Rosen: Obama has ‘intelligent centrists’ on Mideast team


Former top AIPAC staffer, and current AIPAC case defendant, Steve Rosen assesses the Obama Mideast team in the Jerusalem Post. While citing some possible problem areas, he’s generally positive — saying that "the fears many of us had about Obama during the campaign as to the people he might appoint to run Mideast policy are not being realized":

The Left is not happy with most of Obama’s core Mideast team, with the possible exception of [George] Mitchell. None of the people announced or reliably reported up to now is known to bring a pronounced "Arabist" perspective, nor to be a consistent critic of Israel, nor to be an apologist for Iran, Syria, Hizbullah or Hamas. There is no one with a history of participation in ideological organizations of the Left, as Sandy Berger had with Peace Now before joining the Clinton White House. Semantha Power has been appointed to the NSC’s multilateral institutions office, and has a disturbing record of stridently anti-Israel statements, but the position to which she has been appointed does not normally have a great impact on Mideast policy. For those of us who feared that an inexperienced president so enthusiastically embraced by the left wing of the Democratic Party might fill the roster with its favorites, there is scant evidence so far that our worst fears are being realized.

Instead, Obama is assembling a team of intelligent centrists with a realistic, pragmatic approach. Many of them have experience in the tough environment of the Middle East, where the use of force is sometimes required. None is starry-eyed and romantic about the Arabs. Many have extensive experience with Israel and some understanding of its strategic position.

But Rosen has some reservations as well:

On the other hand, nowhere on the list so far is there a true hawk either, an Elliot Abrams or a Doug Feith or a John Bolton or a Paul Wolfowitz. Fred Hof is tough on Hizbullah ("Hassan Nasrallah… and his inner circle do what they do first and foremost to defend and project the existence and power of the Islamic Republic of Iran… If [they] come to a violent end in the current crisis you will not find me among the mourners"). Dan Shapiro was one of the authors of the 2003 Syria Accountability Act. And Jeffrey Feltman was admirably outspoken as ambassador to Lebanon.

Broadly, it is a team that represents the thinking in the center of the Democratic Party. In a situation of real duress, like an imminent Iranian breakthrough to nuclear weapons, it is not clear who among them will ring the alarm and rally the others to consider measures beyond the ordinary.

There could also be a tendency toward magical thinking about the transformative potential of diplomacy. Among those who believe most fervently that George W. Bush missed key diplomatic opportunities and failed to work with allies, there may be a tendency toward undue confidence that the problems in the Middle East will shrink steadily as Obama’s new envoys get to work. The Bush administration held more than 28 direct meetings with the Iranians and got poor results, but the Obama team remembers it as a failure to engage.

Rosen also says that tension between Israel and the U.S. could result if the Obama team places too much emphasis on settlements and increases public criticism of Israel. He adds:

The new administration may also have a lower tolerance for the civilian casualties and diplomatic stresses that arise when Israel is compelled to take military action in its own defense. Even in quiet times, there is likely to be heartburn about checkpoints and other security measures necessary in the struggle against terror. Obama could cut back on US vetoes to prevent anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council.

It is too soon to know whether the new administration will make any of these or other mistakes.

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