Jacob Heilbrunn

The Shambles of Obama's Middle East Policy: Dennis Ross Departs

The departure from the White House of Dennis Ross confirms—if confirmation were really needed—that President Obama's approach to Israel is in shambles. Ross is about as good as it gets when it comes to reaching a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. But as Obama's Middle East adviser, Ross, depending on whom you listen to, was either culpable or simply a bystander. Either way, his tenure at the White House doesn't leave much of a trace. In the National Journal, Michael Hirsh observes, "Ross was the invisible man. An invisible man running what was virtually an invisible policy. And now, Ross is leaving an empty stage virtually without footprints."

By common consent, Ross was one of America's most seasoned negotiators. That was perhaps not by choice. He was a negotiator for so long because the negotiations never got anywhere. And so Ross served a variety of presidents, including George H.W. Bush. It is fair to wonder if he ever felt that dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians was a Middle East version of Groundhog Day. Every time that it looked as though American influence might get somewhere, the negotiations would collapse. And start over. And collapse.

Ross began his career as an exponent of arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. He transferred the concept to the Middle East. Negotiations could lead to a detente with the Palestinians. It was imperative, somehow, to bring about an accommodation. Tensions could be ratcheted down. It was a zero-sum game between the two sides. They had more to gain through cooperation than confrontation, if they could only be brought to see it. And so on. Even someone as able and shrewd as Ross was unable to convince the two sides to amend their refractory stances to reach a settlement. He could not even get them to agree to disagree. Instead, as Ross has pointed out, the chances of reaching a peace dwindle with each year.

What Ross actually thought of Obama's assertive approach toward Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unclear. Obama himself confided to French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the G20 summit in Cannes, after listening to him say "I can't bear Netanyahu. He's a liar," that "you're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more than you." Who could blame Obama? Netanyahu has missed almost no chance to try and undermine Obama in the U.S. Congress. In addition, he has berated Obama during their meetings.

Both Obama and Ross, however, may have labored under the delusion that America can actually bring the two sides to peace. It can't. The more likely scenario is that the Middle East is again lurching toward war, something that the Obama administration now recognizes. Why else would it, as the Wall Street Journal reports, be selling thousands of bunker-buster bombs to the the United Arb Emirates. The idea is to build up a deterrent against Iran.

But deterrence is not something that interests very many of the neoconservatives. War fever is again gripping the GOP. Mitt Romney announced the other day in the Wall Street Journal that under no circumstances would he allow Iran to obtain a bomb. The Journal itself is braying for war:

The serious choice now before the Administration is between military strikes and more of the same. As the IAEA report makes painfully clear, more of the same means a nuclear Iran, possibly within a year.

The consequences of a strike on Iran, however, are not hard to imagine. Oil prices would soar. The Persian Gulf might be shut down. And it's not even clear that a strike would actually be efficacious, short of an all-out war that included ground troops. This isn't a reasonable plan for halting Iran's nuclear program; it's a nightmare scenario, one that perhaps even Romney would shrink from if he became president. Yet the Journal concludes:

A strike that sets Iran's nuclear programs back by several years at least offers the opportunity for Iran's democratic forces to topple the regime without risking a wider conflagration.

How would it know? How are Iran's democratic activists going to "topple the regime"? The more likely prospect is a massive crackdown. But if neocons are calling for war, it's also the case that the Obama administration is floundering as well. The administration, which entered office trying to negotiate with Iran, is now trying to split the difference by building up a coalition to contain the mullahs. In both Iran and Israel, however, its initial policy of seeking to promote negotiations has led nowhere. Dennis Ross probably suspects that a bad situation is about to get worse. Perhaps the surprising thing isn't that Ross is leaving but that he did not leave even sooner.