Thursday, January 29, 2009

Notes from Obama's New State Department

Spoke with a contact at the State Departments Near Eastern Affairs division just recently.  He is someone I deeply respect, has long experience, is an uber-realist, and has no illusions about anyone Palestinian, Israeli, Lebanese, American, Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian or whatever.  Which also means his upward career path is ultimately limited because he won't pay blind obeisance to the Israelis, insisting on (how novel) representing what he believes is best for American and broader human interests.  Still his work is of such high quality analytically and managerially that nobody can (thankfully) get rid of him.  Nothing in-depth, but a few notes from our conversation as I tried to get a sense of how things are looking at State in these first days of the Obama Administration:
  • He felt it was a mistake to send George Mitchell straight to the region before any policy had been formulated just for a "listening tour" as the Palestinians and Arabs generally hate this kind of lip-service which to them is just more of "listening" while the Israelis go ahead establishing facts on the ground.  He felt like a policy should have been formulated first and then you get moving, that this will actually be harmful to building diplomatic momentum.
  • So far he doesn't sense any real change from the old standard Washington everything-Israel-wants-it-gets line.  He pointed specifically to Obama's speech when announcing Mitchell as Mideast envoy saying it could have been written by the Bush Administration, with all the key language and buzzwords everyone knows means blind right-wing support for Israel.
  • That said, he was cautiously...I wouldn't say optimistic, but perhaps distantly hopeful that at least this Administration aren't raw ideologues like the Bushies were and might actually be capable of learning.  And that at least Mitchell as a Mideast envoy choice is more independent, and in his view established some credibility in his 2001 report on the causes of the Intifada.  In that report, despite everyone telling him that he couldn't say that so-called "natural growth" in settlements had to stop, he did.  In real terms stating that may not amount to a hill of beans that the Israelis would do anything about, but in Washington terms it showed a willingness to cross a Zionist redline and showed a bit of spine.  So my friend hopes that between perhaps Mitchell being more independent and the Obama team being less ideological, that perhaps they'll actually learn lessons for the better instead of just entrenching themselves deeper in failure like the Bushies did.  But he said he feared even if that does happen (far from certain, he pointed to Powell whom everyone there thought would understand that the Palestinian point of view was different and firm from his experiences in Vietnam dealing with the North Vietnamese, but ended up disappointing with his unwillingness to see the other side), it's going to take a good chunk of time.
  • He expressed worries about the new generation of Foreign Service Officers who have now spent the better part of their young careers entirely under the Bush Administration and don't understand how abnormal that whole period was.  The Israel-is-always-right mentality he says is more than ever almost wall-to-wall at State as elsewhere in the US government and the new FSOs are a key part of that.  The few realists who've been around longer are more easily than ever dismissed as "Arab lovers" and not taken seriously.
  • Dennis Ross shot himself in the foot pre-announcing his supposed new role as Obama's Mideast envoy and now it's not clear if he'll get any major position at all.  My friend did not think Rob Satloff was the one advertising Ross to try and undermine him, he thinks he did it himself.  Still, even if he looks down now, he had a great description of him that made me laugh, calling Ross the "Teflon a**hole." :)  For the record, I've never met anyone at State who thought Ross was anything other than useless at best and usually far less charitable descriptions (see prior sentence).
  • My friend also thought that if Ross gets appointed to anything remotely responsible for Iran policy, that would be a clear sign of the Obama Admin taking a "lots of stick, and maybe a few tiny carrots way off in the distance" approach to Iran.  In other words, not a healthy approach.
Despite the general pessimism that any realist has to have about US Mideast policy though, my friend's final take was to try and put on a smiley face and say that at least the tone is somewhat different from the Obama team so far (somewhat...see earlier comments about his speech announcing Mitchell), and that's gotta count for something.  We'll see if it does, far from clear.  Obama himself in his writings is the first to say he's not the Messiah and that he's a new enough face on the scene that people often graft their own beliefs onto his image and set themselves up for disappointment.  Given the structural bias in favor of Israeli racism that is built into the US system, it shouldn't be too surprising that Obama is more showing simply a different slightly softer version of it rather than repudiating it.  We'll see if he can make the necessary leap, but I and my friend certainly have our skeptical eyes open.

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