- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
If you would like to read a textbook example of a dust-kicking operation, please look at Robert Satloff’s heated response to my recent post 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.