The Cable

Dennis Ross, uber envoy

Multiple media and sources report tonight that former Clinton-era U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross has accepted a position to serve as the Obama administration's "envoy at large" on Mideast issues.

"Executives at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the think-tank where Mr Ross works, told the organisation's board that Mr Ross had ‘accepted an invitation to join the Obama administration as ambassador-at-large' in a job ‘designed especially for him,' covering a range of issues from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to Iran," the Financial Times reports.

A State Department official who asked to remain anonymous responded to the report, "Dennis would be usurping a few positions at once:  NEA A/S [Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs] (and PDAS, who deals with Iran), Policy Planning chief (one of his old positions), and would be jostling with P [under secretary of state for political affairs] on Iran -- and probably the new Elliott [Abrams] at NSC.  Seems like a lot of cooks, and the Secretary et al would always get the benefit of Dennis's advice without having to create a new position for him with staffing, 7th floor accommodations -- and lots of top heavy confusion."

A Democratic national security official said, "My sources said that Ross was choosing between jobs at NSC and State, and that the State one was narrower but had negotiating authority. This suggests to me that his own negotiating authority is pretty excellent."

Meantime, a Georgetown University student who asked to remain anonymous writes, "Today my middle east policy class with Professor Ross (Georgetown University) was canceled because, in the past 24 hours, he has reached an agreement with the Obama Administration to run the Iran Portfolio for the State Department (as according to a fellow professor)." The student's report could not immediately be confirmed.

A Washington Jewish community activist commented that of key Democratic Mideast hands being considered for top jobs in the Obama administration -- Ross, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, Obama advisor and former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel Daniel Kurtzer, and longtime former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller -- "Ross would be probably the most conventional,... I think. He is first of all a relativist. Kurtzer has been much more of a progressive, pushing much harder to press Israel, Miller even more so...Dennis is more a centrist."

Another Washington Israel expert familiar with the team said, "I've gotten the impression with this 'envoy' system that there is a deliberate decentralization; no one person runs things the way Ross ran the peace process under Clinton. He has been particularly interested in Iran of late; ...I still continue to believe ... Ross will not have direct responsibility for Israeli-Palestinian peace; he's done that once and failed."

Officials with a Washington group that advocates for engagement with Iran, the National Iranian American Council, expressed concern at the reported appointment, noting that Ross was a signatory to a Bipartisan Policy Center report, which said that "a military strike is a feasible option and must remain a last resort to retard Iran's nuclear development."

Ross, a counselor and distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has written op-eds advocating for U.S. engagement with Syria, and more cautiously, multi-party talks with Iran. "Statecraft requires recognizing where one has leverage and where one's adversaries have vulnerabilities," Ross wrote in an op-ed, "Talk with Syria," in The New Republic last year. He also campaigned for Obama among the Jewish community in Florida.

Ross did not respond to e-mailed queries over the past two days about his possible role in the Obama administration.

The Cable

Foreign Relations Committee up in the air, literally

As my colleague Carolyn O'Hara reported over at Madam Secretary this morning, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is likely to be held early next week. [UPDATE: Committee sources now say the hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, January 13th, 9:30am]. The hearing forced incoming SFRC chairman John Kerry (D-MA) to cancel plans to join a Congressional delegation departing today led by outgoing chairman and VP-elect Joseph Biden to Southwest Asia, that includes Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Susan Collins (R-ME). [UPDATE: Biden's press office sends word that Collins and Reed, along with Kerry, "were originally scheduled to be in the delegation, but due to recently scheduled Senate votes over the weekend, they are now unable to go on the trip."] The exact destination of the Biden-led CODEL hasn't been publicized for security reasons, but is expected to include Afghanistan and Pakistan, and possibly Iraq. 

The trip has also pushed back a dinner that Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry had planned to host at their Georgetown home tonight for all committee members and their spouses. The delay may be just as well, because who, exactly, is going to be in the committee is still up in the air.

The uncertainty over its composition is due to two things: first, the loss of several key members -- that of Biden and former Sen. Barack Obama, who are of course moving to the White House, as well as the retirement of Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and the long-contested, now-litigated Minnesota Senate race which looks set to depose former SFRC member Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN). (Republicans are suing to delay the seating of Coleman's seeming victor, Al Franken.)

Meantime, Senate Democrats still can't decide whether they are going to seat Roland Burris, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's choice to fill Obama's vacated Senate seat. At issue in the delayed final Senate tally is whether the Democrats get an additional two or three seats on the committees, including the SFRC.

"In a normal year, Kerry, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid, and [Senate Minority leader Mitch] McConnell would have already sat down and agreed on ratios and gotten all the assignments doled out," one committee staff member told me. "The problem this year is that with two seats still undetermined, Minnesota and Illinois, it makes a huge difference." Currently, the Democrats have 57 certain seats in the Senate and the Republicans 41. If the Democrats take Minnesota and keep Illinois, as looks likely, that would bring their numbers to 59.

Currently, the outgoing committee has 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans. Assuming the Dems wind up with 59 seats in the Senate, Reid is pushing for a three-seat margin. McConnell is arguing that the Dems are being too greedy. Negotiations have been at a standstill at last report.

"We are continuing to work on an organizing resolution that represents the larger majority that Democrats now hold in the Senate," Reid spokeswoman Regan LaChapelle responded to an inquiry last week.

While its composition and ratio are still up in the air, some staff changes are firming up on the fourth floor of the Senate Dirksen building. Kerry's personal Senate office chief of staff David McKean will become the committee's new staff director. The Minority staff director remains Ken Myers Jr., under ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN). 

In addition, according to Politico, Kerry foreign policy aide Frank Lowenstein is going to become chief counsel of the SFRC. Meantime, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that former LAT managing editor Douglas Frantz is to become the SFRC's chief investigator. The Times also reports that former Foreign Service officer and former Bush White House official Frederick Jones is to become the committee's communications director.

As for the SFRC member-spouse dinner at the Kerry's, which has now been pushed back until January 21st, committee staff members say it's a welcome gesture. "A nice touch to kick off the new Congress and establish a more intimate touch to the Committee," the committee staffer said. "Since Biden maintained his residence in Delaware, he never did anything like this."