AN ASSESSMENT OF THE OBAMA MIDEAST TEAM
By Dr. Steven J. Rosen
A full list is provided below.
In the key positions, only Charles W. Freeman, Jr., who reportedly was being considered to head the National Intelligence Council, is an ideological Arabist, with a record of anti-Israel fulmination. And, on March 10, 2009, Freeman, due to the controversy and criticism generated by reports of his nomination, requested that his selection as National Intelligence Council Chairman not proceed.
By and large, Obama is assembling a team of intelligent Centrists with a realistic, pragmatic approach. Many of them have experience. Few are starry-eyed and romantic. Further, many have a direct knowledge of Israel and some understanding of its strategic position.
There could also be a tendency toward magical thinking about the transformative potential of diplomacy. Among those who believe most fervently that Bush missed key diplomatic opportunities and failed to work with allies, there may be some undue confidence that the problems in the Middle East will shrink steadily as Obama's new envoys get to work and talk with previously hostile countries and movements.
Wishful thinking could be a particular problem on the issue of Iran, because the time remaining to stop its drive for nuclear weapons is so short. The new administration believes it can get more cooperation on Iran from Russia and China, and induce changes in Iranian policy by putting together a package of bigger carrots and bigger sticks.
What if Iran exploits the American eagerness for diplomacy and uses dilatory tactics to "run out the clock" for its final sprint to obtain nuclear arms? What if Obama's diplomatic initiative fails and Iran calls his bluff about nuclear weapons being "unacceptable"? President Obama has said, "I will do everything in my power -- everything' to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons," but will he?
If he is faced, in the end, with a stark choice between a nuclear Iran or the use of extreme pressure or even force, would President Obama have the strength of the will necessary to overcome domestic resistance to the tougher options, including objections at the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Or would he veto, not just the use of U.S. forces, but also Israel's?
Finally, if the United States capitulates to a nuclear Iran and attempts to fall back on deterrence to contain it, would these threats be credible since, after all, he had just accepted something he had repeatedly stated would be "unacceptable"?
There is little support in Israel today for relinquishing control of the West Bank, given Israel's bitter experience after removing all soldiers and settlers from Gaza. Israelis no longer believe that territorial concessions on their part will bring peace with the Palestinians. Most Israelis believe that the issue blocking "peace" with Hamas and its allies is Israel's existence, not its settlements. With Hamas in firm control of Gaza and possibly seizing control in the West Bank some day, the Israeli public is unlikely to be persuaded to entrust their security to agreements signed with Palestinian leaders who can't or won't honor their commitments, or who might soon be overthrown.
The mood in the United States is quite different. The theory among many here is that George Mitchell achieved peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and now he can work his magic between the Israelis and the Palestinians, if only Obama is willing to use a little "tough love" with both sides. Some want more public criticism of Israel by American officials.
Some enthusiasts in the "peace camp" are urging Obama to produce an American plan for the solution, one that, by their definition, would diverge sharply from the terms Israel considers vital to its national interests, lest the United States be seen as "Israel's lawyer." If Obama takes all this bad advice, it won't bring peace to the Middle East, but it will bring tension between Israel and its most important ally.
The "peace camp" is urging Obama to take a more "even-handed" approach in the Middle East. Yet, the effect of even-handedness is not even. The Arab League has 22 members and large amounts of oil; there are 56 Muslim countries in the Islamic Conference; and much of the rest of the world automatically supports Arab positions. Israel depends uniquely on its close relations with one main ally, the United States. When the United States is neutral, there is a huge imbalance, and the scale automatically tilts the other way.
The new administration may also have a lower tolerance for the civilian casualties and diplomatic stresses that arise when Israel is compelled to take military action in its own self-defense. Even in quiet times, there is likely to be heartburn about checkpoints and other Israeli security measures necessary in the struggle against terror. Obama could cut back on U.S. vetoes to prevent anti-Israel resolutions at the Uniyed Nations Security Council.
Mitchell is best remembered in the region for the commission he headed in 2000-2001, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism. Its final statement, known as the "Mitchell Report," very strongly emphasized Israel's legitimate security interests. Yet, it received more press attention for its conclusion that Israel --
It should be noted that then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepted the Mitchell Report as a basis for negotiations.
Israeli governments have, at times, accepted a freeze on the construction of new settlements and on the geographic expansion of existing settlements, but they have reserved the right to continue what Israeli President Shimon Peres called "vertical growth," such as adding a room to an existing home or building a new home inside the geographic perimeter of the existing "construction line" of an established settlement. Also, Israelis generally distinguish between construction inside the settlement "blocs" that are expected to remain under Israel sovereignty as part of a territorial compromise, versus settlements expected to be outside the blocs. The Bush administration gave some recognition to these distinctions, albeit with reluctance and inconsistently. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will accept the Bush understandings on the terms of a freeze on settlements, including natural growth.
Mitchell reportedly has asked Fred Hof to be his deputy. Hof drafted the 2001 Mitchell Report. He is an expert on Syria and Lebanon, and has a clear-eyed view of Hizballah.
Deputy Assistant to the President for Foreign Policy: Denis McDonough
National Security Council
Deputy NSA: Tom Donilon
NSC Chief of Staff: Mark Lippert
NSC Executive Director: Mara Rudman
Senior Mideast Director for Iran, Iraq, and Gulf Countries: Puneet Talwar
Senior Mideast Director for Arab-Israeli Affairs: Dan Shapiro
Vice President Biden
National Security Adviser: Tony Blinken
Middle East Adviser: To be announced
Secretary of State Clinton
Deputy Secretary: Jack Lew
Undersecretary for Political Affairs: Bill Burns
Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security: Robert Einhorn
Iran Issues Coordinator: Dennis Ross
Mideast Peace Envoy: George Mitchell
Mitchell's Deputy: Fred Hof
NEA Assistant Secretary: Jeffrey Feltman
Director of Policy Planning: Anne-Marie Slaughter
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy: Michele Flournoy
Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy: James N. Miller
Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs: Sandy Vershbow
Deputy Assistant Secretary/ISA, Near East and South Asia: Colin Kahl
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Dr. Steven J. Rosen was the America Israel Public Affairs Committee's Director of Executive Branch Relations for 23 years and served at the RAND Corporation, a think tank doing research for the U.S. Defense and State Departments. Dr. Rosen also taught at Brandeis University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Australian National Unviersity. He chronicles the new administration on Obama Mideast Monitor and is a defendant in the AIPAC case. He earned his Ph.D. from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Diplomacy.
The foregoing article by Dr. Rosen was originally published in the Middle East Review of International Affairs, March, 2009, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum. org/article/2103/an-assessment-of-the-obama-mideast-team)
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