Will Obama Stack His Middle East Team with Neoconservative Ideologues?

Obama has pledged to "engage" with Iran in a respectful way, but "engagement" is a malleable concept.

None of President Obama's foreign policy actions will matter more than how he approaches Iran. Most other big challenges -- Russia, China, trade policy, development, human rights -- will continue the trajectory of previous American policies, with some variations.

But Iran poses a set of dynamic challenges. In one way or another, it touches upon all the turmoil of the region, it is at the center of oil and gas production and pricing, its leadership connects with political Islam the world over, and it has strengthening ties to Russia, India, China and Japan. 

Obama has pledged, as recently as last Jan. 11, to "engage" with Iran in a respectful way, which is certainly a change, at least in tone. But "engagement" is a malleable concept.  At this early stage of the Obama era, it's important to understand who might shape that engagement, who has responsibility for Iran in the State Department and how those people perceive the future contours of the U.S.-Iran relationship. 

And on that score, if the Washington rumor mill is correct, we are in for another dose of "get tough" diplomacy.  As Hillary Rodham Clinton said in her confirmation hearings to be Secretary of State, they intend to approach Iran's nuclear-development program "through diplomacy, through the use of sanctions, through creating better coalitions with countries that we believe also have a big stake in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon power, to try to prevent this from occurring."   

The core of that list and her statement that "all options are on the table" -- code for a military attack on Iran -- is coercion. It won't work, if by "work" we mean to make Iran bend to our will. It hasn't worked for three decades. And such a continuation of coercive policies could create even more dissonance in the relationship than at any time in the 30 years since the Islamic revolution. 

The gloom that is descending over many critics of Bush's catastrophic foreign policy stems from Obama's appointments and the indiscernible "change" agenda that such choices convey. Foreign policy has always been a tightly held portfolio, with few outside the small club of specialists chosen for major posts. But even within this small demographic, there are very sharp differences of skill, temperament and ideology. Once Clinton was named as secretary of state, it was certain that many of those who served in her husband's administration would be returning to government. But even that cohort, which was not particularly successful, had a wide range of temperaments and inclinations, from highly professional diplomats to craven political hacks and neoconservative ideologues.   

Particularly upsetting to growing numbers of policy analysts, former diplomats and liberal activists are the widespread rumors of who would take on the ultrasensitive posts managing affairs in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and South Asia.

According to these reports, Dennis Ross would become a special envoy whose portfolio includes Iran, and possibly the entire region; Richard Holbrooke would take the special envoy slot for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India; and Richard Haass would take on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. 

Just after the inauguration, Holbrooke was announced for his rumored slot, and former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, was given the job of addressing the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. By the end of the inauguration week, there was no official word on Ross. Holbrooke, Ross and Mitchell have been affiliated with groups that are overtly hostile to Iran, and it is that record of belligerence that has many who hope for a change of course wary.

Since 2001, Ross, the tirelessly unsuccessful Mideast negotiator under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has been employed by the Israeli-backed Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the policy arm of American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a key component of the Israel lobby in the United States.  (WINEP was founded by Martin Indyk, another Clinton-era diplomat who may play a role in the Obama government.)  Holbrooke, former U.N. envoy under Clinton, headed an ad hoc group called United Against a Nuclear Iran, which advocates military action against Iran if U.S.-defined terms are not met; Ross belongs to that group, and to a so-called Bipartisan Policy Center, which similarly advocates an extremely militant stance toward Iran.  (Mitchell is one of four co-chairs of the latter group.) All of these organizations are populated by neocons and reflect what could charitably be called a "Cheney-plus" strategic vision. 

(Now, as it happens, the rumors about Ross in particular may not come to pass. It seems that the main source of this rumor was WINEP itself, publicizing a "memo" to its board extolling Ross' pending appointment as an über envoy. This, picked up by uncritical bloggers and repeated in the mainstream press, has now become the conventional wisdom. But reliable sources high in the transition apparatus insisted just before the inauguration that Ross had not been chosen as a special envoy. The ploy, if that's what it is, recalls the "we make the reality" bravura of Bush/Cheney operatives.) 

The revelation in the New York Times on Jan. 11 that Israel sought U.S. permission last year to use Iraqi airspace to attack Iran's nuclear facilities certainly underscores the significance of these appointments, should they come to pass. Israel is again pursuing an unacceptably aggressive policy toward Palestinians, and the fact that they are ready and willing to go to war with Iran renders the U.S. alliance with Israel all the more problematic. (WINEP and like-minded polemicists are attempting to link Hamas to Iran far more closely than is warranted.)

What better time to bring on a team of Iran bashers to represent the new American president? As Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist, put it so directly just prior to the inauguration, noting the return of the old guard and the lack of ethnic diversity: "Enlightenment will require a fresher, broader Mideast team than Obama is contemplating." 

The problem is not Ross or Holbrooke per se, but the general attitude of punitive action that they and their associates favor when it comes to Iran, the Palestinians and others who are thought to be adversaries of U.S. or Israeli interests. Consider, for example, a task force Ross co-convened a year ago at WINEP on the "future of U.S.-Israel relations." Its report was mainly about Iran and how Israel and the U.S. have nearly identical interests and should act in concert. 

It recommended bringing Israel in as a full partner in "initiatives involving the U.N. Security Council and U.S.-E.U., U.S.-Arab," and other forums; an agreed approach to Hamas; a common effort to "confront Iran" and to emphasize new sanctions against Iran, other coercive options, preventive military action and coordinated U.S.-Israeli diplomatic engagement. The task force was meeting with Israelis over a period of time that encompassed Israel's request for permission from Bush to bomb Iran and has been accompanied by other WINEP analyses recommending the same militant actions.    

These recommendations, which would in effect cede U.S. policy in the region to an Israeli veto, were signed by Susan Rice, Obama's U.N. envoy; Anthony Lake, his leading foreign policy adviser during the campaign; and Tom Donilon, the new deputy national security adviser. Holbrooke's ad hoc group includes Gary Samore, reported to be heading for a top post on the White House national security staff.

Obama has said that he provides the vision and his minions carry out his policies. That's a naïve view of the policy process. The president -- any president -- is dependent on information from his advisers, and policy options are almost always developed outside the Oval Office. Particularly with the focus this president must bring to economic issues, foreign policy will be shaped in these crucial early stages by others. Obama, with good instincts but little actual experience with foreign policy, will be at a troubling disadvantage -- particularly with hardened policy mavens of like mind, supported by Congress and the mainstream news media, telling him that the change we need in U.S. policy toward Iran should be toward more sanctions, more covert ops, more military intimidation and possibly even "preventive military action."  It is notable, too, that in 30 years since the Islamic revolution in Iran, coercion has been the core of U.S. policy, with exceptionally poor results by any measure.

As one would expect, Tehran is already taking note and circling the wagons. Obama's "carrots and sticks" statement just after the election, and his refusal to respond to an open letter from his counterpart in Tehran, were unnecessary slights. On the other hand, Iran's restraint with respect to the Gaza crisis may be a welcoming signal. But by deputizing people who have stated repeatedly that Iran must be handled roughly and who advocate for a pre-eminent role for Israel in the making of American policy, Obama is running a huge risk -- strengthening precisely those elements in Iran who are least amenable to a better relationship.  Crucially, it could even affect the outcome of Iran's presidential election in June.   

The most puzzling aspect of all this -- apart from the nearly total lack of attention in the news media -- is that there are so many talented scholars, diplomats and policy wonks to choose from, and as Cohen noted in his column, some are of Arab or Iranian descent.

The U.S.-Iran relationship has been fraught with missed opportunities, intentional slights and outright aggression, and its complexity is legion. Success demands a manager at the State Department who is capable of great care, experience, independence and equanimity, with equally skilled diplomats at other relevant posts. Such fresh appointments might send just the right signal of change that Obama promised, to the region and to the rest of the world.

John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies.
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