The Cable

Ross’s expanded portfolio riles Iraq, Middle East teams

Since news reports surfaced over a week ago saying that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s Special Advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia Dennis Ross would be moving to the National Security Council, questions have swirled around the opaque appointment shuffle, which has not yet been officially announced. How much continuity, for instance, would there ...

Since news reports surfaced over a week ago saying that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s Special Advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia Dennis Ross would be moving to the National Security Council, questions have swirled around the opaque appointment shuffle, which has not yet been officially announced.

How much continuity, for instance, would there be in Ross’s portfolio? What does the anticipated move signal about Obama’s policy toward Iran? Or about Obama’s other ambitions for achieving comprehensive peace in the Middle East, given Ross’s role as the  Clinton administration point man on failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? Was the timing — the reported move came in the midst of Iran’s protracted post-election dispute – anything other than coincidence?

The confusion has been matched inside the administration, where the decision is also being treated with a high degree of secrecy. Members of Ross’s team at the State Department are being assured they will be taken care of, but it isn’t clear if some or all of them will be moved from State to the NSC as well. And of course, people at the NSC already working the Middle East and Iran portfolios have been perplexed at what the decision means for their turf too.

Now Iraq hands are concerned, as word from reports and multiple sources has it that Ross will take over the Iraq portfolio as well. What’s going on?

The Cable has learned that deputy national security advisor Thomas Donilon, among others, is positioning Ross to assume an uber-senior NSC position overseeing Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East. The Iraq portfolio formerly assigned to holdover war czar Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute will be shifted to Ross, leaving Lute to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Puneet Talwar, the NSC’s senior director for the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Iran, will report to Ross, as will Daniel Shapiro, the NSC’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Under the new NSC structure, there will be no dedicated senior director for Iraq and there will be only two or three directors for Iraq, reporting to Talwar.

In January, when the new administration took office, Lute supervised two senior directors just for Iraq and six Iraq directors. Over the past few months, the size of the group has been reduced, and it now appears it will be further downsized as the Iraq portfolio shifts from Lute to Ross.

Sources worry that with the drop in manpower, and with Talwar and Ross both more focused on Iran, Iraq policy will suffer at a delicate transition time when Washington plans to draw down combat forces over the coming year.

National security advisor Jim Jones is said to be sensitive to the concerns, while Donilon is said to be pushing for the move. (Donilon didn’t respond to a query. Other officials declined to speak on the matter. Wait for the announcement before interpreting the Ross move, suggested one.)

Ross’s team at State includes Iran expert Ray Takeyh, Special Assistant Ben Fishman, State Department Senior Policy Advisor Elisa Catalano, and State Department Senior Science Advisor Alex Deghan.

The other group said to be concerned by Ross’s perceived takeover of Middle East turf is the team of Middle East Peace special envoy George Mitchell, which now has to contend not only with resistance from all quarters of the region, but also a rival power center in the NSC that hasn’t tended to see Middle East peace issues the same way.

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