An Assessment of the Obama Mideast Team

The new Obama administration has named most of its nominees for the key Middle East positions in the White House as well as in the State and Defense Departments. It is thus possible to make an initial assessment of where Obama is going from what is known about these people. The appointees include Dan Shapiro and most likely Puneet Talwar at the National Security Council; George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, Bill Burns, Beth Jones (most likely), and Jeffrey Feltman at the State Department; Tony Blinken in Vice-President Joe Biden's office; and Michele Flournoy and Sandy Vershbow at the Defense Department.

A full list is provided as follows.

A Realistic, Pragmatic Approach

Those who wanted a radical redirection of Middle East policy, particularly those on the left, are not happy with most of Obama's core team. Few of the people announced or reliably expected to be chosen are known as hostile toward Israel or apologists for Iran, Syria, Hizballah, or Hamas. There is no one with a history of participation in ideological organizations of the left, as Sandy Berger had been with Peace Now before joining the Clinton White House. In the key positions, only Chas Freeman, who reportedly will head the National Intelligence Council, is an ideological Arabist with a record of anti-Israel fulmination.

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.

Potential Problems in U.S. Policy Toward Iran

On the other hand, nowhere on the list so far is someone identified with a tough position on the region. Broadly, it is a team that represents the thinking in the center of the Democratic Party. In a situation of real duress–such as an imminent Iranian breakthrough to nuclear weapons–it is not clear who among them might ring the alarm and rally the others to consider measures beyond the ordinary.

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 the president 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'?

U.S.-Israel Relations and the Peace Process

There are other issues that may cause stress in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Israeli settlements–always a sore point–take on greater importance when American diplomats believe that a diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians is achievable.

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 U.N. Security Council.

The George Mitchell Factor

Mitchell's appointment is being taken in the region as a message that Obama intends to pursue a policy less closely coordinated with Israel and less fully under the control of the secretary of state. Mitchell is of partly of Lebanese descent, and was brought up as a Maronite Catholic. To many, he is a prominent symbol of 'even-handedness,' but he is not regarded as hostile to Israel. As a senator, he had many supporters in the pro-Israel community, and he generally favored legislation important to the U.S.-Israel relationship. He also has many friends among Israel's leaders.

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 'should freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements…. The kind of security cooperation desired by [Israel] cannot for long coexist with settlement activity.' 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. "Hassan Nasrallah… and his inner circle do what they do first and foremost to defend and project the existence and power of the Islamic Republic of Iran…. [Their] diplomatic center of gravity is located in Tehran, not in some bunker in the southern suburbs of Beirut."

Obama's Mideast Team: A Roster

Not all the names on this list, assembled by Obama Mideast Monitor, have been confirmed officially, but the following are reliably reported to be the nominees for the key Middle East positions in the Obama White House and the State and Defense Departments:

President Obama

Chief of Staff: Rahm Emmanuel

Deputy Assistant to the President for foreign policy: Denis McDonough

National Security Council

National Security Adviser: James Jones

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

Chief of Staff: Ronald Klain

National Security Adviser: Tony Blinken

Middle East Adviser: To be announced

Secretary of State Clinton

Deputy Secretary: Jim Steinberg

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

Deputy Secretary: William Lynn

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


Chairman, National Intelligence Council: Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

Steven J. Rosen was AIPAC's director of Executive Branch relations for 23 years and served at the RAND Corporation, a think tank doing research for the Defense and State Departments. He 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.

March 2009

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply