Self-fulfilling prophecy: Dennis Ross Doesn’t Think Anything Can Get Accomplished

I was struck by an article by Nathan Guttman in the legendary Jewish Daily Forward about Dennis Ross and George Mitchell jockeying for the position of Obama Administration’s point-person in the Middle East peace process. The whole thing is a fascinating read, but this line really jumped out at me:

Others have also described Ross as more skeptical [than Mitchell] about the chances of peace, based on his decades-long experience with trying to bring together the parties.

I don’t want to get all new-agey, but if you think something is difficult or impossible to do, the chances of being able to do it are greatly diminished from the get-go.

So why does this Ross guy keep getting jobs that he doesn’t think are possible? I picked up Ross’ book off of my shelf here in D.C., and it amazed me how many times he says you cannot make any kind of deal with the Iranians. Then, Obama put him in charge of making a deal with the Iranians. Ross, we now learn, doubts that a peace deal can be reached in Israel-Palestine, and Obama gives him a job making peace in Israel-Palestine.

On the Middle Eastern conflict, Ross’s credentials for the job are impeccable. After all, he’s been involved in decades — decades! — of failed peace processes. Ross has worked at the Washington Institute (WINEP), an AIPAC-formed think tank, and also chaired the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), an Israeli organization dedicated to “ensur(ing) the thriving of the Jewish People and the Jewish civilization.” (The organization seems to oppose intermarriage with racist-sounding statements like “cultural collectivity cannot survive in the long term without primary biological foundations of family and children.”)

Ross was thought responsible for crafting Obama’s presidential campaign AIPAC speech — yes, the one with the line about an “undivided” Jerusalem that would spike a peace deal if implemented. Ross later reiterated the notion of an undivided Jerusalem as a “fact” in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.

Ross was recently in the news following a secret but not-so-secret visit to the Middle East, which was fleshed out on Politico by Laura Rozen. Rozen was the reporter who carried a rather shocking anonymous allegation about Ross:

“[Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] 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.”

In an update, Rozen carried NSC CoS Denis McDonough’s defense of Ross:

“The assertion is as false as it is offensive,” McDonough said Sunday by e-mail. “Whoever said it has no idea what they are talking about. Dennis Ross’s many decades of service speak volumes about his commitment to this country and to our vital interests, and he is a critical part of the president’s team.”

But the new Forward article, as MJ Rosenberg points out, backs up the notion that Ross was extremely concerned with “advocat[ing]” for Israel. The source is none other than Israel-advocate extraordinaire Abe Foxman (who doesn’t negotiate on behalf of the U.S. government):

“Dennis is the closest thing you’ll find to a melitz yosher, as far as Israel is concerned,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, who used the ancient Hebrew term for ‘advocate.'”

Do you get the feeling that Ross advocated for Iran? Or, as the Forward article put it (with my strikethrough), has “strong ties to Israel” Iran? Guttman writes that Ross is considered to have a “reputation of being pro-Israeli.” As for Iran? Not quite: Ross’s Iran experience seems to boil down to heading United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a group that pushes for harsher, broad-based sanctions against Iran (despite a stated goal to not hurt ordinary Iranians) and that has criticized Obama’s policy of engagement. Ross left the gig, as with JPPI, when he took the job with the administration.

The group also launched an error-filled fear-mongering video (while Ross was still there; he appears in the video) and a campaign to get New York hotels to refuse to host Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he comes to town each year for the U.N. General Assembly, which hardly lays the groundwork for good diplomacy.

Oh, and about the Iran engagement designed by Ross: The administration’s approach has been questioned by several leading Iran experts. “It is unlikely that the resources and dedication needed for success was given to a policy that the administration expected to fail,” National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi observed. In December, Ross publicly defended the administration against charges that engagement was less than sincere from the U.S. side. But it is Ross himself who has apparently long held a pessimistic outlook on engagement.

Ross’s 2007 book, “Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World“, is fascinating in light of where Ross has come from, and where he’s taken Iran policy. I was struck at a five-page section of the first chapter called “Neoconservatism vs. Neoliberalism,” in which Ross writes, “[Neoconservatism’s] current standard-bearers — such as Richard Perle, David Frum, William Kristol, and Robert Kagan — are serious thinkers with a clear worldview,” (with my links).

Later, in several long sections about the run-up to George W. Bush’s Iraq war, Ross notes that Paul Wolfowitz was highly focused on Iraq before and after 9/11. He also mentions “political difficulties” in the push for war: “Once [Bush] realized there might be a domestic problem in acting against Iraq, his administration focused a great deal of energy and effort on mobilizing domestic support for military action.”

But Ross never acknowledges that some of his neoconservative “serious thinkers” — such as Kristol and his Weekly Standard magazine — were involved in the concerted campaign to mislead Americans in an effort to push the war… just as the same figures are pushing for an attack on Iran. Frum, who does seem capable of serious thinking, was the author of the “axis of evil” phrasing of Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. The moniker included both Iraq and Iran, despite the fact that the latter was, until the speech, considered a potential ally in the fight against Al Qaeda. (Marsha Cohen chronicled an Israeli effort to squash the alliance, culminating in Frum’s contribution to the Bush speech.)

Ross never mentions that neocon Douglas Feith, a political appointee in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), was responsible for cherry-picking intelligence about Iraq within the administration, and whose office was feeding cooked information to the public via Scooter Libby in Vice President Dick Cheney‘s office. Through Libby, the distorted information made its way into the hands of the Standard and sympathetic journalists like ideologue Judith Miller at the New York Times. In August of 2003, Jim Lobe wrote (with my links):

[K]ey personnel who worked in both NESA [the Pentagon’s Near East and South Asia bureau] and OSP were part of a broader network of neo-conservative ideologues and activists who worked with other Bush political appointees scattered around the national-security bureaucracy to move the country to war, according to retired Lt Col Karen Kwiatkowski, who was assigned to NESA from May 2002 through February 2003. …

Other appointees who worked with… both offices included Michael Rubin, a Middle East specialist previously with the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI); David Schenker, previously with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP); Michael Makovsky; an expert on neo-con icon Winston Churchill and the younger brother of David Makovsky, a senior WINEP fellow and former executive editor of pro-Likud ‘Jerusalem Post’; and Chris Lehman, the brother of the John Lehman, a prominent neo-conservative who served as secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan, according to Kwiatkowski.

Ross has personal experience with many OSP veterans, working with them at WINEP and signing hawkish reports on Iran authored by them.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Ross was a member of a task force that delivered a hawkish report apparently co-authored by two veterans of OSP, Rubin and Michael Makovsky. (Ross reportedly recused himself as the presidential campaign came into full swing.) Lobe, noting Ross’s curious involvement, called the report a “roadmap to war with Iran,” and added, a year later, that the group that put out the report was accelerating the plan, calling for a military build-up and a naval blockade against Iran.

After taking his position within the Obama administration, Ross released a book, co-authored with David Makovsky, that was skeptical of the notion that engagement could work. Nathan Guttman, in a review of the book for the Forward, wrote:

The success of diplomatic engagement, according to Ross, is not guaranteed and could be unlikely. Still, he and Makovsky believe that negotiations will serve a purpose even if results are not satisfying. “By not trying, the U.S. and its refusal to talk become the issue,” said Makovsky in a June 1 interview with the Forward. “What we are saying is that if the U.S. chooses engagement, even if it fails, every other option will be more legitimate.”

The attitude of Ross and Makovsky seems closer to that of the Israeli government then to that of the Obama administration.

OSP, Feith, the Makovsky brothers, and Rubin are not listed in the index of “Statecraft,” nor have they appeared in the many sections that I’ve read in full.

In his book, Ross does have many revealing passages about concepts that have been worked into the Obama administration’s Iran policy. One such ploy, which has not been acknowledged or revealed publicly, is using Israel as the crazy ‘bad cop’ — a potentially dangerous game. Ross also writes that international pressure (through sanctions) must be made in order to cause Iran “pain.” Only then, thinks Ross, can concessions such as “economic, technological and security benefits” from the U.S. be offered:

Orchestrating this combination of sticks and carrots requires at this point some obviously adverse consequences for the Iranians first.

This view does not comport with the Obama plan for a simultaneous dual-track policy toward Iran — which holds that engagement and pressure should occur simultaneously — and serves to bolster critics who say that engagement has not been serious because meaningful concessions have not been offered. But it does hint at another tactic that Ross references at least twice in the book: the difference between “style” and “substance.” With regard to Iran, he presents this dichotomy in relation to public professions about the “military option” — a euphemism for launching a war. But publicly suppressing rhetoric is only used as a way to build international support for pressure — not also, as one might expect, a way to assuage the security fears of Iran.

But those aren’t the only ideas from the 2007 book that seem to have made their way into U.S. policy toward Iran. In “Statecraft,” Ross endorses the use of “more overt and inherently deniable alternatives to the use of force” for slowing Iran’s nuclear progress. In particular, he mentions the “fragility of centrifuges,” which is exactly what is being targeted by the Stuxnet virus, a powerful computer worm thought to be created by a state, likely Israel, and perhaps with help from the U.S., according to the latest revelations.

Some critics of this website complain that the level of attention given to neoconservatives is too great, but they should consider this: Look at Dennis Ross. He works extensively with this clique, and no doubt has the occasional drink or meeting with them. And, most importantly, he writes approvingly about neoconservatives, noting that their viewpoint affects political considerations of “any political leader.” Because of these neocon “considerations,” he writes, this is how we should view the Islamic Republic: “With Iran, there  is a profound mistrust of the mullahs, and of their perceived deceit, their support for terror, and their enduring hostility to America and its friends in the Middle East. … No one will be keen to be portrayed as soft on the Iranian mullahs.”

This from the man that formulated a policy that has offered “adverse consequences” but so far no “carrots.” Ross’s predictions are a self-fulfilling prophecy — and since he gets the big appointments, he gets to fulfill them. Taking reviews of his book with Makovsky, the Bipartisan Policy Committee report, and “Statecraft” as a whole, I’m not at all surprised that little progress has been made with Iran.

But, at least, that was his first try. He’s a three-time-loser on Israeli-Palestinian peace-making. With Iran, I had to put the pieces together, whereas with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, his record is right there for all to see. Putting Ross in charge of peace-making between the two seems to perfectly fit Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Point taken. On the other hand, who but a pro-Israeli figure could have the slightest chance of getting the Israelis to bend? Plus it gives Obama coverage politically with important constituencies. But the concept of a negotiated peace seems so unlikely now, anyway — does it really matter who our head boy is?

  2. As an American sociologist who has lived in Iran and familiar with their culture, to place Ross anywhere near the Middle East is total folly,or not so politely -ignorant. My Iranian friends believe,(obviously correctly) Ross is biased toward Israel, and his place in the Obama adminisration belies any of our President’s forward efforts.

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