The Cable

Why State's having a hard time explaining Dennis Ross's job

When Dennis Ross's job title as "special advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia" was finally announced in an after-hours State Department press release Monday evening, it wasn't exactly the high-profile rollout that U.S. special envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, presented side-by-side with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton, had previously received.

Indeed, the three-paragraph State Department press release on Ross's job was so vague that State Department spokesman Robert Wood soon found himself besieged by questions about what tasks and indeed what countries exactly were included in Ross's portfolio.

"Is it Iran? And if it's not Iran -- if it's Iran, why is it not written in the statement?" one journalist asked Wood Tuesday.

"Well, let me just start off by saying, the secretary is very happy that Dennis Ross agreed to serve as her special advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia," Wood answered gingerly. "What Dennis is going to be charged with doing is trying to integrate policy development and implementation across a number of offices and officials in the State Department. And, you know, he is going to be providing the secretary with strategic advice. He will be also trying to ensure that there's a coherence in our policies and strategies across the region."

"Let me be clear," Wood added. "He's not an envoy. He will not be negotiating. He'll be working on regional issues. He will not be -- in terms of negotiating, will not be involved in the peace process. But again, he is going to be advising the secretary on long-term strategic issues across the region."

On Wednesday, Wood provided more clarity on the list of countries that fall into Ross's portfolio -- Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen, apparently -- but it was hard to escape the impression that State is diplomatically flummoxed about how to describe Ross's job.

Sources suggested a variety of explanations. Some had to do with the fact that the U.S. government is currently in the midst of an intensive policy review on Iran, which is not expected to be ready until early March. (March 10, one source said). Therefore, to describe Ross now as an "envoy" on or to Iran would be premature, they said, since the policy hasn't yet been articulated.  Ross might gain the "envoy" title after the policy review is complete, another source suggested.

Other sources suggested the U.S. government was sensitive to Iran's perception that Ross, a former senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is a pro-Israel hawk whose writings on U.S. policy toward Iran have suggested a high degree of continuity with the Bush administration's approach of carrots and sticks.

"I understand the Iranians have let it be known that they won't deal with him," said one former senior U.S. official who has dealt with Persian Gulf issues.

"I think the stealth nature of the announcement and the fuzzy job description indicate that folks in the administration are aware" that the Ross appointment is problematic, the former senior official continued. "But that will not make it more workable -- even if the real heavy lifting is done by [Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William] Burns, as some insiders claim.

"Perception is important," he added.

But Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute, stressed that each side gets to designate who they would send for negotations. "Iranian government officials designate who they want, and the U.S. designates who we want. We are very open to having negotiations," he said.

Regarding an idea Ross espoused in recent paper about exploring options for engagement with Iran, beginning with an initial secret backchannel, Clawson said that history demonstrates that such "pre-negotiations" are often conducted clandestinely, "spy to spy." Asked whether such a secret backchannel was even possible given the likely intense international scrutiny regarding what Obama would do on Iran, Clawson said he thought it was conceivable. It might increase confidence on both sides to have an initial channel outside the public eye, he said.

In a September 2008 paper (pdf) published by the Center for a New American Security, "Iran: Assessing US strategic options," Ross recommended a hybrid approach toward Iran of engagement without preconditions but with pressures. "When I say engagement without conditions, I mean that there would be no preconditions for the United States talking to Iran," Ross wrote. "Iran would not, for example, have to suspend its uranium enrichment first. But to avoid Iran misreading this as a sign of weakness, pressures must be maintained. [...]

"So how to talk and preserve the pressures with­out making either side appear weak?" Ross continued. "One way to do so would be for the United States to go to the Europeans and offer to join the talks with Iran without Iran having to suspend uranium enrich­ment. To avoid misleading the Iranians into thinking they had won, the price for our doing this would not be with Iran but with Europe. The European Union would adopt more stringent sanctions on investments, credits, and technol­ogy transfer vis-à-vis Iran in general or at least on the Iranian energy sector. The Iranians would be informed that the United States is joining the talks but that these sanctions are now being adopted by all European countries."

State Department sources said that Ross was deeply involved in the Iran policy review, but was not the only figure by any means. Other key officials with a stake in the policy, they said, include Secretary Clinton, Undersecretary Burns (who has been serving as the U.S. envoy to the multilateral talks on Iran's nuclear program and met with Iranian officials in Geneva last summer), and officials from State's Iran office.

Also involved, other sources told The Cable, is Puneet Talwar, the new NSC senior director on Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf and a long time Middle East staffer on the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is considered a moderate. Also thought to be involved, although it's not clear to what degree, are Gary Samore, the NSC's nonproliferation coordinator, and Robert Einhorn, the expected State Department undersecretary of state for nonproliferation.

(The Cable previously reported that Samore, among other new Obama administration officials, had participated in track two meetings with Iranian officials last year in Europe. Talwar also attended some of the meetings, The Cable has learned.)

Sources noted that Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, has hired Vali Nasr, a noted expert on Shiism, and has expressed his intention to involve Iran in regional discussions about stabilizing Afghanistan.

Asked at the Wednesday press briefing whether Holbrooke and Ross would be jostling for turf regarding Iran and Afghanistan, Wood, the State Department spokesman, said no.

"Afghanistan is one of those issues where you have a lot of individuals who have some interests and equities in dealing with it," Wood said. "If we get to a point where there is a need to have both Ambassador Ross and Ambassador Holbrooke engaging on different elements of [Afghanistan] they will," Wood said. "There's no turf war going on here."

UPDATE: David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post column Thursday: "The administration official who oversees the Iran file is William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. Although Dennis Ross will take a broad strategic look at the region in his new post of State Department adviser, senior officials stress that Burns is the address for Iran policy."

The Cable

The controversy over Chas Freeman

The Cable reported last week that former U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman was up for the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council. Since confirmed, the story has set off something of a media firestorm.

Reports from Politico and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, along with commentary and blog posts from The New Republic's Marty Peretz, the Witherspoon Institute's Gabriel Schoenfeld (in the Wall Street Journal), and former AIPAC official Steve Rosen have conveyed the charge that, in the judgment of some pro-Israel activists in the United States, Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is too sympathetic to Riyadh's worldview and has frequently spoken outside the traditional Washington discourse on Israel.

In conversations with The Cable, some Washington foreign-policy types have argued that the controversy may be more about the president than about Freeman himself.

A source close to Freeman said that among the critics taking shots at the would-be appointee, several "opposed Obama on the spurious ground that he wanted to do in Israel. He doesn't." The source noted that some critics of Obama's appointments had also targeted national security advisor James L. Jones, who previously served as a U.S. envoy charged with strengthening the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, as being too even-handed. "It seems to be the president these guys are after," the source said.

Freeman, like many up for administration jobs, is not in a position to publicly defend himself until an appointment, should it happen, is announced. Even then, he would have to operate under the restrictions that handcuff government officials. The Cable has confirmed that he is indeed Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair's hand-picked choice to get the job.

Some reports noted comments by Freeman seeming to indicate that the think tank of which he was until recently president, the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), has accepted funding from the Saudi government, among other sources. MEPC receives funding from a number of sources, some of it Saudi, a person familiar with the group said, adding that it was "a fact ... true before Ambassador Freeman became president of MEPC, even before he was appointed ambassador to Saudi Arabia."

A report by the Jewish Telegraph Agency said that the MEPC contributed to the financing of the publication of a textbook for U.S. classrooms on the Arab world that, according to the agency, contained text critical of the pro-Israel lobby and claimed Jerusalem was an Arab capital. An official familiar with the book told The Cable the offending quote was from the wrong answer of a multiple choice question taken out of context from the textbook.

Other writers and commentators -- including the Israel Policy Forum's M.J. Rosenberg, Nieman Watchdog's Dan Froomkin, IPS's Jim Lobe, The Nation's Robert Dreyfuss, Washington insider Chris Nelson, FP contributor David Rothkopf, the Center for American Progress's blog ThinkProgress, and the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons -- have leapt to Freeman's defense. "Few people would be better for these tasks than Chas Freeman," Rothkopf wrote on ForeignPolicy.com. "Part of the reason he is so controversial is that he has zero fear of speaking what he perceives to be truth to power. You can't cow him and you can't find someone with a more relentlessly questioning worldview."

Some sources noted that among Freeman's most outspoken critics, are those who have accused many other administration officials of being insufficiently pro-Israel or too even-handed, such as NSC senior director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power, U.S. Middle East peace special envoy Sen. George Mitchell, and indeed, during the election campaign, Obama himself.

Several former senior U.S. government officials familiar with Freeman's work as a diplomat (he was from 1986-1989 principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Chet Crocker, and, previous to that, in 1972, a fluent Chinese speaker who translated for Nixon) and public intellectual spoke about his professionalism and high intellectual capacities. "I do think really, really highly of him," said one former senior State Department official. "The guy is incredibly smart and incredibly articulate on an amazingly deep and broad range of issues, not just the Middle East, but Africa and East Asia." When Freeman was working for the State Department on Africa in the 1980s, the former senior State Department official said, he was struck that "this is guy who is an extraordinarily impressive thinker and analyst. When I saw your article I thought, 'My God, they made a great appointment.'"

"Chas is a highly experienced, perceptive, and well-regarded U.S. diplomat," said former senior NIC official Paul Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown. "I think he brings excellent understanding on a wealth of topics in world affairs to the job of the chairman of the council.

"I would trust that Mr. Freeman would exhibit integrity in addressing issues on the Middle East as they may pertain to Israel or any other Middle Eastern country," Pillar continued. "The kind of 'anti-Israeli' perspective getting criticized is of course not new criticism or by no means unique to this particular target."

"I think what is being missed" by the commentariat, Pillar added, "Is the whole concept that a public servant ... and foreign affairs professional with a long career under different administrations ... can do his job in the best and most objective way he thinks is possible and isn't necessarily going to be working one policy slant vs. another policy slant."

The source close to Freeman said that the former ambassador was recruited for the post by Admiral Blair and had not been seeking a return to government service, which Freeman had retired from in 1994. In this person's view, Freeman would be brought in "not to reverse the polarity of U.S. intelligence analysis but to de-gauss it." (The term apparently refers to removing magnetic interference in order to enhance clarity). He also disputed that Freeman's views were anti-Israel, noting a 2000 New York Times op-ed by Freeman entitled, "A U.S. Role is Crucial for Peace."

But two former AIPAC officials said that Freeman's views were at least perceived to fall outside of what has become the traditional pro-Israel tilt in Washington. "The term 'even-handed' has become a pejorative," said one former AIPAC official, on condition of anonymity. "It does not mean fair-minded in all things, but that the U.S. should take a neutral view towards the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is not going to happen."

Another former AIPAC official said that the mere fact that Freeman had been U.S. ambassador to Riyadh implies a too-close relationship with Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis want someone politically connected who will do their bidding."

What the United States and Saudi Arabia have in common, the second former AIPAC official added, "is [that] we don't like the communists or the Iranians. What we don't have in common is everything we have in common with the British, French, Germans and Israelis. If one is a tool of the French, British or Israelis, one is a tool of democracy, pluralism ... liberal enlightenment."  

Previous criticism from right-leaning pro-Israel activists of former Obama Middle East advisors such as Rob Malley, who quit the campaign after it was reported he had attended a meeting with Hamas officials, and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer "is all within the realm of people on the extreme right having a hard time with anybody who deviates only slightly," the second former AIPAC official said. "I would draw a line between people who don't agree with the mainstream [like Malley] and someone like Freeman who worked as the head of an organization" that received funding from the Saudi government.

Former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller said he doesn't know Freeman and didn't have an opinion about Freeman's views. But he said the idea that Washington Middle East policymakers are divided into pro-Israel or pro-Saudi axes is an outdated way of looking at the issue, one he said had become largely irrelevant since the 1970s.

Others noted the close relationship between the Saudis and both Bush administrations, the second of which was nonetheless judged by Israel and some of its U.S. supporters to be extremely sympathetic to Israel's interests.

A former Hill source said that there is some congressional opposition to the Freeman appointment. But because the NIC chairmanship is not a congressionally confirmable post, it was not clear whether it would be enough to sway the administration against the appointment.

A White House official declined to comment, directing questions to the office of the DNI, which said it wouldn't comment on possible appointments.