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 Obamaâ€™s conspicuous placement of Rossâ€™ 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 â€œsenior State Department officialâ€ that she told the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that she was â€œvery doubtfulâ€ that diplomacy would persuade Iran to abandon its alleged quest for nuclear weapons. This, of course, very much reflects Rossâ€™ own view (as well that of neo-conservatives) and will no doubt bolster hard-liners in Tehran who believe that Obamaâ€™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 todayâ€™s New York Times report about a proposed deal with Moscow whereby it would go along with increasing sanctions against Iran in exchange for Washingtonâ€™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 Centerâ€™s September â€˜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 Waltâ€™s analysis of Clintonâ€™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, â€œher remarks suggest that rather than seize on the possibility of Palestinian reconciliation, Clinton prefers to double-down on the shopworn â€˜West Bank first, Fatah onlyâ€™ policyâ€ strongly advocated by Ross. In that respect, you should definitely read Tuesdayâ€™s extended colloquy between Lynch, Brookingsâ€™ Tamara Wittes (who is more optimistic), and Carnegieâ€™s Nathan Brown, who shares Lynchâ€™s â€œdisappointmentâ€ about Clintonâ€™s performance. As Lynch notes, it seems that Clinton is stuck â€œin a bit of time-warpâ€ regarding Hamasâ€™ power in Gaza, the Palestinian Authorityâ€™s abject failure to enhance its legitimacy, and the Arab Leagueâ€™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 Rossâ€™ failed Mideast diplomacy during the 1990â€™s.
I also have the impression that Ross and the so-called â€œIsrael Lobbyâ€ 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 â€” along with the European Union, Russia, China, etc. â€” behind a policy of confrontation with Iran.