Ambassador Dennis Ross has served the United States during the Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton administrations. He has maintained a non-partisan image, working closely with Republican and Democratic administrations on the Middle East and Russia. Until now, that is. Dennis Ross is a senior foreign policy advisor to Obama’s campaign, and traveled with him on his tour of Europe and the Middle East.
At a conference entitled “The Jewish Vote and the 2008 Presidential Election” at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, Amb. Ross explained why he has chosen to support Senator Obama.
Ross gave two major reasons: the stakes of the election, and Obama’s temperament and skills.
Ross made his choice based on the stakes long before the financial meltdown. But he feels his point is only buttressed by the situation, and that Obama is someone who knows how to operate in international markets. Ross said that this is not a situation that America can solve by herself, and the hundreds of thousands of screaming Berliners indicate to him that Obama would be able to bring together our allies to figure out a solution.
To what stakes is Ross referring? He still views the situation in Iraq pessimistically, in light of the lack of political progress. When the news from Iraq is the good news in the Middle East, said Ross, we must really be in trouble.
Israel’s strategic position vis-a-vis Iran is especially problematic. Ross feels that the Bush administration has utterly failed in this regard. Iran is now going around the region asking leaders, “Look at Georgia. Look at Siniora. Do you think it pays to be an American ally? You’re better off with us.” Ross maintained that is urgent to change the dynamics of the situation soon. Presumably, he was hinting at negotiations with the Iranians.
Hezbollah has also grown in recent years. They have 40,000 rockets now, and have veto power over Lebanon. Ross asked if anyone really thought that they would sit quietly if Israel had to attack Iran?
The problem, according to Ross, is that America has sat on the sidelines. When we are not involved, someone else fills the vacuum. Ross was especially impressed on Obama’s world tour. Obama would have an objective for every meeting, and looked to build relationships wherever he could. Obama said to the Israelis, “I understand why you fear Iran getting nuclear weapons. Israel’s existential threats become a priority for me. But even if you did not view it that way, it would be a top priority for me. A nuclear Iran would be a game-changer, and would lead to terrible changes in the Middle East.”
Obama received an interesting suggestion from the Israelis. There are five insurance companies that insure all Iranian businesses. If America could stop them from insuring Iranian businesses, that could deal a serious blow to an already struggling Iranian economy.
Ross said that Obama creates political space for other leaders so that they can take the necessary steps to accomplish joint goals. Ross was vague about what he meant, but seemed to be saying that because Obama is so popular in Europe, the fact that he says something like “Germans have to help more in Iraq and Afghanistan,” that makes it politically easier for Merkel to do so.
But what happens when Obama has to actually start defending American interests? If he does what he says he will, he won’t be very popular in Europe anymore. If his abilities depend on his popularity and not skill or knowledge, what happens when that popularity dissipates?
Regarding Obama’s advisors, Ross pointed to Dan Shapiro and Eric Lynn as the main foreign policy advisors, both strongly pro-Israel. Brzezinski has zero role in the campaign, and Robert Malley was originally on one committee but removed himself.
Like Powell, Ross’ explanations seemed more like justifications. They have known each other since 2005 since Obama invited Ross to Chicago after reading Ross’ ‘The Missing Peace’. Ross may well have been impressed with the Senator then, but it is unlikely that he knew how Obama would deal with foreign leaders until the trip, which is well after Ross was an official advisor. What motive might Ross have? If Obama is elected, it is safe to say he is a leading candidate for a major role in the administration. Also, Bush has largely rejected Ross’ hands-on approach regarding Israel.