Obama’s Man on the Middle East
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Senator Obama’s leading voice on Middle East policy, Dennis Ross, is one of America’s most talented, creative, and clear-eyed diplomats, tirelessly seeking paradigm-shifting ideas, breakthroughs, and new openings to achieve his goals. And as he told a small group of pro-Israeli Obama donors, activists, and reporters at the United Nations, the goal is peace.
Mr. Ross, who climbed the ladder at Foggy Bottom from the days of President Reagan until the end of the Clinton administration and is most identified with President Clinton’s unsuccessful push for an Arab-Israeli peace agreement, said he believes that America should be in the lead wherever international diplomacy is being conducted. Right now, he said, Turkey, France, and Qatar are involved in indirect mediation between Israel and Syria, while America is sitting it out: So “who is thinking of Israel’s interests?”
But he may be miscast in the Obama campaign. To a team dominated by American exceptionalists, as Mr. McCain’s is, Mr. Ross would have added a calming presence, offered creative alternatives to military force, and injected realism when idealism got too far ahead of the possible. Instead, he is arguably the toughest diplomat in a would-be multilateralist administration stressing “tough diplomacy,” which seems to be Mr. Obama’s only policy tool.
European leaders are discovering how ineffective organizations such as the United Nations can be when their goals stray too far from America’s interests. “This is not the best period for people who are addicted, like I am, to multilateralism and the U.N.,” the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, told reporters last week.
A number of Europeans have told me over the last several days that since the presidential election here is so crucial for the world, they too should have a vote.
Back in America, the foreign policy debate on the campaign trail is focused on Iraq, but Mr. Ross, sensibly, said he wants to talk mostly about Iran. “The path that we are on right now will guarantee that they will be a nuclear weapons state, leaving you either with the choice of having to live with it or having to use force against it,” he said Friday. “Those are two pretty bad choices, so you better change the dynamics.”
Changing the dynamics is Mr. Ross’s favorite theme, but how? According to Mr. Kouchner, more U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran could miss the point entirely, since China and Russia reportedly are violating the existing sanctions, as are some wealthy European countries. The council, at any rate, agreed unanimously over the weekend that no new sanctions are needed. And the council is simply the wrong arena to deal with Iran, Mr. Ross said. He offered more creative ways to pressure Tehran than those employed so far.
Saudi Arabia’s oil dealings with China are much more extensive than Iran’s, he said. “The Saudis don’t want Iran to go nuclear. They have great financial clout. We haven’t effectively developed that as part of a strategy towards Iran,” Mr. Ross said, becoming perhaps the only critic to accuse the Bush administration of neglecting America’s alliance with Riyadh. He also accused congressional Republicans of blocking divestment legislation against Iran, which he said Mr. Obama initiated two years ago after a conversation with the leader of Israel’s Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu.
As for the Syrian president, he said, “If you can wean Assad away from Iran, that would be a useful thing.” Unlike Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, who “say no peace with Israel, no Israel, and want to create a sense that they are the wave of the future,” Syria is conducting indirect talks with Jerusalem, he said. This does not mean such negotiations will succeed, but “you test it, you probe,” he said, because there is a fundamental difference between states and recognition-seeking organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which should be sidelined. States “are there, they are not going away,” Mr. Ross said.
Yes, states are there, but their regimes at times do go away, I told him. “Changing the behavior of a regime is more likely than changing the regime,” he retorted.
Changing Iran’s behavior is a tall order, as President Ahmadinejad’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week demonstrated. Mr. Ross, who said Mr. Ahmadinejad does not call the shots in Tehran, said he thinks the current administration has failed because it uses “weak sticks and weak carrots” with Iran. He also accused the administration of “saying we don’t take the military option off the table,” while statements by Washington’s top defense officials “seem to suggest an enormous capacity to restrain the enthusiasm for the use of force.”
If America chooses Mr. Obama’s brand of diplomacy, let’s hope Mr. Ross gets enough clout to steel and toughen it. We could do much worse.