Will Dennis Ross’ Resignation Raise Pressure on Obama for a Tougher Iran Stance?

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The abrupt resignation, late last week, of the Obama Administration’s senior Middle East adviser Dennis Ross poses more of a problem for the President’s reelection campaign than it does for prospects of securing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The “peace process”, after all, has long been dead; President Obama’s Special Envoy Sen. George Mitchell’s resignation last May suggesting he saw no good purpose served by pretending otherwise. And nobody in the Middle East — or anywhere else — believed that it could be revived by Ross, whose signature approach is to avoid  the U.S. pressuring Israel to take steps its government is unwilling to take. (It’s precisely the absence of such pressure that prompted the Palestinians to walk away from U.S. peace efforts and go to the U.N.) But the Israeli-Palestinian issue wasn’t Ross’ priority concern on joining the Obama Administration, and it’s unlikely to have been a major determinant of his decision to quit.

The significance of Ross abandoning Obama was quickly grasped by hawkish Israel advocates in Washington, such as former Bush Administration Middle East point-man Elliott Abrams. Writing on his blog at the Council on Foreign Relations, Abrams noted:

“With the diplomacy frozen, Ross’s departure is not a diplomatic problem for the White House; it is instead a problem for the Obama re-election campaign. For Ross was the only official in whom most American Jewish leaders had confidence… [viewing] his role as the assurance that a steady, experienced, pro-Israel hand was on or near the tiller… He was the person to whom they reached out, or who reached out to them and comforted them [when they expressed anxiety over the Administration’s handling of Israel] ; he explained that things were not so bad really and that the President really cared about all this and had the warmest concern about Israel. No one else in this administration can now fill that role, as the President enters an election year with a powerful need to maintain the 78 percent support he had last time in the Jewish community.”

Abrams is clearly onto something: It was not Ross’ (decidedly mixed) diplomatic track record that first prompted Team Obama to bring him on board. After all, there was no diplomacy to be done when Ross was hired in the summer of 2008 to help get candidate Obama elected. He was named as a foreign policy adviser to the campaign at a moment when some senior figures in the pro-Israel establishment were expressing unease over the extent of Obama’s commitment to Israel. A quick survey of comments in the Jewish communal press from 2008 underscores Abrams’ claim that the involvement of Ross — who, after serving as the Clinton Administration’s Mideast Special Envoy, had headed up the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a hawkish pro-Israel think-tank created in 1985 by the flagship Israel lobbying organization AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) — was viewed by many as a kind of pro-Israel “kosher certificate” for the Obama campaign. 

But Ross had bigger things in mind than simply holding the hands of anxious machers in the Jewish establishment — and concluding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process he’d helped shepherd to a dead end in the Clinton Administration wasn’t necessarily one of them. He’d made clear in his writings before joining the Obama Administration that he saw little prospect of a grand-bargain agreement to end the conflict in the near term,  and instead advocated a more limited approach, promoting incremental confidence building measures by Israelis and Palestinians on the ground.

Still, Ross’ own priority — like that of most of the pro-Israel establishment — was not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, he said publicly  that it was his confidence that Obama would be more effective than Bush had been in bringing more  effective pressure to bear on Iran that prompted Ross to support the young senator’s campaign for the White House.

“The Bush policy on Iran has failed, and unless the next president can change Iranian behavior, Israel will face an existential threat,” Ross wrote in the Jewish Journal in October 2008. “It is my Middle Eastern hat and my attachment to Israel that ultimately inspires my support for Obama… I know he understands that neither Israel nor America can afford four more years of Iran and the radical Islamists gaining strategic leverage in the Middle East. Slogans won’t prevent that. A fixation on Iraq won’t prevent that. But a leader who understands how to use all the elements of American power, revitalize that power and influence and get others to follow us in order to ensure we win the battle for hearts and minds will be able to do so.”

In the new Administration, Ross took the top Iran policy job at the State Department, leaving the Israeli-Palestinian file to Mitchell. (Ross later moved to the White House in mid-2009, with an ostensibly expanded purview as a senior foreign policy adviser to Obama.) He had laid out his view of Iran policy shortly before he joined the Administration, in the book he coauthored with WINEP’s David Makovsky titled Myths, Illusions and Peace. The authors make the case for negotiating with Iran, but for a clearly limited time-period, backed by escalating sanctions and a credible threat of force — including moving forces into place around Iran — to demonstrate to Tehran to the consequences of failing to heed Western demands on its nuclear program. “The possibility of the use of force is a way to make diplomacy more effective,” Ross and Makovsky wrote. “When we are saying we are not taking force off the table, that must be more than a slogan; it is essential that the Iranians continue to believe that they may be playing with fire if they persist in their pursuit of nuclear weapons.” He also argued that as a matter of doctrine, the U.S. should commit to attacking Iran if it developed nuclear capability.

Nobody knows the real reason Ross walked last week.  “After nearly three years of serving in the administration, I am going to be leaving to return to private life,” he said in a statement e-mailed to reporters on Thursday. “I do so with mixed feelings. It has been an honor to work in the Obama Administration and to serve this President, particularly during a period of unprecedented change in the broader Middle East.”

But it quickly became clear that Ross’ “private life” would include engaging in Mideast policy debates from outside the Administration. Within hours of his departure being announced, WINEP announced that Ross would return to the think-tank dubbed “his intellectual home” by its director, Robert Satloff. “While his departure from public service is a huge loss to our nation, we believe he can make a powerful impact on the search for peace and security in the Middle East from his new position,” Satloff said in a statement released by WINEP. The same statement quoted Ross himself describing his new role as working “to enhance the public debate on U.S. policy towards the region.”

Ross clearly plans to make an impact on U.S. policy towards the region from outside the Administration, and it’s safe to assume that his top priority, like WINEP’s, is Iran. As debate over how to handle Iran intensifies in the wake of the latest IAEA report on that country’s nuclear program, amid intensified Israeli saber-rattling, political pressure on the White House to toughen its stance looks likely to intensify. Right now, it’s hard to see the White House putting much behind the slogan of keeping the option of military force on the table. The U.S. military appears to be opposed to military action, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week reiterating the view of his predecessor, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that the cost-benefit analysis weighs heavily against bombing Iran. But such reserve is not necessarily shared by much of the pro-Israel establishment, many of whose members may make Iran a key litmus test for their own 2012 political choices. Republican presidential hopefuls now routinely berate Obama for being insufficiently confrontational towards Tehran. Some Israeli officials may have also reportedly previously tried to raise U.S. domestic political pressure on Obama over Iran. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic last year described a visit by the head of Israeli military intelligence, General Amos Yadlin, to key Obama donor and Israel supporter Lester Crown, a Chicago billionaire, to discuss the need to impress on the President the need for the U.S. to be willing to act on the threat of military force as a last resort to prevent Iran “going nuclear”.

Now, as Abrams points out, Ross will no longer be there to cover for the Administration. Of course, there’s no reason he couldn’t do that from outside the White House. But per Abrams’ logic, just how Ross chooses to position himself in the public debate going forward may be an important indicator of some of the political pressure Obama could face over Iran.