Posted on February 06, 2009 in Washington Watch

For months now, Washington Middle East watchers have been speculating about what role former Clinton-era MidEast peace negotiator Dennis Ross would play in the new Obama Administration. On January 7th of this year, the networks all ran a story that Ross was to be part of a triumvirate of special envoys: Richard Haass (former NSC official and now the President of the Council on Foreign Relations) for the Middle East; Ross for Iran; and Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The next day, the Financial Times ran a story based on a press release form the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a pro-Israel think tank, and Ross’ perch after leaving the State Department in 2001), claiming that Ross was to be not one of three envoys, but the as “ambassador-at-large” who would oversee the entire region.

This caused concern among some Arab American and American Jewish peace organizations, who met with and wrote to Obama transition officials, urging them to appoint a special envoy to the Middle East “as big as the problem demands and the solution we seek” – not plagued by the baggage of past failures. Then, on January 22nd, at an elaborate State Department ceremony, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the appointment of Special Envoys George Mitchell to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ross was nowhere to be seen.

What, then, was to become of Dennis Ross?

One month later, the mystery was resolved – or was it.

At 9pm on February 23rd the Department of State sent out a notice announcing that Ross was to be named as “a Special Advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia.” The title was not “envoy to Iran,” we were told, because the U.S. does not have relations with Iran and, therefore, Ross would not be negotiating with them. Rather, it was said, he will be an advisor to the Secretary on regional strategies toward Iran.

Since that was not clear to anyone, on February 24th at the State Department briefing, the reporters pressed the spokesman for a clarification of Ross’ role.

QUESTION: What is he in charge of exactly. Is it Iran? Why is it not written in the statement?

SPOKESMAN: [T]he Secretary is very happy that Dennis Ross agreed to serve as her special advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia. What Dennis is going to be charged with is trying ton 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 also be trying to ensure that there’s a coherence in our policies and strategies across the region. Let me be clear, 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’s going to be advising the Secretary on long-term strategic issues across the region.

QUESTION: [W]hat is the State Department’s definition geographically of Southwest Asia…. Does it include Iraq….does it include parts of the Middle East?


QUESTION: Does it include Syria, and Israel and Jordan? …I mean, you know, you have NEA which, you know, runs all the way to Morocco. Does it include Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, countries that are within the Middle East or within Near East Affairs Bureau, but are not technically part of Southwest Asia?

SPOKESMAN: He will be providing advice to the secretary on a – across that entire region, where appropriate, where she needs it, and that’s the position he will serve. ...A decision was made by the Secretary that she needed broad strategic advice to look at a range of issues across the entire region that we just talked about. And it was felt that his skills could be better used to do that type of work, given the years of experience that he’s had dealing with the Middle East, other parts of the world. And so, again, as I said, Iran will be one of those countries that he will be, you know, looking at in his portfolio. …Look, it’s more – he’s going to be providing advice to the Secretary on a number of regional issues, and I would not try to limit Dennis’ advice to, you know, just those regions. He may have other – you know, he may have advice that he wants to give the Secretary on other issues. I don’t think we’re trying to narrow it here. If you’re looking for a geographical breakdown of those countries he will be looking –

QUESTION: It would be nice to find out what the State Department considers to be Southwest Asia

SPOKESMAN: We can certainly do that for you.

Since that exchange only added confusion, the next day the questioning began again.

QUESTION: Have your ace geographers been able to determine what Southwest Asia is and thereby figure out what exactly Dennis Ross’ mandate is?

SPOKESMAN: From our standpoint, the countries that make up areas of the Gulf and Southwest Asia include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, and those are the countries.

QUESTION: Not – not Afghanistan and Pakistan?

SPOEKESMAN: Look Ambassador Ross will look at the entire region, should he be asked to, including Afghanistan. …Ambassador Ross and Ambassador Holbrooke will work together where necessary if they need to, if there’s some kind of overlap.

QUESTION: So it doesn’t include Jordan? It doesn’t include –

SPOKESMAN: I just gave you a breakdown as I – as the State Department breaks it down.

…and on and on for two more pages, adding only more confusion to an already confused picture of what Dennis Ross will actually be doing.

Is that clear?

Kyl, At It Again

Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), a leader of the religious right wing in the Senate, who once infamously held a hearing on Saudi Arabia, featuring, as experts, three authors who had never been to Saudi Arabia, is at it again.

The Obama Administration, both the President and Secretary of State, have made clear their intention to positively engage the Muslim world. Following on that, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (D-MA), has announced hearings on “Engaging with Muslim Communities Around the World,” featuring former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a number of American Muslims.

Kyl, ever the provocateur, has scheduled – at exactly the same time – a showing of the controversial video “Fitna” and will host a reception for its writer/producer, Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Wilders is a well-known anti-Muslim bigot, has said “I hate Islam” and who seeks to “ban the Qur’an” in his country, was also recently refused entry into Great Britain where he had been invited by a Member of the House of Lords to show his little video, and in his home country has been ordered to be prosecuted for hatred and discrimination based on his statements in various media equating Islam to Nazism.

One might reasonably ask, what is Kyle up to? But, by his behavior, past and present, the answer seems clear.

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