November 2, 2008With the 2008 presidential campaign at its end, pundits have begun to discuss in earnest what expected winner Barack Obama’s administration might look like. An important piece of evidence is Obama’s campaign team, which largely escaped the harsh scrutiny that his opponent’s lobbyist-laden team received.
Because of Obama’s relative inexperience on foreign policy, it is this part of his team that is getting much of the attention, and one adviser in particular — Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s Mideast envoy whose record includes supporting the pro-Iraq War advocacy campaigns of the Project for the New American Century and serving as a consultant to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a bastion of Israel-centric policy thinking in Washington.
Generally regarded as a political moderate who has the ear and respect of both Republicans and Democrats, Ross, a former Soviet specialist, reportedly has told friends and foreign officials that he hopes to nab a very senior post in an Obama administration, one that at least covers Iran policy, if not the entire Greater Middle East.
But Ross’s record as a Mideast peacemaker during the Clinton years, longtime association with hawkish political factions, and track record promoting a hard line vis-à-vis Israel’s Arab neighbours have spurred concern that he would be a less-than-ideal pick for a Middle East portfolio in an Obama administration, which many presume he will be offered.
As one Clinton official, asked about Ross’s role in the Obama campaign, told Time magazine earlier this year, “If Obama wants to embody something new that can actually succeed, it’s not just a break from [George W. Bush] Bush that he’s going to need, but a break from Clinton.”
Despite some successes as Clinton’s envoy crafting agreements between Israel and its neighbours, Ross’s efforts to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were a failure. In his writings, Ross has emphasised Palestinian intransigence — in particular, Yasser Arafat’s — as being the cause for the failure, although he doesn’t exempt Israel from blame.
Other participants in those negotiations have pointed their finger at Ross. In their book “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace”, Daniel Kurtzer, who is also an Obama adviser, and Scott Lasensky cite a number of anonymous officials who were critical of Ross.
Said one Arab negotiator, “The perception always was that Dennis [Ross] started from the Israeli bottom line, that he listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it to the Arabs…He was never looked at…as a trusted world figure or as an honest broker.”
Likewise, a former Clinton administration representative told the authors, “By the end, the Palestinians didn’t fully trust Dennis…[T]hey thought he was tilted too much towards the Israelis.”
Ross got his start in high-level policy-making working under Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon during the Carter administration. Wolfowitz — who is better known for his role pushing the Iraq War after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and for his controversial tenure as World Bank head — tasked Ross with helping draft a study assessing threats to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. The 1979 study, titled the Limited Contingency Study, concluded that aside from the Soviet Union, a key threat to the region’s oil fields was Iraq.
In his 2004 book the Rise of the Vulcans, James Mann writes that this study, the Pentagon’s “first extensive examination of the need for the United States to defend the Persian Gulf,” would go on to “play a groundbreaking role in changing American military policy toward the Persian Gulf over the coming decades.”
When Wolfowitz was tapped to head the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff after the election of Ronald Reagan, he included Ross in his team of assistants, which, according to Mann, would go on to become, over the next two decades, “the heart of a new neoconservative network within the foreign policy bureaucracy.”
Other Wolfowitz team members from that time included I. Lewis Libby, a Washington lawyer who later became notorious as the disgraced former chief aide to Vice President Dick Cheney; James Roche, President George W. Bush’s Air Force Secretary who resigned after being implicated in the Boeing tanker leasing scandal; Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and post-invasion ambassador to Iraq; Alan Keyes, the perennial Republican presidential candidate; and Francis *censored*uyama, the “end of history” theorist and erstwhile neoconservative ally who turned against the faction after the Iraq invasion.
Ross’s close association with neoconservatives has deepened over the years, becoming especially pronounced in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He supported the invasion of Iraq and, during the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections, repeatedly teamed up with writers from groups like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to craft hard-line policies toward Iran.
Ross served as the co-convenor of WINEP’s Presidential Task Force on the Future of U.S.-Israel Relations, which issued the June 2008 report “Strengthening the Partnership: How to Deepen U.S.-Israel Cooperation on the Iranian Nuclear Challenge”. The report was signed by a number of former Democratic and Republican policy-makers, as well as by several neoconservatives, including former CIA director James Woolsey and Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who co-founded the rightist pressure group Empower America.
Interestingly, several other advisers to the Obama campaign added their names to the document — Anthony Lake, Susan Rice, and Richard Clarke.
Ross also helped produce the 2008 report “Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development”, which was published by a study group convened by the Bipartisan Policy Centre, a group led by several former legislators.
The lead drafter of the report was AEI’s Michael Rubin, an outspoken proponent of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. Other participants included hawkish arms control analyst Henry Sokolski; Michael Makovsky, a former aide to Douglas Feith; Stephen Rademaker, who worked under former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in the State Department; and the neoconservative Hudson Institute director, Kenneth Weinstein.
The report argues that despite Iran’s assurances to the contrary, its nuclear programme aims to develop nuclear weapons and is thus a threat to “U.S. and global security, regional stability, and the international nonproliferation regime,” a conclusion that stands in contrast to the CIA’s November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Iran had ceased its nuclear weapons programme.
Like the WINEP study, the report argues that “Cold War deterrence” is not persuasive in the context of Iran’s programme, due in large measure to the “Islamic Republic’s extremist ideology”. Even a peaceful indigenous uranium enrichment programme would place the entire Middle East region “under a cloud of ambiguity given uncertain Iranian capacities and intentions.”
Among the report’s proposals are undertaking a major military build-up in the Gulf; pressuring Russia to halt weapons assistance; and, if the U.S. agrees to hold direct talks with Tehran without insisting that the country first cease enrichment activities, setting a pre-determined compliance deadline and be prepared to apply increasingly harsh repercussions if these are not met, leading ultimately to U.S. military strikes.
Calling the report a “roadmap to war”, Inter Press Service’s Jim Lobe writes, “In other words, if Tehran is not eventually prepared to permanently abandon its enrichment of uranium on its own soil — a position that is certain to be rejected by Iran ab initio — war becomes inevitable, and all intermediate steps, even including direct talks if the new president chooses to pursue them, will amount to going through the motions… What is a top Obama adviser [Dennis Ross] doing signing on to it?”
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