The incoming Obama administration is scrambling
to distance itself from the scandal emanating from the president-elect's home
state. It is still too early to tell how much Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's
alleged attempt to sell the president-elect's
Senate seat in exchange for $1 million may taint Obama advisers.
But we may soon discover the answer to a larger question. Is pay-to-play going
to be the modus operandi for Obama's Middle East policy appointments?
Two former Clinton administration officials, Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk,
may provide the answer. They have recently been energized by Hillary Clinton's
nomination as secretary of state, and both are attempting to stage a comeback.
Absent any record of accomplishment – policy or electoral – Ross and Indyk
have always counted on a presidential nod for influence. When placed alongside
Bill Clinton's auctioneering of the levers of power, Blagojevich's does not
seem particularly corrupt. Blagojevich at least evidenced a modicum of patriotism
by limiting his sale of positions to U.S. nationals. Bill Clinton and the Democratic
National Committee squeezed more cash out of the Israel lobby for highly sensitive
appointments than Blagojevich would have ever dreamed possible. Clinton received
the highest bid from Israeli-American media entrepreneur and American Israel
Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) super-donor Haim Saban.
Saban was famously quoted by the New York Times on Sept. 5, 2004, saying,
"I'm a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel." Saban played a decisive role
in shaping Clinton policy through his largesse to AIPAC and the Democratic
Party and his subsidization of a stable of appointees-in-waiting. Saban hosted
a $3.5 million fundraiser for Democrats during Bill Clinton's presidential
campaign against George H.W. Bush. Saban was so anxious to maintain his lead
donor influence with the Democratic Party that when he learned another donor
had topped his contributions by a quarter-million dollars, he immediately sent
the DNC a $1 bill clipped to a $250,000 check.
Saban served on President Clinton's Export Council advising the White House.
But Saban really made his mark pulling strings for former AIPAC lobbyist Martin
Indyk's installation as U.S. ambassador to Israel in 1995. This was no easy
feat. As a foreign national, Indyk first had to receive rush
preferential naturalization to become a citizen eligible to serve as a
U.S. ambassador. Indyk's overshadowing accomplishment while in Israel was having
his security clearances revoked for mishandling classified information.
Indyk's lack of achievements for the American people were exceeded only by
Clinton appointee Dennis Ross' failures as Middle East envoy during critical
peace negotiations. Ross' biases manifested themselves in his utter failure
to push for a fair and contiguous territory for Palestinians. This earned the
American team a revealing nickname: "Israel's lawyer." After leaving the
Clinton administration, Ross retired to a think-tank
founded by AIPAC board members. Indyk found a newer and even more influential
niche to call home. In 2002 Haim Saban pledged $13 million to carve the new
Saban Center for Middle East Policy out of the staid old Brookings Institution.
Martin Indyk became its director. In 2003 Brookings was the single most cited
think-tank in the American news media. The Saban Center played a vital public
relations role by creating the illusion of full
spectrum political support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Brookings' exhortations
for war, immortalized by Martin Indyk's essay "Lock
and Load," assured Americans that Saddam Hussein probably possessed weapons
of mass destruction but that in any case Iraq could only be neutralized by
U.S. military force – if the U.S. moved quickly enough. Was all of this pay-to-play?
Probably, though not necessarily criminally so. One must fast-forward to the
2008 Obama versus Clinton showdown for the Democratic Party presidential nomination
to find a closer resemblance to Chicago-machine-style patronage for the highest
Anxiety again overcame Haim Saban when he offered two superdelegates at the
Young Democrats of America a $1 million contribution
to their nonprofit in return for throwing their support to Hillary Clinton.
Four independent witnesses claimed this crude pay-to-play gambit occurred right
before the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, though Saban denied it and
no criminal charges were ever filed. It is hard to see the substantive difference
between Saban and Blagojevich, beyond one acting as a president purchaser and
the other as a Senate seller. But there is in fact a much bigger difference:
the Israel lobby 's prosecutorial immunity, which was institutionalized
in secret by the U.S. Justice Department during the 1960s. From this perspective,
Saban's move can be seen along a much larger continuum of efforts to secure
sensitive Middle East policy posts in order to steer U.S. policy toward Israeli
objectives. Though many appear to violate
the law, few are ever even investigated.
Saban and the Middle East – not Blagojevich and Illinois – are why this
sudden and unexpected law enforcement intrusion into the quiet realm of pay-to-play
matters. The hapless governor of Illinois enjoys neither Saban's finesse
nor prosecutorial immunity. But Blagojevich's gambit does direct unwanted attention
to larger pay-to-play forces in continuous operation behind the scenes in Washington.
The scandal may take pressure off Obama to acquiesce to the subtle but omnipresent
mandates of the Israel lobby. After all, Obama, with his decisive, grassroots-powered
win, doesn't appear to owe Saban or AIPAC's team any political debts for past
services rendered. Like Rahm
Emanuel and to some extent Hillary Clinton, they are but opportunistic
latecomers to Obama's movement. If Emanuel was captured implicating himself
on tape with Blagojevich, he could quickly become dead weight to the new Camelot.
Given the current spotlight on pay-to-play, a Ross and Indyk comeback in light
of Saban's latest tawdry gambit could begin to weigh on Obama's most valued
personal commodities – credibility and integrity – and not just the already
long-tarnished Middle East political appointee process.
The stakes could not be higher. Ross has already issued an error-laden, blustering
that is little more than a roadmap for U.S. military strikes on Iran. Will
the crudest forms of pay-to-play ultimately win out? If we see Dennis Ross
and Martin Indyk join other AIPAC veterans streaming
into sensitive posts, the answer will be clear.