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Robert Satloff Doth Protest Too Much Defending Dennis Ross

By Stephen M. Walt

Foreign Policy, Al-Jazeerah,, April 20, 2010

Dennis Ross

If you would like to read a textbook example of a dust-kicking operation, please look at Robert Satloff's heated response (see below) to my recent post (also below) explaining the problems that can arise when top-level foreign policy officials have strong attachments to a foreign country.  I seem to have struck a nerve.

There are only two important issues here, and Satloff ignores both of them. First, do some top U.S. officials -- and here we are obviously talking about Dennis Ross -- have a strong attachment to Israel? Second, might this situation be detrimental to the conduct of U.S. Middle East policy?

Regarding the first question, there is abundant evidence that Ross has a strong -- some might even say ardent -- attachment to Israel. These feelings are clearly on display in his memoir of the Oslo peace process, and they are confirmed by his decision to accept a top position at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy (WINEP) -- an influential organization in the Israel lobby-upon leaving government service in 2000. As Middle East historian Avi Shlaim put it in his own review of Ross's book:

Ross belongs fairly and squarely in the pro-Israel camp.  His premises, position on the Middle East and policy preferences are identical to those of the Israel-first school. Indeed, it is difficult to think of an American official who is more quintessentially Israel-first in his outlook than Dennis Ross."

Furthermore, Ross served in recent years as chairman of the board of the Jewish People's Policy Planning Institute, a think-tank established by the Jewish Agency, which is headquartered in Jerusalem. Satloff does not mention this key fact, but the implications are unmistakable. Why would anyone take such a job if they did not have a deep-seated commitment to Israel?

There is nothing wrong with Ross (or any other American) working for WINEP or chairing the board of an organization like JPPPI. As I've emphasized in my previous writings on this topic, I also see nothing wrong with Ross or Satloff, or anyone else for that matter, working to promote America's "special relationship" with Israel. The same is true for those individuals who support the Cuban-American National Foundation, the American Farm Bureau, the National Rifle Association, or the Indian-American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA).  Others may disagree with the policies that these interest groups push, but so be it; that's how the American political system works. Thus, Satloff's claim that I am engaged in some sort of McCarthyite witch-hunt is false.

This brings us to the second question: While all Americans certainly have the right to hold different attachments and to express them openly, is it a good idea for someone with a strong attachment to a foreign country -- in this case, Israel -- to be given responsibility for making and executing U.S. Middle East policy? 

I believe the answer is no, and that there is ample evidence in the historical record to supports my position. For example, in 1993, the Oslo Accords handed the Clinton administration a golden opportunity to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a close. The PLO had finally recognized Israel's right to exist, the Rabin government was genuinely interested in making a deal with the Palestinians, and the Oslo framework had laid out a path to end the conflict. U.S. Middle East policy at the time was guided by Ross and a number of other individuals who had strong attachments to Israel.

What happened over the next seven years? As Ross's deputy Aaron David Miller later recalled, the United States acted not as an evenhanded mediator, but as "Israel's lawyer." The result was a "peace process" during which Israel confiscated another 40,000 acres of land in the Occupied Territories, built 250 miles of bypass and connector roads, added 30 new settlements, and doubled the settler population, with hardly a peep from Washington. The denouement was the ill-fated Camp David summit in July 2000, a hastily arranged and poorly managed attempt to browbeat the Palestinians into accepting a one-sided deal. It is telling that former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, a participant at Camp David, later admitted that "if I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David, as well."

Of course, the Israelis and the Palestinians also contributed significantly to Oslo's failure. My point, however, is that American interests -- and the cause of peace more generally -- would have been better served by a more balanced team. Nor is that just my view: other recent studies of the peace process have reached similar conclusions.

One might say much the same about the handling of the peace process under President George W. Bush, who assigned Elliott Abrams a critically important role in making his administration's Middle East policy. Abrams's zealous attachment to Israel is beyond dispute, and Bush ended up adopting policies that not only failed to move the peace process forward, but led to further Israeli colonization of the Occupied Territories and helped provoke the Palestinians into a counterproductive war with each other. Moreover, the United States ended up backing Israel to the hilt in its disastrous wars in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009. All of which suggests that it is a bad idea to assign top officials to work on issues affecting countries for which they have demonstrably strong attachments. 

Mr. Satloff never challenges me on this point. Indeed, he is silent on the issue. However, this conflict of interest problem is a real one and other countries -- including Israel -- pay it serious attention, as they should. Consider the case of Michael Oren, the current Israeli Ambassador to the United States. He was born and raised in the United States and subsequently immigrated to Israel, which led him to hold dual citizenship. But when Prime Minister Netanyahu nominated him to serve as his ambassador in Washington, Oren had to renounce his U.S. citizenship before he could take up his post. The reason was simple and compelling: someone employed to advance Israel's national interest should be as free as possible of any conflict of interest. In this case, a policy that is good for Israel would also be good for the United States.

I might add that my thoughts on this subject do not reflect any animus toward Ross himself. Although we have different views about some aspects of U.S. foreign policy, my past exchanges with him have always been civil and I have never questioned his dedication to his various government jobs. I would also note that he taught courses on diplomacy and Middle East peacemaking at the Kennedy School for several years while I was serving as its academic dean, and I approved his appointment each year without hesitation.

It should surprise no one that Satloff has come after me on the issue of "dual loyalty," even though my original post explicitly argued against the use of that term. After all, he is WINEP's Executive Director and WINEP, as noted, is a key organization in the Israel lobby. It was founded in 1985 by three individuals: Larry and Barbi Weinberg, who had formerly been the president and vice-president of AIPAC; and Martin Indyk, who was previously deputy director for research there. These founders understood that AIPAC's efforts would be enhanced if there was a separate, seemingly "objective" research organization to provide consistently "pro-Israel" analysis and commentary, while AIPAC concentrated on more direct lobbying activities. Although WINEP claims that it provides a "balanced and realistic perspective" on Middle East issue, anyone who spends a few hours examining its website and reading its publications will realize this is not the case. 

In fact, WINEP is funded and led by individuals who are deeply committed to defending the special relationship, and promoting policies in Washington that they believe will benefit Israel.  Its board of advisors is populated with prominent advocates for Israel such as Martin Peretz, Richard Perle, James Woolsey, and Mortimer Zuckerman, and there's no one on this board who is remotely critical of Israel or inclined to favor any other country in the "Near East."

Although WINEP employs a number of legitimate scholars and former public officials, its employees do not question America's special relationship with Israel and Satloff himself has a long track record of defending Israel against criticism. That's his privilege, of course, but why does he get so angry when someone points out that WINEP is not neutral, and neither are the people who work there?

In short, Satloff doth protest too much, and I think I understand why. He knows that what I am saying is true; he just doesn't like anyone calling attention to the elephant in the room.  Plus, he knows that plenty of other people can see the elephant too, and are beginning to realize that the lobby is pushing an agenda that is not in America's interest. No wonder he's so upset.




Defending Dennis Ross

In his latest attack on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Stephen Walt strikes a note that would have made Joseph McCarthy proud.

BY ROBERT SATLOFF | Foreign Policy, APRIL 8, 2010

Give Stephen M. Walt his due. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's tense visit to Washington last month, a cowardly U.S. government official lobbed an "Israel vs. America" dual loyalty canard at my former colleague, National Security Council advisor Dennis Ross. But while he or she hid behind a cloak of journalistic anonymity shamelessly provided by Politico's Laura Rozen, Walt at least has the gumption to stand up and make his McCarthyite case in his own name. And while Rozen's muse only attacked one person's bona fides, Walt pilloried the professional credentials of several dozen of our nation's leading Middle East experts.

For the record, Ross, who was a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) throughout George W. Bush's administration, has been advancing U.S. interests in peace and security for the past quarter-century. He is now working at a senior level for his fourth president -- two Democrats, two Republicans -- and has the battle scars that come with his membership in the increasingly narrow circle of bipartisan foreign-policy practitioners. Our nation could use fewer Walts and a lot more Rosses.

Of course, "McCarthyite" is a term one should be reluctant to throw around, but I can think of no more accurate word for fact-free accusations designed to smear reputations with an appeal to patriotism. What else is one to make of Walt's rhetorical question: "Isn't it obvious that U.S. policy towards the Middle East is likely to be skewed when former employees of WINEP or AIPAC have important policy-making roles, and when their own prior conduct has made it clear that they have a strong attachment to one particular country in the region?"

I cannot speak for other organizations, but I can speak for current and former employees of The Washington Institute. What "prior conduct" is he talking about? To which country do we allegedly have a "strong attachment"?

Our foreign-born scholars hail from virtually every country in the Middle East -- Turkey, Iran, Israel, and at least a dozen different Arab countries. It is true that some have strong attachments to their native lands. One went on to serve as senior aide to the Jordanian foreign minister, another is now an advisor to the French Foreign Ministry, and a third is currently a Lebanese diplomat. Our first Arab resident scholar was Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian patriot if there ever was one. But I think Walt had something else in mind.

As for U.S. citizens on our staff, their suspicious "prior conduct" includes 35 years in the Defense Intelligence Agency (Jeffrey White), 30 years at the State Department and the old U.S. Information Agency (David Pollock), and tours of duty at the State Department, the FBI and the Treasury Department, the Pentagon, and the National Defense University (Scott Carpenter, Matthew Levitt, David Schenker, and Patrick Clawson, respectively). And then there are the dozen U.S. Air Force officers who have each spent nearly a year as national defense fellows, as well as the Foreign Service officers and Defense Intelligence Agency analysts who have been on loan to us from their home agencies. By Walt's arguments, all these public servants should be precluded from high office. But still, I think Walt had something else in mind.

And to which Middle Eastern country does Walt believe that I, director of WINEP for the past 17 years, have a "strong attachment?" Is it Jordan, where I studied at a university in Yarmouk and about which I have written two books and my Oxford dissertation? Or perhaps Morocco, where I lived with my family for more than two years and where I wrote two other books? No, it seems Walt had something more nefarious in mind.




On "dual loyalty"

Posted By Stephen M. Walt Friday, April 2, 2010 - 1:05 PM

Last week, the online journal Politico published a story by reporter Laura Rozen on certain divisions within the Obama administration on Middle East policy. What made the story especially explosive was a quotation from an unnamed administration source describing senior White House aide Dennis Ross as being "far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests."

As one might expect, this statement raised the old specter of "dual loyalty," and from several directions. Critics of Ross suggested that he was guilty of it, while defenders complained that he was being tarred with a familiar anti-Semitic slur. Indeed, Rozen subsequently updated her story with a statement by NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough defending Ross and underscoring "his commitment to this country and to our vital interests," an obvious attempt by the administration to head off the issue before it gained traction.

How should we think about the "dual loyalty" question, either in this context or in many others? To me this is a tricky issue that ought to be handled with some delicacy, and we ought to employ a different vocabulary to discuss it.

One might start by remembering that the phrase "dual loyalty" has a regrettable and sordid history, given its origins as a nasty anti-Semitic canard in old Europe. Accusing anyone -- and especially someone who is Jewish -- of "dual loyalty" is bound to trigger a heated reaction, and for good reason. Furthermore many people believe patriotism (i.e., love of one's country) is a profoundly important value, so any behavior that seems to be at odds with that principle carries powerful negative connotations. In a world where nationalism remains a potent doctrine, casting doubt on anyone's loyalty is a serious charge.

More recently, however, scholars have used the term "dual loyalty" in more analytical and neutral fashion, based on the obvious fact that all human beings have multiple loyalties or attachments. Most of us feel a strong attachment to our own country, for example, but we also feel a sense of loyalty to family, friends, religion, ethnic groups, sports teams, etc.).  Patriotism is only one of these competing loyalties, and does not necessarily trump the others. The novelist E. M. Forster famously remarked that if forced to choose between betraying a friend or betraying his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray the latter, and a 2006 Pew survey of Christians in thirteen countries found that 42 percent of U.S. respondents saw themselves "as Christians first and Americans second." All this is just to remind us that "loyalty" to a country is just one of the many attachments that we all feel.

Moreover, in a world where members of different national or ethnic groups often live in many different places, tensions inevitably arise between different sorts of national allegiance. Today, therefore, scholars use the term "dual loyalty" to describe the widespread circumstance where individuals feel genuine and legitimate attachments to more than one country. A good example is Israeli political scientist Gabriel Sheffer's book Diaspora Politics, which distinguishes between "total," "dual," and "divided" loyalties, and Sheffer shows that all three responses are bound to occur when members of particular ethnic, national, or religious groups live in different countries. 

Needless to say, in a melting-pot society like the United States, it was inevitable that many Americans would also have strong attachments to other countries. These different attachments may reflect ancestry, religious affiliation, personal experience (such as overseas study), or any number of other sources. The key point, however, is that in the United States it is entirely legitimate to manifest such attachments in political life.  Americans can hold dual citizenship, for example, or form an interest group whose avowed purpose is to shape U.S. policy towards a specific country. This is how the American system of government works, and there is nothing "disloyal" about such conduct.

But what about getting directly involved as a government official, and in issue-areas where important interests are at stake? Instead of invoking phrases like "dual loyalty," a rhetoric that immediately invokes connotations of betrayal (or even treason), I suggest we frame the issue as one of potential conflicts of interest. Simply put, is it in the best interest of the United States as a whole to place U.S. policy on key issues in the hands of people whose even-handedness is not beyond question, and especially when there is evidence that they feel a strong personal attachment to a foreign country with whom the United States may have important disagreements? 

In many walks of life, we routinely expect people to recuse themselves from issues in which their own interests or attachments might affect their judgment. Judges and jurors are excused from cases where they have clear ties to one of the contending parties. University faculty and administrators are often expected to divulge relationships (including outside consulting) that might affect their objectivity or probity. We would also regard it as inappropriate if a financial advisor recommended investing in a company owned by a family member, and all the more so if they failed to divulge the connection. Why? Because there is a conflict of interest.

By the same logic, we have valid reason for concern whenever someone was making policy in an area where they have clear financial interests (which is why public officials are often expected to liquidate certain investments or place them in blind trusts), or if their prior associations made it clear that they felt a strong attachment to one or more interested parties. There are good reasons why a former lobbyist for an oil company might not be the best choice for the Department of Interior or the Environmental Protection Agency (which is not to say that such appointments never happen, of course). Because a public servant's responsibility is to do what is in the best interest of the country as a whole, and not to favor the interests of any specific group, we normally worry when an obvious conflict of interest is discovered.  And that same principle ought to apply to the making of foreign policy.

Identifying potential conflicts of interest can be tricky, however, which suggests we ought to proceed carefully. It would be inappropriate, it seems to me, to disqualify anyone from public service in a particular policy area solely on the basis of their ethnic or religious background or even their family ties. It would be wrong to exclude someone from work on South Asia policy simply because they were a Pakistani-American or an Indian-American. Similarly, I would not exclude a Muslim American, Arab-American, or Jewish-American from involvement in U.S. Middle East policy simply because of their background, or exclude someone who happened to be married to a Korean from working on U.S. policy in East Asia.

But when an individual's own activities or statements give independent evidence of strong attachment to a particular foreign country, is it a good idea to give them an influential role in shaping U.S. policy towards that country? If disagreements arise between that country and Washington, won't this place these officials in a difficult position, and raise questions about their ability to conduct policy in a wholly objective manner? And even if they are sincerely attempting to advance the U.S. interest, won't their sense of identity with the foreign country in question incline them towards certain approaches that may or may not be optimal?

To return to where we began: Isn't it obvious that U.S. policy towards the Middle East is likely to be skewed when former employees of WINEP or AIPAC have important policy-making roles, and when their own prior conduct has made it clear that they have a strong attachment to one particular country in the region? The point is not to question their patriotism, which is not the issue. Rather, the question is whether an attachment to Israel shapes how they think about the peace process, Iran, and the extent to which U.S. and Israeli interests are congruent. Their patriotism can be above reproach, but their advice may still be advancing policies that are not in the U.S. interest. 

By the way, I'd have the same worries if U.S. Middle East policy were turned over to key figures from the American Task Force on Palestine or the National Iranian-American Council. When there are important national security issues at stake, wouldn't it make more sense to have U.S. policy in the hands of people without strong personal feelings about any of interested parties? Ironically, someone like that might end up pursuing policies that were better for all concerned.





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