could agree with Paul Ingram. I think Mr Ross had a hand in choosing his job title and knows that Arabs hate Persians more than they hate Israel. Hence dropping the “Persian” from the Gulf, to pander to the Arabs at no cost to Israel. To every Iranian, regardless of his political or religious affinity, the name of the Persian Gulf is too important to allow him/er to be “not too hung up about”.

  4. From my days as a diplomat in the Gulf the local convention was to refer to the Arabian Gulf. It was a sop to our hosts but consistently used, even in cables home. I cannot now recall whether American cables used the form but certainly it was in conversation, etc. The omission of the word “Persian” would appear to be a sensible formulation.

    We should perhaps spend more effort in assessing how much influence Ross might have on US policy in the service of Israel.

  5. Probably, low-level diplomats would be silent when faced with this kind of distortion of the name Persian Gulf; a name that dates back to 1500 BC and the official name in all the UN maps, documentations and historical literature. To change this name has one purpose and one purpose alone (no matter what the name you change it to): is it antagonize the Iranian people before even the Iranian government! Is this what Mr. Obama was talking about when he talked of respect to the Iranians?!

Comments are closed.