- By Laura RozenLaura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.
A National Security Council spokesman sends this announcement:
General Jones is pleased to announce an addition to our already strong National Security Staff. The addition is in the important Central Region that encompasses the Middle East, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. Gen. Jones is in the midst of a several day trip to this important region.
Dennis Ross will become Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region with overall responsibility for the region. He will work with Don Camp, Senior Director for South Asia, Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Adviser and Coordinator for Afghanistan-Pakistan, Dan Shapiro, Senior Director for Near East and North Africa, and Puneet Talwar, Senior Director for the Gulf States, Iran and Iraq.
"This was a position that we have always planned to fill," a White House official says. "We’ve had a billet available since the transition. It just took some time to fill it."
"We could not find a better, more talented group in all of government," in the NSC staff for this Near East and South Asia region, the official continued. "What is also true is that these individuals are facing an unprecedented set of short-term challenges."
The Ross job, he said, is "to work with an incredibly strong team … and deal with longer term strategy for the region."
"This is really smart politics, and very smart policy," commented veteran Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller of the Ross appointment. "It’s smart policy because the administration lacks (and they know it) a strategic and integrated view. You need to think two or three steps ahead and very broadly how the pieces fit together. And Dennis is very good at this."
"It’s smart policy, because after we get done with the brouhaha with the Israelis over settlements, we have to deal with them in a very close and intimate way in the event we’re going to want to be able to succeed on Israeli-Arab peace and on Iran," Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson International Center, continued. "As long as the president provides the proper adult supervision to keep the policy focused and tough and fair."
Of Ross’s announced title — special assistant to the president and senior director on the central region — a Hill foreign policy aide said, "I give them credit for inventing an entirely new term in international affairs — ‘the Central Region.’ Interesting the phrase ‘work with’ as opposed to ‘supervise.’"
National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon both have the rank of assistant to the president. NSC Director of Strategic Communications Denis McDonough and Chief of Staff Mark Lippert have the rank of deputy assistant to the president. Ross, along with Lute, will have the rank of special assistant to the president. Daniel Shapiro, Puneet Talwar, and Don Camp have senior director status, but not the rank of special assistant to the president that Ross will have.
The White House official confirmed that, as previously reported, the Iraq portfolio is now being moved from Lute’s chain of command to that of Talwar and Ross above him.
Regarding concerns expressed by some Iraq hands that the move eliminates any senior director devoted exclusively to Iraq (there were previously two senior directors for Iraq reporting to Lute), the White House official said: "As we move towards regular order with respect to Iraq, [the move is] underscoring that we have some major challenges ahead [in Iraq] but that a lot of the challenges are also political in nature."
Sources said that some senior people in the NSC, including Lippert, did not want Lute, Bush’s holdover war czar, to be in charge of overseeing Obama’s Iraq policy. They also suggested that Vice President Joseph Biden seemed to have a hand in shifting the Iraq portfolio to Talwar, his former top Iraq, Iran, and Middle East advisor when he was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The White House official declined to comment on reports and sources who have said that the Ross move was also motivated by a desire to move Ross off front-line Iran responsibilities, as the United States planned to try to ramp up engagement efforts with Iran in advance of the now disputed Iranian presidential elections. He did not yet know if some or all of Ross’s team at the State Department would be transferring with him to the NSC.
"The policy process is a struggle between people with different points of view, judgments, and biases," Miller said. "It’s up to the president and secretary of state to make sure it comes out all right. And if it doesn’t [regarding the Middle East], that is not Dennis’s fault."